Fact A: My parents moved to Sharjah in the mid 70’s, so pretty much all my soggy diaper years, and the subsequent nerdy high school years after, were spent in this country.
Fact B: According to the 2009 Report on Economic & Social Dimensions in the UAE, there are over half a million Filipinos* working in the UAE
(*the recession may have lowered that figure a tad bit.)
Appalling Fact C: I had never…I repeat, N-E-V-E-R, tried Filipino food until…this past Sunday.
It’s shameful. It’s damning. It’s so horrific that I deserve to be stripped off of my food blogger badge and flung to the dogs (little hoity-toity poodles…because who wants to hang out with them anyway.)
But I’m not alone in this disgraceful state. I’m surrounded by friends and family who’ve actually never tried Filipino food, despite the city being flooded with potential places to try it at. In fact, let’s face it, you too (all my non-Filipino readers) may be one of Them.
The realization hit a couple of decades too late. But it hit nevertheless, and I got super lucky that fellow Filipina blogger, Didi, came to my rescue and offered to teach me a thing or two about Filipino food over lunch at Kabalen in Karama. That said, I think it’s going to take me WAY more than one lunch and a hasty google session later to really get to the puso of Filipino food.
The lunch was eye-opening. It totally annihilated certain preconceptions I had, or revealed traits of Filipino fare that I’d never have guessed. For instance…
Filipino food can be way more wholesome than I’d thought. Put differently, it goes beyond the fried chicken that we see our Filipino fellow-residents indulge in with gusto all across the city.
Now Didi did confirm that Filipinos love their fried chicken. In fact, Korean fried chicken is trending back in the Philippines even now as we speak. BUT, there’s a lot more to Filipino cuisine than hens thrown in a deep fryer. In fact, I don't even think fried chicken would be looked up to as traditional food by the old-school Filipina chef. I bet it was one of those edible aberrations introduced to the local fare by the Americans in their quest to KFCize the world. When in doubt, blame it on the Americans.
The complimentary bowl of clear egg drop soup that we started our meal out with was full of clear hearty broth (most likely chicken), egg, scallions, a storm of fresh pepper and a pungent mound of ginger up top. This was soup at its most heart-warming, soul-healing best, and exactly the kind of detox you’d need after a weeklong binge on…fried chicken.
~ Egg Drop Soup ~
None of the dishes that made it to our table during lunch were deep-fried. They weren't solely focused on big chunks of meat or pork, which is what I'd been expecting. There were a ton of hearty vegetables in the food, from leafy shoots of kankong that I’ll describe a little later to Chinese-influenced lumpia parcels sauced with a terribly addictive, sweetish peanutty gravy. While the translucent peanut gravy was probably not what the doctor ordered, the innards of the lumpia seemed healthier: minced meat, a giant leaf of iceberg lettuce, and a slew of julienned carrots and some puzzling cream-colored vegetable that our server labeled as sweet potato, but that Didi and I are suspecting could have been ubod, or heart of palm.
~ Lumpia Sariwa ~
Even dessert had its own surprising mix of healthful ingredients. Boiled kidney beans and chickpeas had planted themselves at the base of our bowl of halo halo, alongside sweetened nata de coco (colorful jelly-like cubes of fermented coconut water) and green Gulaman chunks of agar-agar jelly. While Kabalen’s version was quite basic, it’s not uncommon for jackfruit, ube (purple yam), sweet potato, bananas and even tapioca to be tossed in, making halo halo one of those sneaky ways of loading unsuspecting kiddies with their fruits and veggies disguised as dessert.
~ Halo Halo...or 'Mix Mix' ~
The high sugar content of the sweetened milk, shaved ice, and vanilla ice cream that topped this dessert – aptly named mix-mix in Tagalog because you’re meant to mix up the layers before you dip in – probably wouldn’t win halo halo a mention in a diabetic’s diet plan. But it is dessert after all, and on the brighter side, protein-rich beans in my dessert makes it a far wiser option than the buttercream cupcakes or stacks of macaroons that have colonized Dubai.
Not all Filipino food is smelly. Nope, I’m not going to mince my words. I know a bunch of us thought this too. Some of us because we’ve caught a whiff of tuyo (preserved fermented fish) that Filipinos adore with rice, some because we’ve heard about it being smelly from others who’ve caught that whiff, and some because we’ve read it in the recent press. For every plate of odorous tuyo or other exotic fermented Filipino specialty that sneaks its way into Dubai, I can assure you that there’s a not-smelly, and even pleasant-smelling plate of Filipino food that can make it to the table. Nothing at lunch left me smelling of sulphur – not the mild slivers of coconut-infused Beef Bicol Express nor even the more complex, fish-based saucey Pansit (noodles). Almost every culture has some form of nasty smelling food, including us Indians with our potent onion-based curries and even the delicate French with their stinky cheeses. At the end of the day, it boils down to a question of what you choose to order off of the menu.
Filipino food has prominent Spanish flavours. Pretty obvious if you look back to over 300 years of Spanish imperialism, but just something I never actively considered from a culinary standpoint. Words like adobo or empanadas or flan (though flan dates back to ancient Rome, even before it wobbled its way into Spain) were scattered across the menu, and made it to our table in two dishes:
Adobong Kankong, which presented itself as leafy shoots of swamp cabbage (kankong) and red onions, steeped in garlic, salt, vinegar and soy sauce (adobo). Leave off the soy sauce, throw in some paprika and oregano, and you’ve got traditional Spanish adobo.
