Photo courtesy of Claude Tayag
To American audiences, Claude Tayag may best be known as Anthony Bourdain’s Pampangan host and tour guide in the Philippines episode of No Reservations. But Claude Tayag is more than just a tour guide.
Tayag is a renowned artist, chef, and food writer in the Philippines. In addition to authoring Food Tour, a book exploring culinary traditions throughout the Philippines, Tayag is also the co-author of Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine.
And most recently, with his wife Mary Ann, Tayag co-authored Linamnam: Eating One’s Way Around the Philippines–a unique and reader-friendly culinary travel guide that will lead readers to the best eats in every region of the Philippines.
THE BEST EATS IN EVERY REGION OF THE PHILIPPINES??!!!
Once I get my hands on this book, I’m heading to the P.I. ASAP! Linamnam will be released in Manila on November 3 of this year.
Linamnam Nom Nom Nom
In short, Tayag is perhaps one of the foremost experts on Filipino cuisine, and it’s a shame that Mr. Tayag’s works aren’t more readily available here in the U.S.
Now, I know that I laid it on pretty thick for Mr. Tayag in the previous paragraphs, but with good reason. I’ve been lucky enough to have corresponded with Mr. Tayag via a few emails for the last year and a half or so, and Mr. Tayag has always been gracious and kind to me when he didn’t necessarily have to be. After all, I’m just an idiot food blogger;)
Consequently, I was supposed to have a one-on-one meeting with Tayag a couple of weeks ago at an event in San Francisco. But as luck would have it, Mr. Tayag had to cancel his trip to the U.S. at the last minute. Thankfully though, Mr. Tayag was nice enough to agree to an interview with me via a Q&A over email.
The following are Mr. Tayag’s candid and very thoughtful responses to a few questions I had for him. There is much for all of us to learn from Mr. Tayag’s views and expertise on Filipino cuisine.
Burnt Lumpia: For those of my readers who may not be familiar with you, how did you go from being an accomplished artist to a chef and food writer?
Claude Tayag: My introduction to the Philippine culinary scene came somewhat accidentally. I was a happy go lucky free spirited 22 year old artist when I first traveled backpacking around Europe for 11 months. That was in 1979 and with $10 a day budget, staying with friends and youth hostels and at times in train stations. During my stays with friends especially the Tequis of Paris, I would forage through the wet markets and cook in my hosts’ kitchen using French ingredients to replicate the Filipino dishes I missed so much. That was when I discovered I was just as comfortable with the sianse (turner) as I am with a paint brush, although I learned earlier the basic rudiments of cooking from my mother. With my hosts and friends clamoring more and more for my cooking, I eventually became adept with the stove.
As “chef” Claude, I first came out of the pantry, so to speak, and unfurled (nagladlad) my apron to the public at Larry J. Cruz’s Ang Hang Restaurant in 1988. In 1993, I was the featured chef at the Manila Hotel for a Chaine des Rotisseurs dinner, highlighting my interpretations of traditional Pampango cuisine. In 2001, I was invited to do a month’s cooking stint at the Prince Albert Rotisserie of the InterConinental Manila, back to back with French resident chef Cyrile Soenen. I guess, that’s how I earned my title as “chef”.
As a food writer, way back in 2000, I got a call from Philippine Star lifestyle editor Millet Mananquil asking me to contribute to her section. “What about?” I asked. “Anything, only as you want and when you want, no pressure”, she said. To an artist, she said the magic word: no deadline to meet. Naturally, I wrote about my travels and food forays, though they came far in between. Eventually, as I got the hang of it, and submitted more often as I had “stories” to tell. Many thanks to her prodding, I didn’t know I had it innately in me to be a writer.
BL: In addition to contributing recipes to the Kulinarya cookbook, you also acted as the food stylist. What are some tips for us non-artistic types to create a beautiful plate of food?
CT: Keep it as natural looking as possible, starting with using the freshest ingredients and the choicest cuts of meats. Why do you think sashimi looks so good in reality and photographs so well? So much scrap is thrown away to come up with the choice cuts. Applying this same principle to making chicken adobo, for example, why not use only chicken parts that you like, i.e. all-thighs, breasts, drumstick, wings, which are sold separately anyway. Using a whole chicken would include the unsightly neck and backbone. In the same way using pork, go for the leaner cuts. I personally prefer using the country-style pork ribs for adobo, cut into big cubes, rather than the fatty liempo/belly.
BL: What was it like cooking for Anthony Bourdain? What do you think he learned from his meal at your home, Bale Dutung?
CT: It was a rather easy and pleasant experience. I was just being true to myself, cooking what I did best – traditional Filipino, in particular Pampango, cuisine. I guess he saw the sincerity and unpretentiousness in what I was doing. Bourdain, on the other hand, wasn’t as nasty and foul-mouthed as he is on TV and his books. My wife Mary Ann actually asked him if he was always this nice in person, he answered saying he’d rather behave than offend the host, but then of course it’s a totally different scenario if he was at home and he was the host, he said. Quoting [Bourdain] in the testimonial he wrote for our new book Linamnam: “Claude is the true master and greatest spokesman for Pampangan cuisine. He introduced me to whole new worlds of flavor.”
