Asian Delight

Via Montebello, 66, Lazio, Rome, Italy. Tel: (06) 3249217715

While enjoying all of the freshly made Italian cuisine, by the fifth day of our Roman adventure, we – well, I, at least – began craving something different on our palates and by different, as an Asian and lifelong rice-eater, I mean rice and some kind of ulam (Tagalog for dish); something from home, like Adobo or Afritada, on top of steamed white rice or some deep-fried fish (the saltier the better, of course) served with sinangag (garlic fried rice).

So, to that end, I jumped online and searched for the nearest Asian restaurant. Originally, I searched for a Chinese spot; not craving for Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian and not even thinking a Filipino joint would be anywhere nearby. I found several but, to be honest, I wasn’t sure, even with Google Maps, if they were easy to get to from our hotel. More importantly, I also had no way of knowing if the 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 star reviews some of these restaurants got were accurate or not. I was raised in Hong Kong. Gastronomically, that’s a blessing and a curse. Having lived in there for sixteen years and eaten some of the best Chinese food in the world, I’ve become a bit of a Chinese food snob. Sorry.

Anyway, back to the restaurant at hand.

Among the search results, there was a restaurant called Asian Delight. It got excellent reviews and was billed as “home cooking Filipino food.” That settled it. My wife and I widened our eyes and said, “Let’s go!” So, we put on our shoes and, with our son in tow, left the hotel and hailed a taxi. We told the driver “Via Montebello, sessantasei.” In minutes we were there and discovered that Asian Delight is actually only a few blocks and one roundabout from where we were staying, Hotel Quirinale on Via Nazionale. We hadn’t yet been in this neighborhood on this trip but our excitement levels escalated and we knew we were in for a treat when we saw a small Filipino flag flying at the eatery’s door.

Asian Delight is a small place with seven or eight booths lining the side walls and a small counter in the middle of the room. At the counter, are three stools probably for the solo diners. Directly opposite the door, sat Chris, a Filipino from Samar who has been living in Italy for six years. His Italian has a Filipino accent to it and his English has what almost amounts to a Portuguese one. (Is that what happens when Tagalog marries Italian? Hmm.) And Chris’s Italian sounds, well, Italian like how one of my ex-girlfriend’s father sounded when he and his sister talked in their native tongue at holiday meals.

Enticing customers like a carnival barker at the town fair (think Gordon McCrae in Carousel), Chris is as much entertainer as he is proprietor. He runs Asian Delight with his Kuya (Tagalog word for ‘older brother’) Betts in the kitchen and another cook, who in uncanny fashion resembles Manny Pacquiao, the boxing champ, congressman, and hero of The Philippines. Ironically and iconically, there is a large sketch print of Pacquiao on one of the side walls overlooking a corner booth.

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Manny Pacquiao watches over the diners at Asian Delight

The menu at Asian Delight offers Chinese dishes and, of course, Filipino ones. We treated ourselves to some of the Filipino food and, to my son’s delight, there’s an entire section in the menu devoted to ‘egg rice.’ These are silog options; dishes like Tapsilog, Bangsilog, Ribsilog and, of course, his favourite, Longsilog. Basically, these are dishes made up of garlic fried rice (sinangag, hence the si), fried sunny side up egg (itlog means egg in Tagalog, hence the log) and some kind of meat. Tapsilog is beef tapa with garlic friend rice and fried egg. Bangsilog is the same but with fried bangus (white fish). Longsilog uses Filipino sausage called longanisa. The sinangag at Asian Delight is a little different than how I’ve had it at other restaurants. Most places and houesholds will fry chopped garlic and mix it into the rice in the frying pan. Some places will crown a lump of white rice with fried garlic. At others, the rice is browned in the frying process with browned garlic mixed in. At Asian Delight, it’s slightly browned with garlic mixed in but there are also slivers of sliced or ripped scrambled egg. This deviation from how sinangag is usually made was not an unpleasant twist.

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Longanisa at Asian Delight, Rome, Italy

As for the Longsilog itself, Rome must have the brightest gold-coloured egg yolks around. Cooked perfectly with the yolk covered by a white sheen without being cooked solid, the egg oozed into the rice as my son sliced the egg and mixed the two together. It made me imagine what Filipino risotto might be like. The longanisa was sweet – a little too sweet than I’ve ever had – but it was softly cooked and offered a nice cut and blend with the saltiness of the rice and egg. The sausage was also skinless. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen skinless Filipino sausage but it was the first time I’ve tasted skinless Filipino sausage. To my son’s pleasure, it beats out the usual skinned sweet longanisa we eat in the US.

We also ordered a plate of Pork Dumplings.

