Oh, Pico De Loro

I’ll take a breather from writing about food just this once and feature a break in the monotony – I conquered my first mountain trek! Admittedly the new year brings so much positive juju and at one point I was just stuck in this state of yearning to cross items off my bucket list. I wanted to let go and just see the world. Travel! Pick Strawberries! Go on a food tour! (All the while Temper Trap’s “Fader” is in the background)

Mountain climbing was a more humble (and cheap-o) entry on the list, and this was a decision that was made relatively fast. Two of my friends and I didn’t make any thorough plans. I’m not sure who even suggested it in the first place. As soon as the suggestion was made we all jumped at the chance.
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We chose Pico De Loro in Cavite, a good two-hour bus ride away from the Metro. It’s a relatively friendly trek for the uninitiated. The bus dropped us off at Ternate, after which we took a tricycle to the jump-off point. There’s no need for a guide because the trail was straightforward.
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How my body took me through it is another story. The climb was a solid three hours with a few stops, and halfway there an internal battle between my mind and body ensued. I kept on asking myself how much longer this damn climb will last. It was good that the mountain is pretty popular among enthusiasts, because we kept on meeting people going down from the summit, so with heavy breathing and sweaty faces we would solicit a few words of comfort from them. Of course there will always be that struggle to catch my breath every now and then as the air grew thinner. Yes, it was a walk in the park. Kidding aside, sticking to the trail, it’s absolutely doable.
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At the back of my head I wanted to subject myself to the experience because I had a few things on my plate that I wanted to address. I thought that climbing the mountain would be cathartic – it would disrobe the mental and emotional baggage I carried with me and leave it behind me as I traversed father and higher. And maybe I also wanted to commune with God with the capital G. Somewhere along the way I found my unreligious self farther and farther from where I’m supposed to be. I was never a Jesus-freak but I thought we could maintain an amicable relationship, if not a simple, understated closeness.
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Oftentimes the journey is far more important than the destination. But it doesn’t hurt that the view that awaits you after an arduous trek is, in a word, beautiful.

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The summit is one attraction. Getting there was challenging. But the monolith is another, and getting there necessitated another twenty-minute climb, this time definitely steeper. We didn’t/couldn’t go up the monolith itself, though I had this impression that it was allowed. But the chill and the view were all worth it. One one side was Cavite, the other side Batangas. Blue skies. A cove. Forests.
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“How big are your problems?”, I had to blurt. I was definitely giddy and stoked that half the battle was won. Even just for a moment I felt lighter, that the brunt of my problems seemed so miniscule.
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We could have taken the easy way and gone down the same way we went up. But we decided to take a guide with us down the path not usually taken by trekkers. I took us two hours going down but the first half was incredibly painful and required a certain physicality. At one point it was also dangerous. The climb down would bring us to Batangas, not Cavite. We started at the side of the monolith, it was steep so we had to sit down and carefully descend in some parts. I fell on my butt around five times, thanks to the withered leaves that made the deceptive path uneven.

But we finally reached the end of the trail and relief washed over our grimy, sweaty faces. Exhilaration coupled with relief is always good.

Over a late dinner in Tagaytay where it was extremely cold that not even our steaming bowl of bulalo could withstand, we talked about the day’s events. In retrospect it was dangerous for us to take the Batangas trail down. We didn’t meet anyone going up or down, and what if kuya was an insurgent rebel who might take us hostage? What if (we were exaggerating at this point), we really had no kuya leading us down the mountain afterall? (Gasp!) We decided not to err on the side of recklessness next time. Despite this being a cautionary tale, we wanted to do it again and again.

I’d love to say that the mountain trek was transformative, and that I’m a new person, filled with so much optimism about myself and the world. But no, that only happens in the movies. What it did leave me is this yearning on how I should fill my days and hopefully, years. I think I might have found a new hobby!

Money can buy a better pair of hiking shoes (If my dead toenails are any indication), but the sweeping views and the live-for-the-moment adrenaline-pumping exhilaration? Priceless. It’s not so bad feeling small when you’re surrounded by kickass grandeur.
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Magic, and Budbod

I drifted in and out of sleep in the shuttle on our way to Angono. I didn’t notice the traffic that might have clogged the streets, nor the landmarks that would help me find my way later on.

