Sunday, December 30, 2007

Filipino Food II: Merienda (or, Pinoy Pood dat I mees)

"Hey, I remember that smell," my son commented at the airport. I interpreted his comment to mean that aromatic medley of pandan leaves, fried dough, bamboo, and jasmine that I associate with being in the Philippines. It's an aroma that leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth and makes you hungry, so I said without thinking, "How very Proustian of you," though in fact it was I who was being transported to the past.

My Filipino sensory memories are centered around food. Filipinos love to eat and eat as much as possible. To leave food out of any kind of occasion, large or small, is unthinkable. We are all foodies, and we are obsessed.

Let me explain about meriyenda, from the Spanish merienda, "la comida que se toma antes de la cena."

Filipinos can eat up to four or five meals a day. Breakfast (almusal), morning merienda (kind of like the hobbits' second breakfast), lunch (tanghalian), merienda, and dinner (hapunan).

Merienda is no mere afternoon tea or pre-dinner snack. Merienda - the word itself is delicious to say - is a meal that celebrates the pleasure of eating, a time when the rest of life stops and the savoring of yummy treats takes priority - including treats that one might have enjoyed at breakfast earlier in the day. Merienda can be as simple as a piece of buttered pan de sal with hot chocolate (made from dark cocoa tablets from Spain, of course), or it can be a huge buffet of appetizers, main courses (like kaldereta, or goat stew), snacks, and sweets, blurring the lines between merienda and early dinner, in fact morphing into "merienda-cena."

Let me start there, with pan de sal. Historically I think pan de sal was a lean bread, like the French baguette, with the simplest of ingredients - flour, water, yeast, and salt. Over time it became richer, with the addition of sugar and eggs. The current version is the most delicious bread I know - soft and doughy on the inside, my favorite part, with lots of little places for melted butter to seep into, and crusty on the outside with a tasty dusting of dry breadcrumbs that is its signature feature. The dough is rolled into a log, then cut, coated with dry breadcrumbs, and baked, so the final shape of each roll of pan de sal is round or slightly elliptical.

Then there's the queen of breakfast breads in the Philippines: the ensaymada. We took what Spain originated and made it 100 times better. Ensaymada is a bright yellow or golden brioche type of bread, soft and airy, topped with a melt-in-your-mouth mixture of finely grated cheese, sugar, and butter. This is the kind of thing whose last bite instills a little melancholy, because you know you can only savor the tastes and textures a moment longer, then the magic is over. My Tita (aunt) M, who is of Pampanga stock - and this is a Pampanga delicacy - makes THE BEST ensaymadas IN THE WORLD. Lots of people make this wondrous bread from scratch, and we've tried their versions, and they're good, even superbly yummy, but still no match for Tita M's, and once you've tried hers, you can't eat any other version and enjoy it as much. Hers are simply a culinary treasure. The 5 dozen she sent to our house on Christmas Eve are GONE. When my 7-year-old son got on the phone to ask her for more, and she asked how many she should make, he answered, "Hmm...maybe, a hundred?" She laughed her head off but said ok.

I could go on about other foods I miss when we're back in the States. Champorado, a chocolate rice porridge. Our version of chorizo, the sweet, garlicky longganisa, served with rice and eggs (above, middle). Green mangoes and bagoong, of course (above, top), and ripe mangoes which I've already waxed rhapsodic about before. Rice-flour sweets such as sticky, brown-sugar infused bibingka (above, left), the coconut-covered palitaw, and the tricolor sapin-sapin (above, right). Cylindrical wafers called barquillos. Savory treats like pancit palabok (above, middle), a noodle dish served on a large bilao, or woven basket tray, and salsa monja, an olive-and-shallot relish unknown outside the Philippines, it seems, but apparently served by Spanish nuns to Spanish friars back in the day, as a condiment to flavor their food. Yum! We also inherited merienda items from China: siomai (shrimp dumplings), siopao (steamed pork buns, below), and hopia (bean paste filled pastries, also below).

And I have to drool over two last favorites, the soothing taste and smooth textures of buko pandan (below), and our native masterpiece dessert, the cake known as Sans Rival. Tiers of almond or cashew merengue layered with a sweet, rum-tinged buttercream and covered with toasted almonds:

There are better pictures on flickr here, here, and here. I know I'm going to have to undergo a massive detox when I leave, but for now, I'm taking pleasure in every dish and savoring every bite of merienda, enjoying with those bites the very Proustian flashbacks to my happy childhood.


mjrh said...

I'm so jealous....jealous......jealous. A hundred ensaymadas indeed. I told my mom to send me some through Rubi. I miss the sapin sapin and everything else.

T. said...

Let's make some buko pandan and sans rival together when I get back.

Terry at Counting Sheep said...

I sooo love Filipino cooking, and your photos are making me drool. Just so delicious looking!

mjrh said...

where can you get pandan>

T. said...

I found a buko pandan recipe that uses pandan extract. I'm hoping they'll have that at Unimart when I go food shopping for non-perishabls to bring back.