Eat Your Way Through Philippine History: XO 46 Bistro’s Heritage Lunch and Dinner Serves Our Local History on PlatesApril 3, 2020
During my years at university, there would be times when I considered History to be one of my absolute favorite classes, but there were other times when I would treat it like a plague. There would be days when I would come to class being all Tracy Flick, sit in front center, jot down notes like they were the last words I would ever encounter, give nods of approval and annoying know-it-all ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. In case you wondered: yes, my classmates detested me. But in an opposite light, there would also be days when I’d avoid history class and play Left 4 Dead instead, or sit at the back and cram my math homework. Obviously, I had a rather bipolar approach to the subject depending on my teenage mood swings and short attention span (it really was).
Tomorrow we celebrate our 117th year of independence. And though we’ve had our fair share of captors and colonizers who’ve come and gone, what I’d like to thank them for is the indelible mark they’ve left on our shores, primarily in terms of flavor and food. XO 46 Heritage Bistro, I believe, is a restaurant that deserves more attention. If you’ve got the time and bit of cash to spare, check out their “Philippines on a Plate” tasting menu that explores the different flavors that have created a significant impact on our local cuisine. We sat down with Sandee Masigan, one of XO 46 Heritage Bistro’s owners as she guides us through each item on the tasting menu that she created hand-in-hand with head chef Tanya Dizon. It’s an edible food tour integrating history and leaving you with a very satisfied belly.
We started off with four bite-sized servings that summarize our food heritage: Pasag Yang Manok, Torta de Chorizo with olive oil, tomatoes, and garlic, Bihud (Philippine Caviar) Canapes, and Chinese Hakaw in Seafood Sauce to highlight some of strongest culinary influences and flavors: Spanish, Indonesian, Malay, and Chinese. “This tasting menu is a progression of our culinary history,” says Sandee. “The earliest settlers of our islands were the Afro-Asiatic and Austro-Aborigines who arrived by way of land bridges from Africa. Soon followed by Malayo-Polynesians from the pacific islands, they were succeeded by the Proto-Malays and then the Duerto-Malays who came from Indo-China. This was around 1000 BC. “Different parts of the Philippines, in a way, show different times of our history,” she continues. “Up north, you’ve got earthier flavors, while down south, you see a lot of coconut,” she explains as our second course, a Kinilaw Quadro is served. Food archaeologists believe that our country’s earliest ancestors had already perfected the art of ‘kilaw’ or a method of cooking that uses acid, which was taken from fermented juices and saps that eventually turned into vinegar, fruit extracts, and distilled liquors later on. This dish displays our ancestors’ sophistication in the art of kinilaw. The four versions include a Kinilaw na Tangigue (Philippine mackerel) using sea salt and citrus, a Kinilaw na Kambing (goat) using sea salt, palm vinegar, and turmeric, Kinilaw na Tahong (mussles) using coconut strips, coconut milk, and palm vinegar, and Kinilaw na Dilis (Pacific anchovies) using sea salt and tuba (coconut wine).
Next, we were served an Inihaw na Kalabaw. Flame-charred slabs of water buffalo smoked to a perfect medium-rare with coconut husks are served on a salad bed of ripe mangoes, coconuts, and beans—this dish is a more refined interpretation of a tribal meal. History shows us that our earliest settlers ate whatever was available in their environment. This usually comprised of leaves, tendrils, a few bulbs, seeds, and fruits that were foraged from forests and streams. Protein came in the form of seafood, wild boar, deer, bats, iguanas, and even wildcats. Insects were also a huge part of their diets; the popular suspects being mole crickets, June beetles, and locusts. Fossil evidence also suggests one of the more common cooking methods was done through open-pit roasting, with the meats scantly seasoned with salt and turmeric. Perhaps, the mother flavor of Filipino cuisine is ‘sour’ as acid was one of the most common cooking methods of our ancestors. Some examples are paksiw, kilawin, and sinigang, which is a comfort dish in its own right. To ‘sigang’ means to boil vegetables and proteins in sour broth, and XO 46’s take on sinigang uses grouper and santol (cottonfruit) as its main ingredients for the dish. Tamarind is the more common flavoring agent of sinigang, and green mangoes, guavas, dalandan, dayap, and even duhat as alternatives. The intent of serving this dish in a very simple manner is purposely done to underscore the art of ‘food styling’—it was not a concept embraced by our forefathers, but rather, a tradition borne out of royalty. Not much has changed with how sinigang has been prepared throughout the generations, so the way we enjoy it now is pretty much as good as it gets!