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Pork Dumplings with  a dish of hot sauce

They were tasty and didn’t make or break the meal but they weren’t anything that knocked our socks off. They were a basic meat dumpling like the kind you can find in the freezer section of your local Asian grocery store. I wouldn’t order them again but, if someone did, I wouldn’t turn them away and I’d even have one or two bites.

For the rest of the meal, we ordered Pork Sinigang (Tamarind Stew) (pictured below, left) and Lechon Kawali (deep fried pork belly) (pictured below, right). Before we go on, you should know that Filipinos like their dips and sauces. There’s toyo (soy sauce) with or without chili; suka (vinegar), with or without chili peppers; bagoong, a fish or shrimp paste; and Mang Tomas, a condiment often used for lechon (roasted pig) and other grilled or barbecued meats. I guess it could be considered a kind of Filipino barbecue sauce or meat-based mayonnaise of sorts. And then there’s patis, a fish sauce that is used in many different kinds of Asian cooking from Filipino to Thai to Vietnamese to Indonesian. Often used in the cooking, patis is also used as a dip or condiment however in most restaurants it’s not readily available to the customer. At Asian Delight, though, Chris gladly brought out a small dish of patis for my wife when she asked for it. As for how the two dishes tasted – delicious. Part of their tastiness might have been due to the my palate’s need for different stimulation than what I’d been getting. The sinigang and lechon kawali  weren’t any better – and they certainly weren’t worse – than any I’d had before but they were spot on and tasted just like home. The sinigang had a nice bite to it thanks to the green chili that was added, something that is common with this dish but not something we always do at home. The lechon kawali was tender and the pig skin crispy without being burnt or overdone.

During our meal, thanks to all the sharing we were doing (a normal part of our meals, as a family, and among Filipinos), my son’s two longanisa turned into one so we ordered a side dish of longanisa so he could round up and balance his ‘Filipino egg risotto’ with the meat. The side order came with three sausages on a plate which I thought was generous. Comparing it to our dining experiences in the US, we got one more sausage than we’d get, say, a our local diner if we’d ordered a side dish of a regular pork breakfast sausage.

To round out my meal, I ordered a beer. Asian Delight offers San Miguel and Red Horse, two staple brews from The Philippines.

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Red Horse Beer, one of the staple brews from The Philippines

It’d been ages since I’d had a ‘San Mig’ so, naturally, I ordered one. Unfortunately, they were out of it so I settled for a Red Horse, which didn’t disappoint. For those of you who haven’t tried it, it’s akin to Heineken or Tsingtao.

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My wife, giving a thumbs up to the beer and to Asian Delight

At the end of the meal, we promised Chris that we’d return and we did, the following night, after our excursion to Venice. Asian Delight closes at 10pm and we got there at 9:45pm. There were two customers left who were paying and Chris and company were starting to clean up and shut down. We were able to get an order to go and he threw in a free order of white rice. My wife ordered Pancit Canton Bihon, which is a Filipino-style Lo Mein with added rice or vermicelli noodles to the lo mein noodles. My son ordered Longsilog again and I went with the day’s special and one of my all-time favorite Filipino dishes, Kalderatang Kambing (Filipino goat stew).

There are other dishes on their menu, of course – Sisig, Adobo, Halo Halo, Leche Flan, Dinaguan and others – that we didn’t get to try but one doesn’t go to Rome to try Filipino food, after all. You can, though, bet your last Euro that the next time we’re in Rome (and we will be back because my son threw in only one coin into The Fountain of Trevi which, according to legend, means we’ll return) and we’re craving a different taste to our palates a trip to Asian Delight will be added to our itinerary.

Asian Delight’s name is spot on. The food definitely satisfied the change my taste buds needed and it did so at a reasonable price. The meal we had was around 30 Euros (about US$37), which is about the same we’d pay for the same meal at Pandan in Bloomfield, New Jersey. In addition to the tastiness of the food and the charm from our host, Chris, Asian Delight triggered memories, as food does, of summers in Manila and family meals in Hong Kong. The emotional and psychological warmth was more than welcomed and a pleasant surprise to our impromptu Filipino dinner. Being there, I was also offered the opportunity to speak a fifth language on our vacation and practice my Tagalog, which is functional but far from good. (In and around our trip, I’d already had the chances to speak English (which I speak fluently), Italian, French and Spanish – none of which I speak fluently but can manage in small doses and in a pinch.)

