Saturday, May 2, 2009

Kulinarya," Claude Tayag's Other Book, Puts Philippines in World Culinary Map

The moment I saw "Kulinarya" during the "authors' night" event at the Philippine Consulate last Friday, I knew I had to have it. I am a book junkie, and I particularly cannot resist picture books. "Kulinarya" is a guidebook to Filipino cuisine, but I called it a picture book because, well, the illustrations in the book are superb photographs taken by Japanese photographer Neal Oshima, who had made Manila his home in the last 30 years or so.

It is amazing how the Philippines can run neck-to-neck with the West in almost every endeavor (except in car-making) including in the publishing industry. Well, I am being naive having professed my surprise. We are probably the most Westernized country in the world, next to the United States itself. And that is meant not in a derogatory way, but was meant as a compliment.

If you displayed "Kulinarya" with other American-published books, say, in a display case at a Borders or a Barnes & Noble bookstore, you would be hard-pressed to not believe that it was a book written and designed by Filipino culinary writers and designers. The only non-Filipino involvement were the inputs of Japanese photographer Oshima. But having lived in the Philippines for so long, I would venture that Oshima himself should be a big fan of adobo after all these years.

As mentioned in my first blog of Claude Tayag's culinary books, he is one of six culinary writers responsible for writing portions of this guidebook. But being the painter and artist that he is, Tayag also is the book's food stylist. His culinary perceptions and Oshima's photographic expertise have combined to give this seminal piece of culinary literature a stamp that spells E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T.

Tayag said that many foreigners who have been to the Philippines and tasted Filipino food were wondering, how come, Filipino cuisine has not been launched to a higher level in the gastronomic arena. The reason, according to Tayag, is the way we Filipinos present our cuisine. Tayag said that foreigners who have sampled Filipino cuisine invariably left Manila with a lackluster impression of our foods.

One of the reasons "Kulinarya" was published was to address the Filipino cuisine's lagging popularity when arrayed with, for instance, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese cuisines. "What we need to do is create a strong branding for Filipino cuisine," Tayag told book lovers and foodies who trooped to the Philippine Consulate last Friday. "We need to brand Filipino food in such a way that when one sees it, he recognizes it as Filipino cuisine," he postulated.

"For instance, in Japanese cuisine, you are given a plate of tempura; you know it's tempura, not camaron rebosado," Tayag said. "You, right away, know that its crumbly batter is very different from the camaron rebosado's batter. And the number of pieces (of shrimp tempura) is always three; and three pieces of vegetables, and its always like that," Tayag said.

"Kulinarya" seeks to establish that branding practice, or a more exact definition and standardization of cooking and preparation practices, like uniform cuts and sizes of the ingredients; standard cooking times, and standard measurements of other ingredients and seasonings; and the meat cuts, too.

"For example, adobo; you would find adobo in so many styles -- a different version in the north, and other variations in the south. This book tries to establish the correct procedures, and at the same time, the right ingredients; the best ripeness of the fruits, the correct maturity of the vegetables, and the correct cuts of the meats," he said.

Explaining his role as stylist, Tayag said, one of his responsibilities, was to make the dishes look appetizing and mouth-watering, "so that when you see it you want to eat it right away."

Showing a color photograph of pinakbet in the book, Tayag said it was a new take on the famous Ilocano vegetable dish. "Here I used a modern, not nouvelle, image of pinakbet. The traditional pinakbet, as Ilocanos prepare it, is overcooked; the vegetables are wilted," Tayag observed. "We are not saying it's no good; that's how the Ilocanos want it. But in the modern kitchen, you want your vegetables looking fresh, crunchy, and not overcooked."

He then pointed to a red cherry tomato (on the pinakbet), saying that the addition of that ingredient was for the purpose of adding a bit of bright color to the dish. He notes that Ilocanos never use squash in their pinakbet. "It's a very simple dish made up of leafy vegetables, like the slimy saluyot, but it is a succulent, complete and nutritious dish," Tayag observed. The Tagalog and the Kampampangan versions use diced lechon kawali (fried pork), and other variations that I have eaten -- and cooked -- used grilled fish, more likely, mudfish and hito (Philippine catfish).

"These are the things that you'll discover in "Kulinarya," Tayag explained. "The most special thing about Filipino cuisine is that it is flavorful and diverse," he said. "There's the Chinese influence; the Spanish, even the Mexican; and of course; the Malay, which was native to the country."

"Everything in this book was cooked in a regular kitchen. Kulinarya is an easy-to-follow manual. More than a cookbook, it's a manual because it describes and talks about the dish itself, and how it can be served better," Tayag commented.

"I hope that this book will promote a Philippine culinary revolution," Tayag offered. "An American friend of mine, the wife of a high-ranking American Embassy official, once commented to me: 'Filipino food is so emotional.'" "Why is that? I asked her. "

"Look at us. I am going to have dinner by myself, probably a plate of salad, and at my house, I hear the (Filipino) staff giggling when they are sharing a meal," she told me.

"This is how we are as Filipinos; the meals are always to be served, not eaten like a sandwich by yourself in a corner. Our meals are always shared and eaten family-style, the same as in other Asian countries," Tayag said.

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