Your Pinoy Christmas Menu
By Beatrice S. Paez
There’s only room for one hog in the family. And it’s not the scene-stealing lechon (roasted suckling pig) that will throw your heart into overdrive. If there’s one dish that makes an appearance every year at Mila Nabor-Cuachon’s holiday dinner, it’s her late mother’s Christmas ham.
“Ham was the one thing my mom made well,” says Nabor-Cuachon, who owns Casa Manila, a crowd-pleasing Filipino restaurant in North York. “I didn’t realize the ham she made was a traditional Filipino [recipe] until I bought the restaurant.”
Growing up in Canada, she rarely craved Filipino food, finding it too oily and salty for her taste. Her mother preferred to cook dishes from other cultures, and to satisfy any nostalgic pangs for their native cuisine, they relied on takeout joints. A trip to a Filipino restaurant usually triggered a collective groan and protests from Nabor-Cuachon and her sister.
A complete turnaround happened when she visited the Philippine in her twenties and was exposed to the country’s culinary diversity. Gone were the images she had of Filipino food encased in a silver container, kept warm with a heat lamp, and swimming in oil and murky brown liquid.
Little did she know then that, decades later, she would run a Filipino restaurant. Since taking control of Casa Manila three years ago, Nabor-Cuachon has transformed it into place where Filipino families and people from other cultures can congregate and sample classic Filipino comfort food.
“Filipino [food] was misrepresented to me as a child, I believe it’s better represented today,” she says. “You have to tweak it a bit, without losing its authenticity. It can’t all be brown.”
Among Casa Manila’s prized offerings for the holiday season is the glazed ham with pineapple and maraschino cherries, based on a recipe similar that of Nabor-Cuachon’s mother.
Not to be missed too are its embutido, chicken or milkfish (bangus) relleno, queso de bola and lechon manok, which will be on offer until the end of the month. The relleno is an all-time favourite of the season, says Nabor-Cuachon, even if it involves a labour-intensive process where you have to de-bone the chicken, shred it and put it back together as though it hadn’t been touched.
While at Casa Manila, you may want to keep an eye out for Nabor-Cuachon’s upcoming line of gourmet sauces, low in salt and with no preservatives, which she developed in collaboration with students and chefs at George Brown College’s Food Innovation & Research Studio (FIRSt).
She plans to debut her kare kare and adobo sauces by year’s end, and hopes they will make their way into the pantries of non-Filipino Canadians as well — to flavour their favourite vegetables or meat, without necessarily sticking to the original recipe. This way, other Canadians can grow to appreciate the flavours of Filipino cuisine, she says.
Another restaurant looking to position itself as a destination for the whole family (and friends) is a direct transplant from the Philippines. The newly opened, Original Barrio Fiesta, has an abundant selection of holiday favourites.
Almost everything you could possibly wish for makes an appearance on the menu — lechon manok, pancit canton, kare kare beef, buko pandan and puto bumbong.
Pork lovers, however, will be shocked to note that there’s no trace of crispy pata or lechon kawali or ham on the menu. The franchise is taking the Halal route to diversify its clientele, beyond serving Filipino families, says Bunny Malik, the owner.
He says their crispy beef ribs, which are cooked in the same style, as crispy pata are just as good.
Malik, who is of South Asian descent, but is married to a Filipina, knows his way around the kitchen as well and can make sinigang with shrimp that rivals his wife’s. Otherwise, he says she cooks most of the Filipino food that they serve at home. Through her, he developed a love for Filipino food, saying that it has so much to offer, whether you’re in the mood for noodles, spring rolls, stew or seafood.
“We want to take Filipino cuisine to another level, make it more popular for everyone,” he explains.
John DeBlois, a young Filipino-Canadian, can relate to that imperative, save for their pork-free menu. As the man behind Tocino Boys, a food stand open only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from the evening until after hours for the midnight crowd, pork and poutine is the only salvation when you’re craving a warm snack in the wee hours.
While Tocino Boys lean towards the younger crowd, it caters birthdays and other special occasions.
DeBlois’ winter menu is still stocked with fan favourites, like Supreme Supreme (fit for anyone training for a meat-eating contest), a soft milk bread toasted on the grill with garlic butter, smothered with mustard mayo and layered with peameal bacon, smoked bacon, chicken bacon, tocino, longanisa and garnished with chicharon. Other midnight snacks include tocino tacos, poutine and a cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich with Nutella.
“I try to be a good modern-day ambassador for Filipino food, helping Torontonians enjoy tocino and longanisa,” says DeBlois. “I try to create a menu as familiar as possible, but still keeping tocino or longanisa as the main ingredient so that Canadians can enjoy something Pinoy and not be scared of what they’re eating.”
As much as DeBlois is a pork lover to the bone, Christmas Eve dinner would feel incomplete without his Aunt Liz’s bowl of batchoy, made with beef, a soup that originated from the market of La Paz in Iloilo City, where his family’s roots lie.
“Since it’s a cold Christmas, it’s only right that we start with our favourite bowl of soup,” he says.