Cindy Yara: Catering Food Insiders TrustDecember 11, 2016
“Cindy has been our family’s go-to caterer for as long as I can remember,” says the eponymous Jin Perez of Jin Loves to Eat. Her favorite dishes include the lamb shank in Merlot gravy and Cindy’s signature brookies, which as you may have guessed, is a cross between a brownie and a cookie.
Cindy walked into our studio with three platters of food good for ten (we were only four, go figure), not including her cookies. Unlike most people who learned to cook experimenting with pinches and cups, Cindy found her way around the kitchen with her grandmother preparing large quantities for celebrations. Vats, not pots, came naturally to her.
She ripped the foil off the party trays to reveal three dishes hailing from different regions: soy braised pork belly, stewed lamb shank, and chicken masala. In catered food, most customers demand diversity to suit the tastes of every imaginable guest so this jarring mix worked out for her. Each dish, she says, represented different aspects of her life. Chinese food has always been her birthright and culture, Mediterranean flavors her personal preference, and Indian food? It came as a surprise.
She had her first stint cooking Indian food after a friend asked her to cater to a group of Indians who only wanted to eat what they grew up with: Indian food. Inexperienced, she presented her very own Chicken Masala—and the crowd loved it. “They came up to me and told me it was like their mom’s home cooked meal,” she says, “That’s one of the highest honors you can get.” She added this to her catering rotation right away.
Every Chinese grandmother hides a masterful pork belly dish, so Cindy does one naturally. Appearing in several Taiwanese and Chinese staples, braised pork belly usually appears dark brown to deep black from the soy sauce, and leaks an aromatic fragrance from mushrooms and spices like star anise or cinnamon. A quick way to gauge if the braising process wasn’t cheated is to observe how glue-like the sauce sticks to the pork—and just look at it. I tore into it, and as expected, the meat fell off gracefully. But it wasn’t over-braised—it still resisted and had a satisfying gnaw that lets your teeth know when you’re chewing fat versus pork meat. The flavors came out sweet, salty, and deep as the eight hours spent in the pot show why they matter.
The lamb came next. As someone who grew up with traditional folks who refused to venture beyond the holy trinity of pork, beef, and chicken, I light up whenever I see lamb on the table, especially a visceral cut like shank. Because of its relative unpopularity, lamb usually gets the plated treatment in most restaurants in Manila. Chefs just love it, but most people don’t, so there’s always an effort to dress it up. Cindy’s lamb doesn’t attempt to walk the red carpet and does what it’s supposed to do: make you taste the lamb. This version highlights the meat’s inherent gamey flavor while adding a bittersweet flavor from the sauce, and a springy bite from the mushrooms. Like the pork belly, the meat slides without stubbornness.
Traditionally, you don’t cook chicken masala with the skin on, but Cindy leaves it there anyway. While she didn’t explain her irreverent decision, you’re probably thinking what we’re thinking: who doesn’t love chicken skin? While it lacks a deep-fried crunch, the added fat still helps. The rest of the protein sits in the rich sauce, balanced in flavor, and vibrating with brightness from the colors and spices.
Now, what you’ll notice about all of Cindy’s dishes is that they swim in lakes of sauce. This is important. When you think of catering food, an arid wasteland pretending to be a buffet table comes to mind: soggy fried chicken sweating in its own drippings, sweet spaghetti with a dried top that you can’t pull apart without lifting a serving for ten, and a “crispy” lechon with a skin that bites like wet oslo paper. In catering, more sauce means less suffering—and more rice.
Cindy considers these details when serving people. She has always believed that the quality of her food and experience of her customers trump all. And while there’s always been a temptation to cut corners or undercut the competition, she just won’t. With years enduring and thriving in the cutthroat catering business, Cindy sure knows how to run one.
Cindy Yara’s HOmecooked Gourmet
A local catering service food insiders turn to serves Mediterranean, Chinese, and Indian fare.