Tuesday, April 16, 2013

PhilFest 2013

Our new house in Florida backs up to a retention pond and a wooded conservation lot with lots of tall trees (it's quite serene, actually). Most of the housing developments nearby are surrounded on their edges by sub-tropical forest; in fact, it's not hard to imagine the expansive woodlands that would have dominated the immediate area as recently as 15 years ago. Back then, one of the first arrivals in the neighborhood was the Philippine Cultural Foundation (apparently, there's a large Filipino diaspora here in Tampa), whose members purchased a 5-acre parcel of land in 1995 for the establishment of a permanent conference/events/arts center and festival grounds. The center today is fairly impressive to view from the road (I spent a few weeks wondering exactly what it was every time I drove by) and receives the majority of its visitors every year during its annual fundraiser, the PhilFest, which happened to take place one weekend recently. As with all ethnic festivals, my primary motivation for showing up (other than giving the progeny some different fun things to do) is to, of course, sample cuisine that might be hard to otherwise encounter. From that perspective, PhilFest 2013 did not disappoint; indeed, I'd say it was one of the better showcases of ethnic food that we've ever stumbled across.

Chicago may have a festival for every immigrant group under the sun, but you can almost always be assured of finding corn dogs, stale popcorn, and a Beatles cover band at every last one of them. At PhilFest, we were hard-pressed to locate any of the so-called standard carnival fare for Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette, who had to settle for a container of tropical fruit, some white sticky rice, and bbq pork skewers. While this may have been distressing to them, it was spectacular for their parents, who reveled in the amazing array of Filipino dining choices at our disposal.

A dessert seemed like a good starting point. These are called carioka, or sweet fried rice balls. They're sort of a cross between a doughnut and an elephant ear, lightly crisp on the outside (sweetened with a coconut syrup) with a fluffy interior. Even the kids could get on board with these goodies.

We next opted for a couple of savory dishes. In the foreground is a popular Filipino soup called pancit molo, which seemed not unlike a bowl of Japanese ramen (its origins are actually closer to wonton soup from China). Although most of the references I found mention that it's supposed to be made with dumplings instead of noodles, this version consisted of spaghetti noodles simmered with scallions, slices of pork, and a number of other spices, all floating in a rich pork broth. The other bowl contains pork dinuguan, also called chocolate meat on several of the menus we saw. At first bite, I would have sworn that the fatty pork pieces were covered in a type of tasty mole sauce (Spain ruled the Philippines for over 300 years, so much of its associated cuisine seems to have Latino roots); later, I discovered the sauce contains no chocolate and is actually made from pig's blood and liver, the chocolate reference a red herring to throw off otherwise-wary gringo diners. Whatever you call it, in this case, the offal was awfully good.

Mrs. Hackknife surprised me with this next arrival, a whole, deep fried fish called galunggong (which appears to be similar to mackerel). After frying, it's wrapped in foil and eaten in its entirety, bones and all, a very distinct street food. I snapped our fish in two, letting her take the tail end, while I consumed the front half. There wasn't a ton of meat on my piece, however, what was there was tender and mild, and the skin/bones provided a great crunch. There might have also been some eyeball/head matter in the mix, but I can't say for sure.

Of course, there had to be a pig on a spit. Although this fellow certainly looked delicious, we didn't partake this time around.

Tampa's only Filipino food truck (Pao) was at the fest selling attendees a modern twist on the traditional dishes. After a long conversation with one of the proprietors on the difficulties of operating a food truck in Chicago, I chose their version of sisig, a popular drinking food in the Philippines consisting of various chopped leftover pork parts fried with chiles, onions, and spices (almost like a pork hash) and served on a bed of rice. Pao's sisig uses fried pork belly in lieu of mystery meat and serves it with a side of pickled papaya, a tremendously-good combination.

By this time, we had decided to circle back to dessert. Many of the booths were offering the very traditional and very popular Filipino treat halo halo. This frozen concoction appears to have much in common with the Mexican dessert raspado (they both feature shaved ice and sweetened evaporated milk); however, halo halo is much more elaborate, containing (among other things) plantains, sweet beans, coconut, jackfruit, ice cream, and several other unidentifiable (yet tasty) ingredients. The dish is supposed to be assembled in a certain order, but I got the impression from talking to a few of the natives that almost everyone makes it differently and varies the contents according to taste, yielding a million wonderful combinations.

Our digestive capacities finally maxed out, we had to bring a few goodies home for later consumption. One stand was selling these small, multi-colored steamed rice cakes called puto. They reminded me a little of Japanese mochi, but spongier and not as dense. The different colors did signify different flavors, although the variation between them was very subtle. I think we decided that we liked the plain white ones best.

At the fest, I noticed some kids holding cones that sported scoops of unnaturally-purple (almost fluorescent) ice cream. After further investigation, I discovered that this was a beloved brand of Filipino ice cream (Magnolia), with the flavor being ube, or purple yam. Fortunately, I was able to track down a tub of Magnolia ube at a local Filipino market a few days later. If some entrepreneur were to remove the purple color and relabel the package as "buttered popcorn" ice cream, I'm pretty sure no one would detect the ruse. I can't wait to try some of Magnolia's other tropical-leaning flavors like avocado, halo halo, and coconut (that is, once we polish off our tub of ube).

I can say I'm officially on pins and needles awaiting the release of dates for PhilFest 2014. My stomach salutes you...

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