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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Spaghetti Longanisa

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Ingredients

Spaghetti* (about 1 cup cooked)

3-4 cloves of chopped garlic

2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1-2 cooked, Sweet* Longanisa (Filipino sausage)

*Other varieties of pasta and longanisa can be used. I like sweet longanisa over hot so I’ll use sweet. My wife, meanwhile, who enjoys spicy things might choose the hot.

Method

1. Cook the spaghetti the usual way (boil water, add the pasta, cook for seven minutes, drain)

2. Sautee the chopped garlic in the olive oil until it just starts to turn brownish from its original yellow

3. Toss the spaghetti into the garlic and olive oil and mix

4. Chop/mash the longanisa and toss it with the spaghetti.

5. Add grated cheese of your choice to your taste.

Quicker and Simpler

It’s funny how things change. When we first learn how to do something, especially when we’re children, whatever way we learnt to do it is the exact and only way to do it. Consequently, the way we learnt also becomes the best way to do whatever it is we were taught. As we get older, that particular way becomes further ingrained in us and more than a means to an end. It becomes a part of our lives. In fact, it often becomes sacrosanct. It’s not so bad – meaning we don’t hold on to things do tightly – when we learn new things as adults. At that point in our lives, we tend to see and understand the value of doing things differently; especially if it means it takes less time and effort and costs less money.

Just a quick side bar. I can hear the voices already. The voices of the people who are adamant that quicker isn’t better. To them, I say fair enough. Quicker isn’t always better. In fact, quicker may not be better. What quicker is is, well, quicker. And, as a multi-job husband and parent, whose spouse also has multiple jobs, quicker is often a valuable necessity.

When I started to cook, I did so from scratch. Everything was made from fresh ingredients. When I was a kid in Hong Kong, I always ordered the Coq Au Vin whenever we ate at Landau’s. When I came to America, missing a taste from home, I duplicated the dish in my head and then in the kitchen. I’d make the cream sauce with cornstarch and water. Then, I’d add the milk and mushrooms to the cubed chicken. Today, I still make it that way sometimes but usually, instead of cornstarch and water, I put in a tin of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Everything else is the same. The Campbell’s makes things easier, quicker and guarantees a desired consistency. God forbid you slip up and the cornstarch thickener is a tad too thin or a touch too clumpy. (Well, just clumpy. Is there really ever an acceptable amount of clump?) And that’s all the cornstarch is, a thickening agent. Additionally, with the soup, I don’t have to salt the dish and I can use milk instead of cream and I can add less (whether milk or cream) because the soup is already creamy.

When I learnt to make the Filipino dish Afritada, my mother taught me how to do it with achuete. She also showed me how to make Kare Kare with peanut butter. That is already a bit of a cheat. In the purer and more traditional method, peanuts are actually pounded and grounded before being put into the pot for Kare Kare. Today, while I still add a little peanut butter to give it a creamier texture, I use the pouches of ready-mix made by Mama Sita’s. I use the ready-mix now for Afritada also and my wife uses the brand’s Sinigang and Nilaga pouches also.

The cheat methods are probably less healthy, though, but they get the job done. The ready mix of Kare Kare surely has preservatives and excess MSG, for instance. The Campbell’s soup has likely way more sodium than I would use when I season my Coq Au Vin from scratch, especially since I typically don’t use salt when I cook any dish. But, while those are legitimate things to consider when cooking, for the purpose of this post, I am focusing on efficiency and taste. Ultimately, that’s what food is about.

With regard to the health concerns, I firmly believe that if you get enough rest, balance the naughty things you eat with the not so naughty, drink your water and get your exercise, a touch too much sodium here and a bit of sugar there isn’t going to do much in the end.

So, if you aren’t afraid to stray from the purist inside you, give the quick and easy a go. You might find it to be another useful skill in the kitchen.

Coming soon in the Recipes section, I will post the recipes for both Coq Au Vin and Kare Kare. I’ll also try to remember some of my other cooking cheats and post them as they come to me. In the meantime, do share yours.

Happy cooking!

Recipe: Chicken Afritada

Chicken Afritada

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Ingredients

8-10 Chicken Thighs*
1 medium sized tomato, diced
1 medium sized onion, diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
About 3 bay leaves
1 package of frozen peas, thawed and separated
2 large bell peppers (1 red, 1 green), cut into into 1 inch pieces (seeds and stems discarded)
3-4 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 large tin of tomato sauce (approx. 30 oz tin)
1 cup of water
1 teaspoon of peppercorns
Salt, to taste
1 cup of green beans, cut into 5 or 6 cm pieces

* In some variations of Afritada, pieces of pork and liver are added.

