It’s 3 degrees outside and I am quickly regretting my decision to leave the house wearing a crop top on the last day of November. But when I step through the door of Coffee Is My Cup of Tea, a small cafe in East London, I'm instantly warm and toasty. Groups of friends and strangers gather around cosy tables with glasses of wine, and a little girl comes charging right at me to hug my legs. Her father runs after, laughing and apologising profusely.
I’m here for LUTO, a monthly Filipino supper club started by fashion-buyer-turned-chef, Mary San Pablo, who has cooked at Quo Vadis and Quality Chop House, and is currently doing a stint in the kitchen of Som Saa. Tonight is San Pablo’s first collaborative supper club with fellow Filipino chef Ferdinand “Budgie” Montoya, who heads up pop-up Sarap. Together, they’re bringing a piece of their homeland to the table, reconnecting with their roots and spreading the good word of Pinoy food.
“We originally met through a mini Filipino food festival I organised last year, but kept in touch through a bad advertising event that Philippine Airlines did. They tried to promote Filipino food, but they ended up doing it really badly,” Montoya tells me. “Since then, a group of Filipino chefs, Mary, and I have started Filifood UK, a movement that raises awareness of Filipino food. It’s awesome that we’re part of this sharing community rather than competing with one another.”“It’s great being able to work with others—it’s half the work and double the fun!” San Pablo laughs as she opens a bamboo steamer to check on the first course, siu mai.
But what exactly is Filipino food? Despite the recent hype surrounding the London opening of Filipino restaurants like Jollibee, and the fact that a number of UK cities have sizeable Filipino communities, many British diners are not familiar with the array of delicious dishes that originate from the Philippines. Filipino food has even been dubbed Asia’s “last secret cuisine.”
“It’s a melting pot type of cuisine. A story of people who came from all over and that’s why there are Spanish, Chinese, Malay, Thai, and Japanese influences,” San Pablo explains. “You’ll be surprised at the mix of everything, there’s a familiar and comforting taste, but not in the usual sense. You can pinpoint flavours, although it’s not quite how you imagine it. It’s very interesting because it’s an Asian cuisine that’s not like the others.”LUTO’s menu is definitely reflective of this. Chinese siu mai dumplings served with soy pickles and Filipino chicken relleno (stuffed chicken) shaped like a Scotch egg, plus lechon liempo, a roast pork belly dish derived from Spanish colonists that has evolved to become a staple of Filipino cuisine.With such complex dishes being served tonight, I’m surprised to find out that San Pablo knew very little about Filipino food before beginning her cooking career.
“None of my family cooked and I didn’t have any old recipes that were handed down to me,” she explains. “I went back to my parents hometown in Baguio, tried to gather all the recipes I could, and experimented by myself. I think it’s a good thing being detached and making my own way to the same endpoint because I’m not tied to having to do it in a certain way.”Pinoy food may be on the rise in Britain but it’s important to remember that the Philippines is made up of thousands of tiny islands—each one with its own unique landscape and signature local dish.
“It’s getting there, but there’s a long way to go,” San Pablo says of the British Filipino food scene. “A lot of the restaurants in London are very old school, which is nice but it’s literally stuff your mum would cook. There needs to be an injection of newer things and further exploration of regional dishes.”
I take my seat on a small table at the front of the cafe to sample the squid sinigang, a traditional Filipino hot and sour squid noodle soup. I slurp up my first bite and am instantly reminded of a dish from my childhood—the Sichuan hot and sour glass noodle soup; slippery, tangy, and pungent. I now understand what San Pablo meant by Filipino food being familiar, but not in the expected way.Back in the kitchen, Montoya explains: “We want to create an identity for Filipino cuisine in London. Drawing inspiration from the rich flavours and culinary techniques of the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines.”
Montoya and San Pablo serve the lechon—their pork showstopper—with a side of jasmine rice, sawsawan (dipping sauce), and laing (taro leaves). The large table behind me clamber in to help themselves, quickly discarding empty plates to make room for more food.“Every person or chef is different, they send their own message of whatever type of cuisine that’s not really represented however they want,” San Pablo says, admiring the hungry diners. “You start to understand the poignant cultural context and how each dish highlights certain key ingredients.”
That said, she cracks out a bottle of Don Papa Rum, a regional Philippine aged rum made from sugarcane, and pours it over the final course: a dessert of rum baba cakes.
“Don’t worry, it’s not proper rum, it’s way too sweet,” Montaya laughs. “It tastes like caramel and vanilla that’s why we used it in our dessert. It’s our little Filipino twist to a classic French dessert.”As San Pablo spoons more of that alcoholic liquid over the sticky dense cakes and hands me a plate to try. I take a bite and it nearly blows my head off, both from sweetness and alcohol levels.“Yeah,” San Pablo laughs, “this cake will get you drunk. Sorry!”