Until recently, the only Filipino food I’d ever eaten was in the woods in northern BC, and in a kitchen in Italy.
My first taste of this southeast Asian cuisine was when a tree-planter I’d cooked for made this beautiful dish to say thank you to the kitchen for our hard work. Dee had somehow managed to prepare it entirely over a campfire, and it was smoky and wonderful. She’s half-Filipino, half-Italian, and entirely resourceful.
My second foray into Filipino food was courtesy of my friend Reena, whom I studied with at UNISG. On several occasions she cooked for our entire class, and made an enormous batch of lumpias to have with our Thanksgiving feast.
When a Filipino/Chinese restaurant in Richmond called Little Ongpin was recommended to me, I consulted Reena for some advice on what to expect. She, as usual, replied with such a poetically-written email I considered framing it and hanging it on my wall. Here’s some of what she had to say:
Prepare yourself for anything on your plate! This cuisine comes from a “waste not, want not” culture, so you my come across some rather extreme edible encounters from fish head soup and chopped offal in a bile based broth (“papaitan” just as a forewarning), to balut (a boiled duck fetus still in its egg). Now I don’t want to have you convulse in nauseous shivers, as there are also the simple exquisites fresh from the sea, and the desserts can be both a creamy and sticky delight as well as exotically refreshing.
Plates are served family style, the presentation is not necessarily on the top of the list, and the atmosphere is always warm and comfortably casual. As with all asian cuisine, freshness, texture, and most of all the natural flavor should linger with umami-ness like the warmth of sun-soaked skin long after a day spent at the seaside. The spices, herbs, and fermented sauces and bases are like satin, which only enhance the senses. Here are some common favorites:
- Lumpia – a swaddle of minced meat and veggies made fresh served with a peanut sauce or made fried served with a sweet chili sauce
- Pancit – rice noodles with meat and mixed vegetables
- Palabok – rice noodles with shrimp and topped with ground fried pork skin, slices of boiled egg, spring onion, and a squeeze of lemon
- Adobo – regarded as the national dish; made of seafood, meat, poultry or a combination of both in a tangy soy sauce base
- Kare-kare – stew of oxtail and tripe with vegetables in a peanut base
- Halo-halo – YOU’LL LOVE THIS. A goblet packed with shaved ice, drizzled with evaporated milk, jack fruit, palm fruit, ube (purple sweet yam) and beans
- Leche flan
I also garnered some suggestions from Mary Ann, my wonderful nurse at the Canadian Blood Services clinic a few weeks ago. She wrote her suggestions on a band-aid (I kid you not) and insisted I try Kare-Kare. Armed with the advice of these two women, I headed to Little Ongpin for dinner with my friends Ellisa and Jill.
First off, I have to say I felt more welcomed in this restaurant than any other I’ve been to so far. The atmosphere was inviting and convivial, and our servers treated us like family.
We ordered the fried Lumpia, Tuna with Pork Belly, Palabok, Green Beans with Pumpkin and Shrimp in Coconut Sauce, Kare-Kare, rice, an order of Halo-Halo, and ended up with enough food for about twelve people. Only after we ate did we learn each dish serves “3-4.” Alrighty then! We decided not to get the Adobo because I’ve already tried it, and we wanted to include some vegetables with our meal instead.
Dipped in a smokey sweet/sour sauce, the lumpias were crunchy, flavourful, and finished off in record time. The Tuna with Pork Belly was interesting; served at room temperature, it had a sour, vinegary dressing that ‘cooked’ the tuna like a ceviche and pickled the onions, cucumbers, fresh ginger, and peppers. I’ve never had anything like it, and really enjoyed it.
The dish with green beans, pumpkin, shrimp, and coconut milk was simple and extraordinarily good. The sauce was just as Reena had advised – like satin.
The serving portion of the Palabok was large, with softer noodles than I’d expected and overall, quite a mild taste. It was salted by a layer of crunchy shrimp on top, but overall it was just a bit too plain for me.
I preferred the Kare-Kare, which had slices of oxtail, tripe, eggplant, and various vegetables mixed with a thick, rich, peanut-ty gravy.
But now, to the most entertaining part of the meal: the Halo-Halo. Upon seeing this colourful tower, I could only describe it as “the Disneyland of Desserts.” There was a LOT going on here, which makes sense since the name means “mix-mix.” There was taro ice cream, candied coconut slices, taro paste, red jello, cubes of caramel flan, shaved ice, condensed milk, and all kinds of candied fruit and beans. It’s not something you’d ever see Martha Stewart make, which makes it all the more awesome. The whole dessert matched Ellisa’s shirt perfectly, which we were obviously pretty excited about.
Our bill came to $67.48, which included one Sago at Gulaman (a kind of bubble tea). If you’re up for trying something new, I’d definitely suggest Little Ongpin. This is such a friendly place, and while the classics of Filipino cuisine might take some getting used to, it’s a fun adventure! Thanks to Dee, Reena, Mary Ann, Ellisa, Jill, and the wonderful staff at the restaurant for making my first experiences with Filipino food so, so wonderful.