Method

1. Dice the tomato and onion and chop the garlic into very small pieces. Sauté all three ingredients in a pot with some oil over medium to high heat. At the same time, you can add the bay leaves.
2. When the onion starts to brown, add the chicken thighs and water (about 1 cup).
3. Season with salt and add the peppercorns.
4. When the chicken begins to lose its pinkness and starts looking beige, add the bell peppers and potato. Cook until the potatoes begin to develop a translucence on its edges. Turn the chicken, as well, to even the cooking.
5. Add the tomato sauce and stir. Cover and cook for about 45-60 minutes, checking periodically to turn the chicken and to add water, if needed.
6. With about a quarter of an hour left to cook, add the green beans and peas.
7. When the chicken is cooked (180 degrees F inside and/or, if pierced and no blood/red liquid oozes out), serve with steamed white rice.

Filipino Food

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Yesterday, via my Twitter account and Facebook Page, I shared a piece from The Atlantic Wire about Halo Halo, the unique Filipino dessert loved by millions. The article discussed the ingredients of Halo Halo and the author offered how, growing up, he never got into it or understood its seemingly strange combination of ice cream, gelatin, shaved ice, milk, leche flan, beans, ube paste and, occasionally, strips of langka (jackfruit). Ostensibly, the article is about Halo Halo but really, for me, it answers a question I’ve been pondering for months, even years: When is Filipino food going to get its day in the sun here in America? Based on the article, written by Alexander Abad-Santos, the answer is now.

Growing up in Hong Kong, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world, in a multicultural household (I’m Fil-Am and so is my mother and our American side comes from German stock. My father is Filipino but with Spanish and Chinese heritage; his mother was half Manchurian.), savouring different kinds of cuisine was never an issue for me or my brother and sisters. We enjoyed full scale Chinese banquets at Fumania and Yung Kee, humbler ngau lam lo mein (beef brisket over noodles) at local noodle shops, Bulgogi and Tempura Udon at our favourite Korean and Japanese food spots in Causeway Bay, five-star Western dishes at Landau’s, fast food at McDonald’s and Indian and Pakistani food at various spots throughout Hong Kong and in several friends’ homes. My favourite Lasagna and my favourite Cannelloni, to this day, are the ones I’ve eaten at Rigoletto, which was located in the area where Wanchai and Causeway Bay meet. Dim sum was enjoyed at City Hall and, of course, at the Luk Yuen Tea House, located in the Western District of Central. At home, my mother cooked up all sorts of stuff, too. For Christmas – we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until we moved to America – we’d enjoy a roasted turkey with my German-American grandfather’s chestnut stuffing.

Food, ‘different’ food, for my family was never a thing or a trend. We eat what we like when we’re in the mood for it and we like a nice variety of cuisines. In the mid-1980s, however, with an apparent global health kick, Japanese food was touted as the healthiest food one could get and the savior to battle obesity and rising cholesterol levels. At the same time, egg yolk, which recent studies show is not bad for you, was among the rising stars of culinary health villains. As a result of this, Japanese food surged in popularity. I recall a minor spike in Indian food popularity in the late 1980s, shortly after moving to the United States, and, in the 1990s, there seemed to be a boost in Spanish food. In the early 2000s, I noticed a sharp increase in the number of Vietnamese restaurants opening up. Sadly, the number of Vietnamese restaurants that popped up appear to have vanished just as quickly, at least here in New Jersey. Thai restaurants started to pop up in the late 1980s but they seemed to have their sharpest popularity spike in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’m glad to report that within the last year a new spot has opened up close to home. More recently, restaurants offering Thai but also Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine have been growing in number. My favourite is Penang in East Hanover, New Jersey.

So, with food popularity ever changing, it’s only a matter of time before Filipino food, the taste of my native land, comes into vogue. And, being a country with a storied history and diversity within its shores, it has something to offer every palate. The Philippines, being the largest archipelago in Southeast Asia, has an abundance of seafood. Rice, a staple in the Filipino diet, like it is in other Asian cuisines, is commonly offered plain or fried with browned garlic. In addition to rice as part of the main dish, there’s an array of rice-based desserts to enjoy; treats like Bibngka, Puto Bongbong, Kutsinta (my personal favourite), to name a few. Many of our dishes are stew-type. There’s Adobo, the peanut-sauced Kare Kare, Afritada. Many of these kinds of dishes can be made with chicken, pork or seafood. Coconut milk is often added to Filipino dishes and these dishes can be made with and without it, illustrating the chameleon-like adaptability and palate of the Filipino. Paksiw is a seasoned fish stew that has a version that is made with coconut milk and one without it. Pork is another staple in the Filipino diet and it comes in the aforementioned stew-type dishes but is also enjoyed grilled, Inihaw na Baboy. Click here for my recipe for that. Not to be left out, Kaldereta Kambing is a dish that is best described as a Filipino sister of Indonesia’s Beef Rendang but with goat meat.