Chris was a joy to meet, as well, and the coziness of the place offers a certain intimacy, without ignoring personal boundaries, that made me feel like we – the various customers, even though we had our own meals and conversations, were all together enjoying the deliciousness of the natural fusion that is Filipino food and the happy, welcoming charm that is the Filipino spirit. So, for anyone who needs a change of pace from the deliciousness of Italian cuisine but, especially, for my fellow Filipinos, do pay Asian Delight a visit if you find yourself in Rome. You won’t be disappointed. Oh, and say “hi” to Chris for me.

Rating: 1 1/2 bites

0 bites = Don’t bother. I suffered for you.
1/2 bite = I enjoyed it enough – I had to eat something, after all – but I wouldn’t recommend it.
1 bite = Good. I’d have it again but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.
1 1/2 bites = Very good/super tasty. I’m definitely going back and I’m bringing friends. If I weren’t married, it’s somewhere I’d take a first date to. That’s how good it is.
2 bites = Unique, I’ve never had (and probably won’t ever have) better than this, this is what I’d want if I were going to be executed and I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal, Epicurean Orgasm!

 

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Trusting The Bible

Like many cooks, whether pros or home cooks, I rely on ‘the bible.’ I’m not referring to the religious text that  recounts Jesus Christ’s life and influences the thoughts, actions and feelings of millions of Christians. I’m referring to the classic, and dare I say legendary, cooking reference – for it is much more than a cookbook – The Joy of Cooking. I was first introduced to The Joy of Cooking in the mid 1980s after my sister bought a copy. Since then, I’ve referred to it for relatively simple things such as Drop Cookies and Crêpes to more challenging dishes as Grilled Lobster, Chicken Livers and Risotto. However, also like many cooks, I have developed some level of experience and expertise in the kitchen so I don’t turn to the Becker, Becker and Rombauer work for every kitchen and cooking query I have. At times, I can create on the spot or trust my instincts and my experience to make wonderful things happen in the kitchen.

Christmas 2014, however, was not one of those times. Since getting married, our Christmas meal has largely been either my rendition of my childhood Christmas fare (roast turkey, baked ham) or my wife’s version of her mother’s Mechado (a beef stew with vegetables in a fresh tomato sauce). Last May, my wife and I celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary so this Christmas we felt that we needed something different. Growing up, I was fortunate to feast on my mother’s Roast Beef. I’ve never done one myself and we contemplated doing one for Christmas but neither of us were completely sold on the idea. Then the idea of Prime Rib came to mind and it stuck. Neither of us had ever made one but our friend did – her first time – last year and guinea pigged it on us. It came out successfully, seemed pretty easy to do so we decided we’d do the Primec Rib in our house this go around.

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However, having never done one, I referred to the bible. When got to the page and found the passage I needed, I read it and reread it no less than four times. Then I rustled through the beef pages to find other entries for variations of Prime Rib. Then I reread what I initially went to and shared it with my wife.

“That’s it?” was her response.

The instructions were very innocuous. Preheat the oven to 450. Liberally salt and pepper the meat. Cook it, uncovered, for ten minutes. Lower the heat to 250 and cook it for whatever time is needed, based on the weight of the meat, to get the temperature you want. In this case, at 30 minutes a pound for medium, we were looking at 90 minutes.

Like I said, innocuous. Well, it should have been. But, having never done a Prime Rib before, my uncertainty and, perhaps, the curse of arrogance from knowing a little about kitchen and cooking things, I felt the creep of mental and emotional injury. 250?! That’s it?

Well, after seasoning the meat, I put it in the oven and did what The Joy of Cooking told me to. I also made an advanced apology to my wife, just in case it didn’t turn out. If for some reason, it came out underdone, I figured I could just sliced the meat and fry it. If it came out overdone and ruined, I was all set to reenact the final scene in A Christmas Story and take my family out for a Christmas dinner at the nearest Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have the neighbour’s dogs to blame for a ruined meal.

After the time was up, I put in my cooking thermometer, got the desired temperature and let it set for the mandatory cool down and juice retaining minutes. I finished making the sauces and the sides and, shortly thereafter, dinner was served. And, if I may pat myself on the back, the Prime Rib turned out perfectly.

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I haven’t recounted this for you so I can brag and show you how wonderful a cook I am.  What my intention is, however, is three-fold. One: Don’t fear trying new things. Two: Have your plan and resources handy. (While my small opinion will count for little, I just want to say that The Joy of Cooking, at least in my culinary experiences, has been and continues to be the go to reference.) Three: Be humble and don’t get in your own way. Most of you follow these tips anyway. Heck, for you they’re less likely tips or reminders and your routine kitchen practise. For me, though, doing the Prime Rib was like an accidental Christmas present to myself and it reminded me of those three things and, now that I’ve been reminded of them, I intend to take them with me in the kitchen and, hopefully, out of the kitchen as I venture into 2015.