There is proof that the Chinese showed us some tips on how to propagate rice (through the rice terraces) and raise ducks. For the fifth course, we were served some Soy Duck with Mushroom Vermicelli. The Chinese did not colonize us, but we have been consistently trading spices and sharing cultures with them since 3200 BC until this day. This dish showcases the strong influence of the Chinese on our cuisine. From them, we have adapted the use of soy sauce, tokwa, togue (mungbean sprouts), and of course, duck! An ingenious rendition of wild boar kare-kare makes its way to our table for the sixth course. Cooked binagoongan style (with shrimp paste), this dish serves as an embodiment of our undeniable cultural connection with Indonesia and Malaysia. Just like China, no colonization happened, but their influence on us was strong. From them, we have absorbed the use of bagoong (shrimp paste), patis (fish sauce), as well as cooking methods that involve coconuts and peanuts (like Rendang!). Also, the technique of food preservation by means of wrapping them in banana or coconut leaves, known as ‘puso’ or ‘suman’ in our language, is known in the Malaysian dialect as ketupat.
A simple corn mill salad aims to highlight Mexico’s influence on our shores. Trading with them was more common than trading with the Spanish, which was why we are so exposed to corn and the tingling flavors of bell peppers. Despite their being Mexican in nature, these ingredients found their way to the Philippines by means of the Spanish Armada through the Galleon Trade. Even today, the harmony between the Filipinos and Mexicans can be seen in the town of Coyuca on Costa Grande, north of Acapulco. Coyuca is also known as ‘El Barrio Filipino’ or ‘Filipino Town’, for the many Filipino settlers who remained in Mexico long after the Galleon trade.
For the eighth course, we were served a Bacalao Estofado y Arroz Saffron. The Basque region in Spain is known for its salted cod, and of course, one cannot separate saffron from its Spanish roots. Despite our history with the Spanish, their contributions and influences to our civilization—especially to our culinary scene—cannot be denied.
And then came the Americans who introduced us to lard-fried chicken perfection, the infallible Golden Arches, and of course, grilled cheese and Spam. XO 46 decided to slap the latter two together into this addictive sandwich that you will always find room in your stomach for. After their colonial period ending in 1946, the Philippines finally came out as a self-governing republic. So if ever you wondered where XO 46 got its name, then this answers your question! To cap off our meal, we were served a slice of Sweet Potato Pie with Coconut Sauce. Sandee tells us that one amazing attribute of the Philippines is that it has proven itself strong and resistant to inter-mixing. “The proof is that many of our indigenous dishes like Sinigang, Kilawin, and Paksiw have stayed the way they are despite the strong influences from the Chinese, Malays, Spanish, and Americans.” On the contrary, though, there are a lot of dishes from foreign origin that have been localized using our very own influences. Chow Mien has become Pancit Palabok, Kare-Kare could be said to be our version of Beef Rendang, and we also have Bringhe, which is our take on Paella. “The result of this is a cuisine that has been enriched, rather than bastardized,” Sandee tells me. “Through the centuries, our cuisine has really been keeping its unique character, integrity, and dynamism.”
My favorite history professor (no, I did not cut his classes…maybe just once), told us during the first day of class that what’s great about history is that it helps us remember and it teaches us not to commit the same mistakes. This is why his exams were always divided into two parts: Objective (year, dates, etc—which I would always fail) and Essay (learnings, etc). I heard he is teaching a Game of Thrones class now, and that’s pretty rad of him. But what if your history class came in an edible format, right? We all have learning styles, but eating seems to be the most effective one for me. Eating, they say, helps you remember things better because it engages all your senses—that, or maybe I’m really just a bonafide pig. XO 46’s Heritage Tasting Menu is definitely a great way to revisit our culture by way of gastronomy. In line of celebrating our country’s independence, why not try this very educational (and very delicious) dining experience for a change?
Have you tried XO46 Bistro’s Heritage Tasting Menu? What was your favorite course? Tell us about your experience with a comment below!
*We had our XO 46 Bistro Heritage Lunch at their Century City Mall branch. For inquiries and reservations, please call +6325568143. Kindly inform the restaurant staff 24 hours in advance. Cost per head is PHP 3,200 and PHP 4,700 inclusive of wine pairing.
XO 46 Heritage Bistro
Address: Century City Mall, Kalayaan Ave. cor Salamanca St., Brgy. Poblacion, Makati