May 21, 2012

Our ‘palangga’ Chef Pauline

‘PALANGGA” means beloved, darling, or dear in the Visayan dialect. And there’s nothing closest to my heart than Ilonggo cuisine, and its primary purveyor in Manila, Chef Pauline Gorriceta-Banusing.

Chef Pauline Gorriceta Banusing explains the elements of Ilonggo cuisine.

I met Chef Pauline during last year’s Ilonggo food festival at the Mandarin Oriental Manila and was just wowed by her cooking. Nothing impresses me more than Pinoy chefs who can cook authentic Filipino (or regional) dishes really well. No more Pinoy fusion, ek-ek arte stuff, please! (And seriously, after all that rich, fat, foie gras-stuffed duck breast or edamame and pomegranate-infused pasta salads, we still come home to our traditional Filipino comfort foods like inihaw na baboy, sinigang na baka, or tortang talong, right?)

Chef Pauline got into cooking when she went home to Iloilo, after graduating from her Social Science degree from the Ateneo de Manila University. Her father had passed away by then and and she helped her mom run the latter’s fastfood and ice cream house chain called “Try Me!!!”

“At the time, we had 12 branches. Because of this experience, it dawned upon me that I really loved to be in the food and restaurant industry. Working hands-on in my mom’s restaurants showed me the reality that running a restaurant is not glamorous at all, but really hard work. I went to study abroad because I had this ambitious vision that I wanted to change the culinary scene.”

She confesses that she was not really into Ilonggo cuisine when she started cooking some 15 years ago. “Honestly, I did not know how to cook Ilonggo food. I just refused to learn. Kasi your maid will cook it, ’di ba? And hindi sosyal, and you always want to be sosyal,” she giggles at the recollection.

In fact, when she was studying at the Culinary Institute of America for her two-year course, she says she cooked sotanghon guisado and adobo, for the school’s international food festival!

When she returned to Iloilo after that CIA stint, she put up an Italian restaurant called Al Dente at the Sarabia Manor Hotel and Convention Center, which is still around to this day. Knowing the Ilonggos (my family hails from nearby Roxas City), this probably made many think her as buang (crazy).

“They thought it would last only for a year or so, since Ilonggos are very picky with food. I had to be focused and humble to reach my goal and luckily, I succeeded,” says the ever-amiable Chef Pauline. (Since then, she has opened other restaurants in Iloilo as well, such as the Maki Japanese Restaurant, Villa Regatta, 101 Luna and Steps of Rome, and conceptualized the menu for Freska here in Manila).

Kansi (tender beef shanks in a broth soured with batuan seeds. It's like sinigang na baka, or bulalo.)

As her culinary talent became more well-known, she was hired to do caterings by private companies, local governments and politicians. “[They] would hire me as their caterer and they wanted to impress their guests with our local cuisine. That started it all. So I said to myself that if I had to do it, I had to do it right and it had to be good. I didn’t want to pretend to know something that I don’t and just come up with something mediocre. So I had to learn by asking, researching and experimenting.”

She adds that she’s been fortunate in this regard because these traditional cooks have been very generous in sharing their recipes with her. “I’m just so lucky. Every time I ask this person who makes this dish well, he/she teaches me. I ask these traditional cooks, ‘How do you do this?’ I have to be honest. I tell them I want to make it well. I don’t want to make it commercialized. They’ll teach you. You just have to ask them how to make it,” says Chef Pauline.

Using only the freshest ingredients and following recipes handed down through generations from several families, Chef Pauline weaves her magic and offers up the most delightful dishes that are sure to perk up your palate, fill your tummy, and warm your heart.

Her kansi, for instance, is just to die for. During a recent media lunch to preview her dishes for an upcoming food festival, I headed straight for the steaming pot of kansi at the buffet table. The beef was so tender, and the broth just had the right hint of sourness—a soup that just fills your soul! Of course, I just had to have two bowls of that.

Lobo-lobo (Local anchovy cooked in tuba, sugar, tomatoes, and garlic, and wraped in banana leaf)

There were oysters from Aklan, diwal (angel wings) clams from Capiz that were fresh and plump, as well as prawns also from Capiz which she served with a heart-stopping aligue (crab fat) sauce. Mmmmm.

Another favorite was the kinilawin na tanigue (Spanish mackerel ceviche), where Chef Pauline used tuba (coconut vinegar) to give the dish some light sweet notes. A new find for me was the lobo-lobo, tiny anchovy-like fish akin to the dulong in Luzon which she cooked in tuba, sugar, tomatoes, and garlic, and served wrapped in a banana leaf. I ate it, atchara-style, pampaalis-suya to my rather gut-busting meal.

She says her only regret is that she hasn’t learned to make the suman and other native delicacies that Iloilo is known for. “They just don’t want to teach me,” she said of the original makers. Well, no matter, your meal at the foodfest will still end on a high note once you get a taste of her Yema Cake. It’s rich and sweet, with some crunchy bits that will gladden your sweet tooth.

What makes Ilonggo cuisine distinctive, she explains, is the use of batuan seeds as souring agent, and the sinamak (spiced coconut vinegar). Most Ilonggo dishes cannot be cooked without either of those two ingredients.

“This Ilonggo food festival is special to me since I had proved that Iloilo food is so loved by many, not just by Ilonggos. Therefore, I am no longer hesitant to introduce other Ilonggo dishes that would seem rather too ‘native’ for others. All throughout the festival, I will be using this tul-tol salt that I got from Guimaras—it’s a slab of homemade rock salt. The salt is made from seawater mixed with small amount of coconut cream, then boiled for day in a vat until it produces a hardened rock salt. I’ve been told to make the dishes for the festival as authentic as possible, so I decided for this year to have everything—even the salt, vinegar and honey—from Western Visayas.”

Lukon na may aligue (Prawns with crab fat sauce)

After doing a number of food fests here in Manila, she says she has an “idea” already of what the public wants and expects from an Ilonggo festival. “But at the same time, I am more confident now in introducing other dishes that may seem very new for non-Ilonggos. For example, I’m bringing the lowly sidewalk lobo-lobo delicacy to a five-star hotel and making it look and taste good. Just expect the unexpected. What makes my Ilonggo cooking different from the rest is that I adhere to healthy cooking and using healthy ingredients. Nothing too fatty, nothing too rich, nothing too deadly. [Laughs] Everything’s just right.”

Chef Pauline says she will also be highlighting the traditional method of drying seafood, or lamayo. “Before, Iloilo used to harvest lots of seafood. What did they do with the excess? Well, they put calamansi and soy sauce, then dried the seafood under the sun for 24 hours. After that, you can fry it; it’s so good!” she enthuses. Namit! (Delicious!)

When in Iloilo, what keeps our bubbly chef occupied are her restaurants, her catering service which specializes in all kinds of cuisine, and of course her family. Chef Pauline is married to Gus Palmares Banusing, a businessman “now busy training for Ironman Philippines 2012!” She lets out a laugh. They have two bright-eyed kids named Justin and Nadine.

The Ilonggo food festival “Diwal and Other Ilonggo Flavors” will be from May 25 to June 3, available for lunch and dinner, at the Paseo Uno, Mandarin Oriental Manila. For information, call 750-8888 or e-mail

(My column Something Like Life is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on May 18, 2012. All photos copyrighted by this blogger.)

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