Happy cooking everyone! Thanks for stopping in my kitchen.

It’s The Holiday Season

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Thanksgiving is only a few days away and, yes, the holiday season is upon us. That means loads of laughter, spending time with family and friends, exchanging gifts and hosting parties. Recently, my wife, son and I had dinner at a new friend’s place. She, with her husband and three kids, recently moved to New Jersey from New York City and, with a nice spacious kitchen and putting work on hold to be the homemaker, she’s decided to host both Thanksgiving and Christmas for her family. I think she said the total count is going to be around thirteen. So, in preparation, she had us over for dinner and practised with a chicken (pictured above) and some veggie dishes (a cauliflower one and a Brussels sprouts one) she learnt at cooking classics she’d taken at Williams and Sonoma and King’s Supermaket, both in Short Hills.

Looking back, growing up in Hong Kong, my family’s flat was the largest of the other homes of my parents’ friends and co-workers. For that reason and also, perhaps, from a ‘corporate mindset’ of the boss hosting the annual party (of the jobs my father had while in Hong Kong – journalist and business owner – he was among the higher ups), I recall that most of the holiday gatherings were held at our place. Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in Hong Kong but we did serve turkey at our gatherings – something my mother took with her from her German-American father – and we did celebrate Christmas and New Year’s in grand fashion. As a family, Christmas was an intimate affair with midnight mass on Christmas Eve, home for a feast and opening Christmas presens, staying up late, and sleeping in on Christmas Day. The big party my mother would host usually fell on Boxing Day. For New Year’s, the big event was usually on New Year’s Eve but sometimes on New Year’s Day. During those years, and the times my mother hosted Christmas parties in New Jersey before my parents moved back to The Philippines, I acquired a few handy tips that have helped my own parties run more smoothly than not. And, if I can pat myself on the back a little, I have prepared feasts, largely single-handedly, for parties of twenty or more and, sometimes, in a kitchen the size of a small New York City closet.

So, with the holidays approaching, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt, from my mother and others, to help your holiday celebration turn out tasty, run smoothly and be a challenge for your in-laws to top.

1. If you have a frozen turkey, make sure you give it enough time to defrost completely. I’m moving mine from the freezer to the fridge tonight so it’s thawed by Thursday morning.
2. Do any prep work you can days ahead of time. If anything can be cut, diced, puréed, etc do it now. Things like gravy and cranberry sauce can be made ahead of time and reheated, if needed. Pies, too. To this end, if out of town guests arrive early and are staying wih you, heck, put them to work. If not with the preparations and cooking, with kid-watching and errand-running.
3. With large family gatherings, make a little more than you were planning to and, if you’re doing a sit down, make sure you have extra place settings. There’s always that last minute person – your sister-in-law’s single friend, for example – who shows up.
4. Have some kid-friendly food ready. While I’m a big believer in kids eating what they’re given – the home is not a restaurant, after all – some kids (heck, some adults) just don’t like certain things and we don’t want anyone to go hungry.
5. Don’t take every (seeming) criticism from your mother or (cue Darth Vader music) your mot her-in-law to heart. It’s not worth getting into a battle over. Each generation has a way of doing things.
6. Plan your menu ahead of time. This is something you should’ve done already.
7. Tagging on to number 6, get to the store early and buy extra. I’ve noticed over the years that the Sunday before Thanksgiving – yesterday – is the busiest food shopping day of the week leading up to Turkey Day. It’s too late to get there before yesterday but, if you have to go again and not just for a run in, go early in the day and earlier in the week.
8. On the day, make a plate for yourself and stash it in the kitchen. Much like being the bride and groom at their wedding reception, the party host doesn’t often get to have a decent meal; busy with entertaining, serving, etc.
9. Be flexible. If something doesn’t turn out right, turn it into something else. You have the ability to do so. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have had the gumption to even attempt hosting.
10. Allow yourself to have fun, don’t worry if you make a mistake in your cooking and, if you need to, say “F**k it!” Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever you’re celebrating and hosting is one day out of three hundred and sixty-five. If it turns out great, you’re a star. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t define who you are. Bottom line, you gave it a shot and you probably learnt something about cooking and, more importantly, about yourself. Be better prepared next year or let someone else host. And, in the long run, it’s going to be one of those memorable days you and your kids will look back on with with fondness and/or good humour.

Anyway, so those are my ten quick tips to help with your holiday preparations. Good luck but, more importantly, have fun. Cooking and hosting are meant to be fun endeavours. Remember that.

Oh, and, Happy Thanksgiving! (albeit a little early).