SINIGANG, UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Manila, August 4, 2003 TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag (STAR) No week passes that I do not receive text messages or calls from friends asking me for recommendations to restaurants. My stock answer is: "It’s depend" (sic). But seriously, my answer would really depend on what the occasion is or what type of food they have in mind. I don’t know if I should be flattered that they regard me as an authority on matters of food, or that they imagine I do nothing else but eat, eat and eat! If most men’s junk mails are from car dealers and banks, mine are mostly from hotels and restaurants announcing their latest promotions, luring me with their food offerings. As if naman I go around town with a bottomless pit of a stomach.

Actually, one of my major considerations why I willingly leave my blissful domestic life here in Angeles City, not to mention having to brave the traffic on the North Luzon Depressway… er, Expressway, and the metropolis is the promise of a good meal. When Mary Ann and I were newly married, I did the driving to Manila to do errands, to address business matters or to attend social functions. Not that I particularly enjoy the driving, but in exchange for the agony of going through the Depressway, I get to have quality time with my wife. And that makes the whole trip bearable – at least I’m kept entertained and awake with her nonstop yakking. And the highlight of our day? We reward ourselves with a good meal. Thus, when we go to bed the night before a trip, we already know exactly where to eat in the big city.

Oftentimes, it will be at places recommended by fellow foodies or what we read about in the papers. But there are times when we will be in our try-anything-new mood. It is a hit-or-miss exercise, really. Often enough, it’s a hit and brings out pleasant discoveries.

One day many moons ago, we had a long and busy day at our lifestyle shop ABouT Design in Greenbelt 3. We were both craving for homecooked kind of food. You know, the comfort foods that bring you known pleasures to ease the stress. But, we were in a mall and that would indeed be a test. So, with nothing particular in mind, we marched to the second floor of Greenbelt 3. Boy, were we faced with so many eateries of all kinds of persuasions, the multiple choices adding to my stress!

Now, what and where? asked Mary Ann.

Let’s look around, I suggested.

If we don’t decide in 10 minutes, we’ll head to the food court, she volunteered.

Oh no, that will mean more choices, I said as I looked around.

Right smack in the middle of the hall, there was a long queue outside Sentro 1771, which caught our attention. That in itself was already a good sign the food must be good. And I noticed the people queueing were mostly office people in their 40s. But what pulled us in was their house specialty, sinigang na corned beef short ribs.

If there is anything my wife and I both enjoy, it is sinigang. We love it. We miss it when we’re traveling, and we have it at least twice a week at home. In fact, I think this is true of most Pinoys, who are champions of sour foods. As the late Doreen Fernandez wrote in her book Palayok: "Sinigang I consider the quintessential, the signature, perhaps the national Philippine dish. It is found almost nationwide under various names (tinowa in Cebu, cocido in Bicol), on the tables of rich or poor, because it is so flexible. It can be made with almost any fish (small, large), meat or vegetable (radish, eggplant, kangkong, mustard greens). And it is soured with innumerable nuances by elements from our landscape: Sampaloc fruits, flowers, leaves and tendrils; kamias, green mangoes, green guavas, green pineapples, alibangbang leaves, batuan, tomatoes, calamansi, and more." It is to Pinoys what chicken soup is to Westeners. It is our No. 1 comfort food.

As a norm, we don’t usually order sinigang in restaurants for the simple reason that it is best eaten at home, as it can be cooked to the degree of sourness to suit one’s standard. It is a risky business. Sinigang, though a very popular dish common to both rich and poor, is a very personal matter. Mary Ann and I are perfect examples. At home, when I cook sinigang, I divide the broth into halves towards the end and intensify the other half with more kamias or sampaloc. That is for her who will not have it any other way except intensely sour. The tempered one ends up mine as I like it just umaagaw-asim. Now, tell me how can we have sinigang in a restaurant?

But we both want its comfort and the thought of it with corned beef sounds promising enough.

Okay, let’s give it a try, I suggested.

Bahala na who will be the lucky one, she answered, while she murmured a prayer, hoping it will come out super asim.

A few minutes after giving our orders, the waitress came back with an espresso cup on a tray.

What’s this?, I asked, thinking it was a mistake.

Oh no, sir, it’s for you to try and approve first the sourness of the sinigang, she said.

Wow, parang wine connoisseur ang feeling ko, exclaimed Mary Ann, quite impressed. She tried it and asked the lady to add more asim.

I had a spoonful myself and thought it was perfect. We looked at each other and agreed to have two separate orders to please both our clashing palates. Now, what can be a more personalized sinigang than that?

While enjoying our bowls of sinigang, we both wondered why no one has ever mentioned Sentro to us. Could it be because sinigang is considered so ordinary and commonplace?

But Sentro’s sinigang is anything but ordinary. For one, nobody has ever thought of using corned beef for sinigang. Traditionally a kosher dish, slices of corned beef slab are served with boiled potatoes and cabbage, with horseradish and mustard on the side. Or made into a sandwich with rye bread. (This is not to be confused with its more popular canned version, which is shredded and served with garlic rice and egg, revered by Filipinos as breakfast fare.)

Sentro’s corned beef short ribs sinigang is falling-off-the-bones tender and is served with plenty of kangkong, sitaw, talong and okra and is kept hot on a fondue warmer.

Needless to say, Mary Ann and I were both hooked on it. And for those who are non-meat eaters, an all-vegetable sinigang is available.

On succeeding visits, we’ve tried another bestseller, Rated GG, where the lady chef Vicky Reyes Pacheco (of the Aristocrat clan) has taken the lowly galunggong to a higher level by filleting and frying it in garlic oil and then topping with toasted garlic. A hefty pica-pica platter has an assortment of sesame barbecued chicken wings, thinly sliced Macao chorizo, bangus spring rolls, and marinated beef tips. Its tomato-kesong puti salad is a must try, too. It has generous amounts of white cheese in two guises – fresh and thinly sliced, and deep fried breaded cubes nestling on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes, sprinkled with a tomato-anchovy dressing.

And for those who like sisig but not the guilt, try the sizzling tofu. Parang sisig ang dating. The boneless crispy trotter (pata) was tender and juicy, but too civilized for me. I missed the struggling and bone nibbling I am used to.

Sentro has other tempting dishes. Its ginisang adobo has both pork and beef mixed together, stewed with atsuete and then fried, and finally topped with lots of toasted garlic. The Pinoy roast chicken is stuffed with tanglad and garlic, and served whole sitting on a metal rack, ready to be attacked with bare hands, or chopped to pieces upon request.

Dessert choices are out of the ordinary. According to the manager, the most popular one is the coffee bean sans rival, but Mary Ann, a sucker for anything sour, opted for the lemon meringue torte. It came with thin layers of crisp meringue and pastry, lemon filling and whipped cream. And she swears by it. (What is it with women and dessert? No matter how full they say they are, they always have room for dessert.) My crème brulée was perfect, a chilled light and silky custard with a thin caramelized brittle surface.

Their coffee is brewed and served per individual order in an Italian espresso stove top maker. The coffee is undoubtedly fresh and very good. But the downside is it takes a while to prepare it. The dessert is gone by the time coffee arrives.

A tip dedicated to the women out there: Advise the waitress to serve the two at the same time. The desserts are so damn good and irresistible that you will definitely not be able to wait for the coffee. At least, that’s what happened to us.

If you ask me what Sentro food is, my answer is simply good Filipino food, yet it goes beyond our boundaries. It is food that is at home with itself, filling stomachs and warming hearts. It is comfort food for the Filipino soul.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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