Few can resist the aroma and layers of flavor that define Filipino cuisine. From a handful of ingredients emerges a wide range of dishes that incorporate colorful vegetables and the flavors of stewed pork and beef, chicken and fish.
Essential to every Filipino table is the trifecta of flavors: sweet, salty and sour. Spicy is a constant to all three. Filipino cuisine is, in essence, the ultimate comfort food, which perfectly suits its purpose of bringing loved ones together, revisiting memories, experiencing pleasure and, of course, providing nourishment. Its staying power lies in its meeting so many basic human needs.
In her new cookbook, In My Kusina (2013), Dinna Villacorta Eisenhart—currently a Healdsburg resident—captures the magic of Filipino cooking and culture through her exacting documentation of the well-loved dishes from her childhood.
Initially, her goal was to pass down the authentic traditions of the Filipino table to her daughters, but neighbors and friends also wanted in on the action after enjoying many delicious Filipino meals at Eisenhart’s kitchen table. When demand reached critical mass, Eisenhart decided the best and easiest thing to do was to put together a cookbook, something she could ultimately share with the general public.
“The final straw for me was finding out my daughter was Googling recipes for her favorite Filipino dishes, those from my kitchen! I knew she would be hard-pressed to get the exact flavors she was looking for because every region in the Philippines has subtle variations on common dishes. I wanted my children to be able to recreate the flavors they grew up with,” Eisenhart said.
Though Eisenhardt graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in art history and her East Street home is filled with her colorful artwork, it’s in the kitchen where her family background still shines, and her neighbors have come to love her frequent feasts.
In talking about the origins of recipes in her book, Eisenhart grew sentimental. “These recipes take me back to the kitchens of my mother and grandmother in Luzon,” she said. “I learned to cook by watching my mother. She taught me to use my eyes and ears when cooking. When she cooked fish, she would say, ‘Listen—when you hear that sound, you’ll know it’s time to flip the fish.’ And always it turned out perfectly.”
On school days, Eisenhart would come home for lunch filled with anticipation for her mother’s delicious cooking. Upon arriving home, the house would be filled with the mouthwatering smells of garlic, onions and pork, which her mother stewed with beans.
On the Table
In setting out a traditional Filipino meal, several rules of thumb must be adhered to for maximum enjoyment. They include pairing foods with contrasting flavors of salty, sweet and sour; serving meals family-style; always having steamed jasmine rice or garlic fried rice on hand; and providing an assortment of dipping sauces.
Some dishes are wanting for simple contrasting bites of atchara (pickled green papaya) or fresh sliced fruit, Manila mangos being a favorite. Eisenhart also noted that most Filipino meals are eaten with the hands, not with standard utensils, although sometimes one might find two spoons and a knife at the place setting as a variation. Forks, though, are never used.
Some of Eisenhart’s favorite dishes include sinigang, a pork and shrimp entrée with a sour broth of unripe tamarind, green mangos and kamias (also known as tree sorrel or bilimbi), and kare kare, a Filipino stew typically served on special occasions. Kare kare is oxtail slow-cooked in peanut sauce, to which is added eggplant, bok choy and green beans, the final presentation garnished with crushed peanuts.
A popular dish known even to those with little exposure to Filipino cooking is chicken adobo, which, in Eisenhart’s mother’s rendition, calls for pineapple juice in addition to the traditional ingredients of garlic, soy sauce, coconut vinegar and bay leaves. The dish is simple but incredibly flavorful and one most people return to time and again, often tricking up the recipe with variations such as coconut milk.
Eisenhart’s book is beautifully laid out for those new to preparing Filipino cuisine. A helpful list of the kitchen essentials needed lies near the beginning, and recipes are laid out by category and protein type, each provided with a description of the dish and the context in which it is best served. Ingredients are not overly complex, and preparation instructions are simple and well-organized, with colorful full-page photos of each dish.
Eisenhart notes that all ingredients needed for creating authentic Filipino cuisine are readily available at most Asian grocery stores. For the best quality Asian vegetables, sauces and condiments, and the cuts of meat and types of fish popular in Filipino cuisine, Eisenhart recommends an occasional foray to the 99 Ranch Market in Daly City (250 Skyline Plaza) or to the new 168 Market in Vallejo (765 Sereno Drive). At either, one can stock up on all the Filipino pantry essentials.
For those wanting to meet the author and purchase a signed copy of her cookbook, on Saturday, Feb. 10, Omnivore Books in San Francisco will hold a talk and signing. Closer to home, on Feb. 16, Eisenhart will hold a talk, signing and food tasting at the Healdsburg Museum, starting at 6pm.
‘In My Kusina’ is available online at tinyurl.com/39z968pb. Follow Dinna Villacorta Eisenhart on Instagram at @itswhatsfordinna.