We had just come from a hearty meal at a German restaurant. You would think that a pause would be in order. That’s what normal people do. We were impulsive that day.

I groggily stepped out of the shuttle with Yedy and Eugene. I had to regain my bearings for a minute to realize that we alighted at the entrance of a quaint subdivision called Aurora. There weren’t a lot of people on the streets. A guy with his cigarette, a mother with her baby, and a few kids. Walking a good two blocks to our destination was uneventful. Was the journey going to be anticlimactic?

The street we walked into wasn’t a beehive but you could tell it has its own flurry of activity. Then the tarpaulin I saw on Yedy’s instagram was right before my eyes and it confirmed our destination. Welcome to Dency’s. We were in Budbod country.
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What was once a quaint space (a small carinderia with monobloc chairs) is now a larger house (painted yellow!), with an even larger, tiled space that could fit around fifteen to twenty people. It is quite possibly the house that budbod built.
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Budbod is what you call the rice dish that’s been topped/sprinkled (binudbod) with meat, tomatoes, spring onions, sometimes egg, sometimes anything goes. It’s a noun and a verb. A simple rice meal, basically. And the way Yedy and Euge (both of them hail from the surrounding area) gush about it shows it’s rice that tugs a few heartstrings. They grew up eating the stuff. And they took it upon themselves to introduce this small town boy to a little piece of their shared history.

This wasn’t my first encounter with budbod though. My co-intern at the restaurant is from Rizal and one time she brought individually portioned styro packs of budbod and it had beef, lumpia, tomatoes and chives. It’s a family recipe, and I’m not sure how it compares to what we were going to have.

I grew and grew up eating rice with no other name. In their neck of the woods this meal is an icon. But why is it such a big deal? Why the fuss?

“Sago’t gulaman”, Yedy tells the jolly server. It’s the preamble before the main event. The cleanse before the deluge.
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Our order arrives in plastic bowls with a lid on, reminiscent of how Chowking (a fast food chain I unabashedly favor) serves their rice.
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I take the lid off mine and a hint of adobo wafts out. The chopped beef must have been braised in soy sauce and vinegar before it was fried. Fresh tomatoes, chopped spring onions and a smidgen of scrambled egg accompany the meat. It’s a disproportionate ratio – there is definitely more rice. And the rice has been fried and taken on a color that suggests a dash of soy sauce was added. It’s nothing fancy.
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There is no ritual. After staring at my bowl hungrily in between taking photographs, I grabbed my utensils and took a heaping spoonful of rice, beef and egg (I’m not a fan of eating fresh tomatoes with rice so I set it aside.).

I tasted tender beef, with a gentle acidity and more pronounced salinity. In my gut there’s more to it than just soy sauce and vinegar. A little bit of sugar, or Knorr seasoning even? I may be wrong. The rice was seasoned and made the perfect partner.
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There are no bells and whistles. It’s not ingenuous. But it hits the spot for sure.

“Is this it?”, I caught myself asking that question more than once. I admit my enthusiasm wasn’t as overflowing as theirs.

I asked the server for a side order of pork cooked the same way as the beef. At that time I preferred the pork over the beef. Also, a sunny egg.
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It was almost sundown when we were done polishing off our bowls. I was filled to the brim but had this nagging feeling that there has to be something more than what I ate. Rationalizing, maybe the history they share with budbod magnified its appeal. Maybe that was something I couldn’t fully understand. Food and memories, time and space, was that it? Or maybe I should just shut up and just eat.

It was a long ride back home. I drifted in and out of sleep again.

And then there it was. It felt like waves, gently hitting and then receding from the shore before a big one comes crashing down. Or maybe the unnecessary fullness ebbed and I was just hungry all over again.

I craved for it. I craved for budbod like it was nobody’s business. The beef, pork, egg and rice. I wanted to stuff my face all over again.

The lag was very unusual (and funny in a cosmic sort of way). But it doesn’t matter anymore because I fully understand what Yedy and Eugene were talking about. It may have taken me a few hours to get it but I did. What happened? What sorcery is this?

It doesn’t really matter all that much anymore. Rationalizations, excuses, delays, all of it is miniscule. All that matters is that bowl of rice is calling out to me. It’s been more than a week since we went to Angono and writing this made me crave for it all over again.

