MAKIBAKA!  RALLY  FOR  PHILIPPINE  FOOD

MANILA
, JANUARY 22, 2007 (STAR) A TASTE OF LIFE By Heny Sison - Remember the inspirational movie Field of Dreams, which launched Kevin Costner’s acting career? From that film comes the famous line, "If you build it, they will come." That’s what couple Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan must have felt when they put up the acclaimed Cendrillon Restaurant in Manhattan’s Soho district way back in 1995. Amy left Philippine soil in the early ’70s, a week before martial law was declared. They opened the restaurant because they were probably homesick and longing for Filipino warmth.

Amy was only 21 when she left in the early ’70s. Her whole life lay ahead of her, and yet she knew a part of her life was ending. A couple of years later, she would meet Romy, her future husband, at Temple University in Philadelphia. He was then working on his PhD in Economics. Both bright, intellectual individuals, coming from the UP campus, they share the same consuming passion for Filipino food.

Fast-forward to 1995. Both romantic idealists with a mission, they put up Cendrillon with the aim of promoting Filipino cuisine and the warmth and magic that surrounds it. And something miraculous happened. Ever since it opened, former grade school, high school, and college friends the couple had not seen in over 20, even 30 years, would find their way to Cendrillon’s doorstep.

Just like in the captivating film where the famous cornfield that Kevin Costner planted resurrected the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson and other long-dead baseball players, Cendrillon’s brought back to life a wellspring of memories from back home. Filipino customers would share with the couple nostalgic tales of their childhood, stories of favorite comfort foods, and family recipes, and this would last for hours, sometimes until closing time.

Cendrillon, which is French for Cinderella, could be a fairy-tale story of sorts for the couple. Not only famous among the Filipino community, it has been reviewed and has received praises from Gourmet, New York magazine, and Wall Street Journal, among others.

"Something unusual and guaranteed delicious" was how Peter Kaminsky would put it, a food critic who is a regular contributor to Food and Wine, HG, and Condé Nast Traveler. He treats Cendrillon as his regular home away from home. Try guessing your favorite native dishes as he describes his experience of them. "Puddingish cake of eggs with coconut milk, sugar and feta cheese… If no one had used the phrase ‘comfort food’ before, it surely have been invented right there and then." That would probably be bibingka.

How about, "Red snapper in a slightly sweet, slightly sour broth with greens that were unfamiliar but struck just the right balance with the delicate white fleshed fish." Of course, he’s describing sinigang, which are just two of his regular Cendrillon favorites.

Bryan Millar, restaurant critic for the New York Times, gave it a two-thumbs up, and calls Cendrillon "the real deal." He gives Amy extra credit for championing the cause of Asian cuisine in America, calling her the den mother of Asian chefs, from Filipino to Indonesian, Vietnamese to Malaysian.

She always stages events in the restaurant to showcase new Asian chefs and what goodness they can create from their kitchens. The restaurant wafts with Amy’s unflagging and infectious good cheer, another ingredient of its success and durability in the highly-competitive foodservice industry.

I had the good fortune to meet the couple a few years back and have eaten in their restaurant. The food was delightful, and my favorite was the mango tart, the conversation warm and genial. They are good passionate souls, with the simple aim of producing the best of Filipino food and show the world just how good it could be.

Just recently, I met the effusive Amy once again at the book launch of Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Recipes from Far and Near. The book contains stories and recipes from throughout the Philippines. The couple has taken their mission a step further to document traditions, bringing Philippine food into the 21st century while preserving the strong foundations of the past. The result of three years of extensive research is a celebration of Filipino food, a showcase of rich culinary traditions.

Amy weaves personal stories of her hometown of Iba, Zambales and her relationship with her nanay (grandmother), affirming how food and relationships are powerfully linked.

I was delighted to receive a copy of the book, which was recently launched at Rustan’s Makati. Skimming through the pages brings back fond food memories. One discovers and traces the origins of native Filipino food, from adobo to kare-kare, kinilaw, and sinigang, and the impact of foreign cultures on the cuisine. Famous photographer Neal Oshima lends his artistry and captures the dishes through his lens breathtakingly. You almost think you can tear out a chunk from Ilocos’ famed crispy bagnet right from the page and down it right there and then. Their book offers more than 100 unique recipes culled from private Filipino kitchens, as well as from their own acclaimed menu. Some recipes have a Cendrillon twist, like Romy’s version of ube pandesal, which would be perfect with crispy adobo flakes, served for breakfast or merienda. Or the baby back ribs adobo recipe, which is a hot seller at their restaurant.

I went on-line to discover only good words for the book. One syndicated website based in Boston recommends it as one of the must-buy cookbooks of the year. Amy excitedly shares with me that the book has been sold out recently on-line on Amazon UK.

You know how humble the couple is when you see two whole pages towards the end of the book devoted to thanking those who have helped contribute to the book’s publication.This couple continually spreads the word that Filipino food is definitely hot. This shows a deep affection for their homeland.

Amy says it well on the dedication she scribbled on my book. It said, "We are all part of the movement to prove that Philippine food is the best." But I equally enjoy Romy’s handwritten dedication, which reveals the UP firebrand in him. He writes, "Makibaka!"


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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