Why Pinoy food shouldn’t stop at being flavorful

It’s just a matter of seeing the beauty, the many colors, and the infinite possibilities of Philippine cuisine, according to young chef Don Patrick Baldosano

Photos by the author

GATEWAY TO FILIPINO MODERN CUISINE Aged salmon on a bed of Cosmos blooms

I’ve been changing my mind about Filipino food ever since I met the young chef Don Patrick Baldosano. It’s changing more and more every time I eat at his restaurant Linamnam, which is the talk of the town at the same time that it is under the radar in terms of location and in terms of how he markets it, if he markets it at all, given that his waitlist is more than a month long, especially as we have been in and out of lockdown over the past year and a half.

A typical Filipino meal to me is a bounty, often no frills, just lots of food. You have it at least three times a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—but there’s also merienda between noon and night.

For the early birds, there are also mid-morning snacks, maybe a bibingka or pan de sal with sardinas and kesong puti, but growing up, I woke up late, so breakfast would be followed almost immediately by lunch. Brunch is fairly new to me. It had always been late breakfast and then lunch, until I entered my teens when I was never awake before noon, especially on weekends.

Each of the three main meals is typically an elaborate affair. Think big breakfast, with eggs sunny side up or scrambled, tocino, longanisa, tapa, or salted fish, all with fried rice and coffee or a tall cup of creamy gatas ng kalabaw.

SCAVENGED AND COOKED Tanigue over raw onion and santan

There is really not much of a difference between lunch and dinner on the Filipino table in terms of size. They’re pretty big. Each meal comes at least one meat dish with pork giniling and chicken tinola, one fish or seafood dish like inihaw na tilapia or pritong galunggong, and one vegetable dish like grilled talong or ginisang ampalaya.  Sometimes, a single dish is a combination of meat and fish, like rellenong bangus stuffed with ground pork or kare kare, beef and seafood (bagoong) in one. To make the whole thing even more mouthwatering, there is a variety of dips and sauces like patis with siling labuyo, toyomansi, sinamak, or guinamos at every meal.

Table-setting is heaping. Setting aside all the props like the chinaware, linens, silver, crystals, and flowers, if any, or even the banana leaves, such as in a boodle fight, what usually generates oohs and ahhs is the sheer quantity of food or whether it is lechon or crispy pata or halaan, so on an ordinary table, all that food is in the middle, right where the diners can easily reach them or they are arranged by sequence, often from rice to viands to desserts, on a counter buffet-style. 

Because eating for the Filipino by default is family style, the plating is in most cases left in the hands of the eater, who typically puts the rice on the side of the plate nearest him and surrounds the mound of rice with all his chosen viands.

I don’t really expect to enjoy my Filipino food the way I enjoy my primeurs à la truffe noire, my kaiseki, and my Spanish tapas, which are all to my liking taste-wise but also because some of them are plated to play with my expectations. When I’m eating on my home table, something as monochromatic as brown adobo, even without the bay leaf to give it some texture, can conjure up an atmosphere to enhance the experience. 

‘Our usual way of serving everything on our dinner table has its appeal. It shows our generosity and hospitality, especially when it comes to serving food.’

But like I said, ever since I met the 22-year-old, ingenious chef behind Linamnam, whom I am beginning to know more and more as l’enfant terrible of Pinoy cooking,  I’ve begun to realize I can expect more from Filipino food or that there is more to Filipino food than I have allowed myself to enjoy.

Tutong ng sunog na kanin with cucamelons and flowers

While Don is a “rebel with the sauce” when it comes to techniques and combinations, he is faithful to the taste imprinted on our taste buds. He shakes up the system in which we take our food for what it is, meaning they’re big, with meat, with fish or seafood, with vegetables, with grains and nuts and edible flowers, plus dessert but what he delivers, albeit enhanced and emboldened, is that same taste with which we are so content we are no longer asking for more.

Don’s take on bistek, for instance, involves no beef at all. What it is is tanigue aged in beeswax, topped with what he calls duck bistek ragout, and drizzled with soubise or onions cooked in low heat for two hours. His liempo isn’t just grilled, it is pork belly cooked over coffee wood for 10 hours and served with sinigang broth made of tomato and butter. Caveat: Don does repeat dishes, but not really. He has always defined what he does as exploring the possibilities of Filipino food, so I would say he eschews formula, especially his own. Also, while Don does serve his food tasting menu style, mostly on small plates, he makes sure you eat like a Filipino, meaning you don’t get to the end of the course, thinking you’d drop by a fastfood joint on your way home. You’re guaranteed to get full so pace yourself.

But presentation is among the many possibilities you will discover in this chef’s parade of imaginative dishes drawn from very familiar, even familial flavors. Here’s a snippet of a conversation I recently had with Don on Filipino food to give you a taste of such possibilities.

FILIPINO FOOD DON Chef Don Patrick Baldosano

Do you find plating Pinoy food a challenge?

I don’t think so since a lot of our dishes are very colorful. I believe the challenge comes in because a lot of us just do not bother with the plating, and we just mostly focus on the taste and quantity of our dishes.

But do you agree we are big in taste, but not really very big in presentation?

There are a lot of ways we can make Pinoy food look more elegant and inviting. It is just a matter of us seeing the beauty in our food, whether by arranging our kare-kare in such a way that we can see all the different bright-colored vegetables against the yellowish peanut sauce or by adding a little garnish on your simple bistek and serving it on a nice platter. Filipino food can be as beautifully plated as those dishes we see at elegant dinners. We just need a different perspective on our food and we should give it the respect it deserves.

But how do we compare our food to that of, say, Japan or China or France when it comes to presentation?

I think we are up to par with them when it comes to serving traditional food in a family style setting. Theirs look a bit cleaner and more elegant because they serve it in personal portions, which we rarely do.

If Filipino cuisine were to become, as Andrew Zimmern once put it, “the next big thing,” is it fair to say that maybe our restaurants abroad should try to serve it in personal portions as an option for people who are not as family-oriented as we are?

Our usual way of serving everything on our dinner table has its appeal. It shows our generosity and hospitality, especially when it comes to serving food. It’s just that, when you eat some of the dishes together, the flavors are sort of all muddled.

For me, serving meals in courses or a degustation is an approach by which we can appreciate more of our flavors since we are focused on just one dish at a time. At Linamnam, I make sure that the flavors of the dishes complement each other via the succession of dishes throughout a meal.

Note: Sadly, on account of the extended MECQ, Linamnam is closed, but you can try to book a table now for when dine-in restrictions are lifted. @linamnam_mnl on Instagram.