Not to be outdone by the Chinese, who waste nothing (think Fung Chow, steamed Chicken Feet, which is one of my favourite dim sum offerings), Filipino cuisine includes Chicken Ass, the fried butt of the chicken which is perfect with a serving of garlic rice. Banana leaves are often used on top of the plate or serving dish at Filipino restaurants. Another kind of leaf, those from taro after the root has been used to make a variety of other dishes, is made into a dish called Laing, which sees the leaves stewed in coconut milk and garnished with green chili pepper to give it a little bite. Then, there is Sisig. Simply put, Sisig is a sizzling plate of a pig’s snout, ears and tail seasoned with garlic, pepper and salt and dipped in a soy sauce-vinegar combo when eaten. Often, a raw egg is served on top and mixed in with the pig parts on the sizzling plate. This version of Sisig is one of the more traditional ones. In today’s modern and, perhaps, more squeamish times, Sisig is more commonly made with diced pork. And, for the truly brave at heart, there is Balut, an embryonic duck egg, boiled just so and eaten from the shell with Filipino rock salt.

From what I know, The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia that was conquered and ruled by western countries from both parts of the western world. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led a Spanish galleon, via Mexico, to The Philippines. Eventually – the armada’s first attempt failed thanks to Lapu Lapu, the country’s first national hero – Spain conquered the island nation that would become The Philippines (named after King Philip II of Spain). In addition to Catholicism, language, architectural innovations, Spain’s culinary influence on the natives also made an impact. Adobo is largely a Spanish-originated dish. The Philippines now has longanisa, which is arguably derived from the Spanish chorizo. Filipinos have their own versions of tapa that range from a dry but tender variety to a softer kind (Bistek) seasoned with soy sauce (toyo in Tagalog) and kalamansi. When the Americans took over, after the Spanish-American War, and with its continuous influence stretching up to and through World War II, American flavours have taken hold as well. Spaghetti is an Italian dish but it was likely introduced – Spaghetti and Meatballs – to Filipinos through the Americans. Whoever introduced it, there is now something called ‘Filipino Spaghetti,’ which boasts a sugariness that is not typically found in other forms of the pasta dish. And, of course, as every Filipino will attest, there is Spam. Spam, in a strange way (to Americans), is a delicacy to the Filipino. Sliced Spam in warm pandesal is a common midafternoon snack.

As a widely used port for traders, The Philippines met the world and the Chinese settled in as well. The Chinese influence in Filipino food can be seen, largely, in our noodle dishes, some of which resemble the lo mein you can get in some Chinese and Chinese-American restaurants. Char Siu Bao, a steamed bready white bun with roast pork inside has also been evolved in The Philippines into a steamed bready white bun with a sweeter pork inside, less red in colour, called Siopao.

Even as a single nation, the variety of Filipino dishes is rampant. Adobo, for instance, is the national dish but there are variations based on cooking style and regional origin. Some versions of Adobo are saucier and darker, with more toyo, than other varieties. Some are boiled then friend twice, reducing the toyo, rendering the sauce into a lighter and thicker oil dip. Some version are made with chicken, some with pork, some with shrimp, some with a combination of the three and others have liver thrown in. And this is just with Adobo. The same kinds of – and more – variations exist with other dishes.

So, really, Filipino food does have something for everyone. When pressed for a quick explanation of what Filipino food is like, I usually say something like, “Take Spanish food, Chinese food and a roaming goat or pig and mash it up. Throw in some coconut milk and serve it over rice and there you go.” To some, that might not sound exactly appealing. When you break it down to its component parts, though, the options are endless; or, at least, as varied as the country’s more than 7,000 islands.

For a sample of Filipino food recipes, check out this link. http://www.filipinofoodrecipes.net/

If you’re not prepared to cook them yourself but you’re ready to try some of our dishes, here’s a list of some of the Filipino restaurants in and around New York City.

Maharlika http://maharlikanyc.com/

Grill 21 http://www.thegrill21.com/

Jeepney http://www.jeepneynyc.com/

Pandan http://www.pandanasiancuisine.com/

Click here for Mr. Abad-Santos’s article.