BL: In your opinion, what dish (or dishes) best represents the Philippines and why?
CT: Sinigang, perhaps. It is a clear broth soup dish made with a sour fruit, depending on the maker’s personal preference, region and season on what fruit is available (kamias, sampaloc, calamansi, guava, batuan, alibangbang, etc.) and what seafood, meat or vegetable is available or afforded. It is the great leveler – the cooking method (of boiling) and the cooked dish cross all economic boundaries, from north to south of our archipelago.
BL: Filipino ingredients aren’t always readily available to some of us outside of the Philippines, but do you think it’s possible to have an “authentic” Filipino meal on foreign soil? What makes anything authentic?
CT: What is “authentic”, anyway? It’s a very gray area nowadays, especially in this day and age of globalization. What used to be hard-to-get ingredients, as well as seasonal vegetables and fruits, are now available year round. Did you know that French beans (haricot vert), cherry tomatoes, romaine lettuce, yakon and dragon fruit are commonplace in most supermarkets and even wet markets in Metro Manila, including Angeles City where I live? They’ve been growing them locally the past decade or so. Even salmon heads and its belly are readily available everywhere, a by-product of the canning factories of Alaska. The salmon heads are a favorite main ingredient in sinigang sa miso, and command a premium price compared with using local fish. One can find this fish head soup being served in most food courts nowadays. Does using an imported fish makes it any less “authentic”? And where did the miso come from anyway? It’s been a part of the Pinoy’s pantry list for many generations. To go back to the first question, does using salmon in sinigang in a foreign soil make it less “authentic”? Cooking, in any country or culture, is making the most in whatever is available locally, and then adapting it to the taste (panlasa) one grew up with.
BL: What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
BL: What is your favorite Filipino dish?
CT: Pork humba.
BL: What’s the biggest misconception about Filipino food?
CT: That it’s all brown and oily.
BL: What’s the biggest obstacle for Filipino food being appreciated around the world?
CT: It’s us Filipinos who’s to blame. We are our own worst critics. Though we love our own native food, we tend to overlook it when dining out in a restaurant. It’s what I call the adobo syndrome. “Ay, why eat out and pay so much if our adobo at home is far better”, is a very common attitude with Pinoys when choosing which restaurant to go. Pinoy cuisine is never considered as a “special occasion” food, perhaps because we have it every day? The adobo syndrome is so true in the Filipino communities in the US. No Fil-Am will pay more than $10 for a Filipino meal, mostly in a turo-turo setting. Anything more upscale than that will be shunned. That’s the reason why upscale Filipino restaurants in the US and elsewhere don’t last long. “Why spend so much if we can do it better at home” is the usual reason. Can they really?
BL: Adobo. Salt or soy?
CT: Does it matter? I think the root cause of all this “misunderstanding” is our usage of the term “adobo”. We all talk about it but we actually have different images in our minds. Adobo is a technique, rather than a singular recipe/dish. In the Filipino context, adobo generally refers to the chicken/pork stew simmered in vinegar and garlic. It is perhaps the country’s most popular dish, spawning countless variants that it is inaccurate to call it as a singular dish. To say there are 7,100 recipes of our adobo is an understatement – there are as many kinds of adobo as there are households. Treating adobo as a cooking technique will give us a better understanding of its nature. It is the braising of any meat (chicken, pork, beef, quail, duck, venison, seafood, etc.) or vegetable (kangkong, okra, mushrooms, etc.) in vinegar, garlic, black peppercorn and bay leaf, with regional variations or personal preferences of adding soy sauce (from the Chinese), atsuete (Mexican achiote or annatto), onion, coconut cream, lemongrass or turmeric. It can be made like a saucy stew, or thickened with chicken liver, or the cooked adobo meat pulled apart to be deep fried into crispy flakes. It is this versatility that makes it the most popular and well-loved Filipino comfort food.
BL: I love this quote from Doreen Fernandez and think of it often: “Traditional ways are wonderful; but new ways, when applied with understanding and sensitivity, can create a dish anew – without betraying the tradition.” How do we create new dishes without betraying tradition? Where is the line drawn?
CT: For the record, it was Glenda Barretto of Via Mare who first served crispy abobo flakes way back in 1975. It was such a novelty back then when it first came out, but it caught on and became part of the adobo tradition. Is it any less “authentic”?
In our new book Linamnam, we’ve discussed how such iconic dishes (i.e. Pampanga sisig, Ilocos empanada, Batangas bulalo, Lipa City lomi, Bicol express, Iloilo’s batchoy, steak ala pobre, salpicao, to name a few) started. It all boils down to one person “inventing” it. Then it catches on and everybody copies it in the community, the province, then the whole country, becoming part of the national “tradition” over time. This is true in every country in the world.
BL: Hypothetically speaking, let’s say an idiot food blogger was given the opportunity to write and publish a Filipino cookbook. What advice would you give to this idiot food blogger?
CT: You must first identify your target market, which I presume are the Fil-Ams and Americans. Its title then must be “Filipino cuisine in the American kitchen”. This way, the question of “authenticity” will not be an issue.