~ Adobong Kankong ~
Now if you’re a saltysour fanatic like I am – one who’ll prey on her fingertips to get those last vinegary crumbs after she’s emptied a bag of Lays Salt & Vinegar – you’d love this. It’s got the sour tart flavors all pulverized into a thin runny sauce, but with the chips replaced with braised, slightly crunchy greens that somehow, make it okay to indulge in the adobo sodium pool that this dish is bathing in. I just tipped the plate over onto my rice – because why have plain steamed rice when you can have flavour-busting salty vinegary rice?
Another dish that the Spaniards provided a pivotal ingredient for was the Pansit Palabok: angelic vermicelli strands topped with calamari rings, hard boiled eggs, crunchy scallions and a gloopy orange-red sauce that’d been infused with smoked fish.
~ Pancit Palabok ~
The fiery colour of the sauce was brought on by the use of what Filipinos refer to achuete, also called achiote by the Spanish who had introduced annatto seed-based colouring to the South-East Asian region in the 17th century. The smoky essence from the use of fish in the sauce made it the dish with the most complex flavour profile on the table – deep, heavy, not really fishy…and a notch more interesting with an acidic squish of lemon juice on top. It’s the sort of sauce that’d make you sit there, taste, smack the sauce about your tongue, and ponder…and taste some more, and ponder some more. It's one of the more thought-provoking plates of vermicelli I've come across.
There’s obviously a big time Chinese influence on the food as well – lumpia, toyo (soy sauce), patis (fish sauce) for instance …but somehow, given the geographical proximity, even an ignoramus like myself would expect that to begin with.
~ Chinese-influenced Lumpia Sariwa ~
Filipino food is far more minimalistic than what I’d thought. You’d think that being in the same South-East Asian neighbourhood as India, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, spice-laden parts of the Szechuan province in China, that Filipino food would be immersed in spices and complex curries. I think the smelly-food-scare tends to reinforce that thinking.
Didi’s take on Filipino food was that it’s usually not spicy or overly bold at all. The dishes I sampled at Kabalen were simple homestyle fare, with a few recurring flavours like salt, pepper, vinegar, ginger, coconut and spring onions. The egg drop soup pioneered our meal with clear-broth simplicity, and the Beef Bicol Express, while reminiscent of coconut-based Thai beef curry, was far lighter and milder than a typical Massaman or Panang curry would be. The Pansit was as complex as it got, and even in that case, the complexity was less because of multiple flavours trying to gain the limelight, and more because of the deep smokiness of the fish used in the sauce.
~ Egg Drop Soup ~
~ Beef Bicol Express ~
Filipino food has some surprisingly refreshing treats that are perfect for a scorching summer. Of course it would. The Philippines has a tropical climate, so hot and humid is something they’ve learned to cook around. The dough-encased lumpia and our halo halo finale scored high on my refreshing, S.O.S-it’s-summer scale. But what I really feel bad about missing out, summer after scorching summer in this city, was this ridiculously refreshing glass of cool milk, pandan-infused gulaman jelly and buco (tender strips of baby coconut flesh). I wasn’t shy about shoving my fork into the glass to scoop up every last piece of cool gulaman and buco, while simultaneously reeling under the extreme shock that this drink has never taken this city by storm and ousted whatever frivolous food fad the PR companies import into the city each year.
~ Buco Pandan Drink ~
The fact that I had any conceptions about a cuisine I’ve never tasted in my life sounds ludicrous. But I have an inkling that there are others out there in the city who may believe some of these things too, and in the extreme, have even completely written off Filipino food before sampling it. The simple moral of the story is that Filipino cuisine, like any other cuisine of the world, comprises a range of dishes, some of which are specific to certain regions/cities and others of which comprise mainstream Filipino cooking. You can’t generalize, you can’t over-simplify, and you definitely can’t base your judgments on the packed lunches your Filipino colleagues reheat at work. You’ve got to know what to order, and give each dish – which itself can be prepared in a range of different ways depending on where you are in the Philippines – its own verdict.
If my frighteningly eloquent discourse on Filipino food has piqued your curiosity, I’d recommend you check out these other helpful resources to arm yourself before you trek down to Karama for some adobo:
- Didi’s blog D for Delicious – this Filipina blogger knows her stuff even though she’s really modest about it. Leave her an inquisitive, even politically ignorant comment about Filipino food, and I’m sure she’ll humour you with a response.
- Nappytales, a talented Filipina chef who introduced me to the ube cupcakes that have put a shotgun to every other cupcake that’s met my palette in this city.
- Daisy Carrington’s review in 2008 of Kabalen – I read her review after writing my own, and wasn’t surprised to see that she dealt with the issue of reluctance to try Filipino food head-on in her article. Her description of the food possessing a certain sense of vibrancy is spot-on. That said, I’m somewhat miffed that she didn’t adore the lumpia sariwa as much as I did.
- Of course, Wikipedia...what would I do without you? [It’s disgraceful how much I rely on the Internet for research. One of these days I’m going to botch up so badly on my facts that I’ll offend a wise reader who will shut the browser in disgust and never return.]
- The travelling blogger from The Longest Way Home who’s got an array of informative posts describing Filipino food.
If you drive from Spinneys towards Bur Juman, you will see Pizza Hut on your right. Take the right at Pizza Hut and drive down the road till you hit a T-junction. Take a right at the T-junction and drive down the right until you see Kabalen on your right. (It is right next to Urban Tadka)
Phone: +971 (4) 397-8839