If my feet and appetite would lead me back to that table again so I could make amends with that bowl of rice so delicious, I’d say every thing is right in the world. Even just for a moment.

Budbod is deceptively simple and unassuming, that much is true. Isn’t the best food of our visceral childhood memories always the simplest?
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The Black Pig

Suggesting that we try a restaurant in Alabang to celebrate a few occasions was really born out of this feeling I had at the time to just wind-down and escape. Yes, it’s a watered-down concept I know. The three of us (Yedy, Euge and I) are car-less and from the north, so it was going to be a challenge. At least going there on a Sunday isn’t as much of a pain as a weekday trek. The Black Pig was waiting, and we were hungry.
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It’s a bar and restaurant that serves a slew of things, from charcuterie to Holgate beers. It has impressive industrial interiors. But we chose to dine al fresco. The light was so good and it was pretty windy. It was a golden day.

Breaking bread to signal the start of the meal is never a bad thing. And they have good bread.
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The charcuterie board arrives. We order it because it would be such a shame if we didn’t. Across the board (pun intended), the cured meats are all flavorful but the larger lomo, without the waxiness of the smaller cuts, stands out.
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Being a bar, they offer a selection of beers. They have a good sampler, aptly called Beer Flight. If that’s not poetic enough, let me just say that the Road Trip is my hands down favorite. At that point I was tempted to order more beer, but we had meals to devour.
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Pork, beef and fish were in attendance at the table. The pork belly came with marrow. Writing this, it’s hard to be impartial if fat’s the subject. The same goes for the rib-eye. And although pork belly and marrow is a killer combo (literally), it’s the medium-rare rib-eye that steals the show. The gindara is a close second though, because it just crumbles in your mouth. It’s so delicate. Delicate.
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The desserts are a sight to behold. It does my heart good to see playfulness and whimsy in their plated desserts.
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“Which one should we start with?”, I asked one of the owners who stepped in and explained the desserts. She reasoned that we should start with the lighter fare and work our way down to the heavier options. I pursed my lips. So, we were starting with the calamansi crème brulee. Close friends know my extreme, unreasonable aversion to calamansi (and now you do too!) so my excitement was barely a simmer. I let my curiosity override my hesitation though. I was a man on a mission.

It seemed haute enough (also unusual) – complete with sorbet, foam and a tuile peppered with fennel. I use the little spoon to mix everything together, cutting through the custard and into the curd.
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I sample a spoonful and nod my head. It takes a few seconds for me to process that it’s actually pretty good. Very impressive, even. The fennel seeds add pops of depth to a tangy, but refreshing custard. Calamansi never looked this sexy.

Trying the coconut panna cotta after the crème brulee was a disservice to the panna cotta, because it felt as if it paled in comparison. It’s still refreshing, with the mandatory addition of pineapple granite, but I should have eaten this first.
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The rum baba was a slap of alcohol neatly tucked into a yeast cake. As it should be. It wasn’t my cup of tea though. I’d assume that the chocolate praline, a geometric love song to chocolate from the wafer to the ganache, is their flagship dessert. And it’s chocolate, and its execution is in a way faultless. But the nuances of the calamansi crème brulee stole my heart and made me smile.

All things considered, the people behind The Black Pig do their job well. It’s a great place. Nothing mind-blowingly ground-breaking (kids, this isn’t a proper adjective) but the food is good, and in the case of the steak, gindara and the desserts, very delicious.

There might be some leeway for comparison to other similar restaurants. In some ways, you might be partial to the fare elsewhere. But with The Black Pig, Alabang has it good.

A cookie that’s more than the sum of its parts

Burby’s used to be a watering hole for people to drink and be merry after work. But they actually serve stellar meals. I’m glad I got to appreciate it in its current state. The food is good, but allow me this moment to single out one beautiful piece of work.

It started as a joke. Yedy asked if their “cookie for two” was as big as her face. Sabrina gave a mock appraisal before telling us she’ll bring one out later for us to try it (and see for ourselves, but that didn’t come from her).
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The food was festive, and I will go back so I could appreciate it even more before I write about it. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here but the barbecued ribs, lechon kare-kare and their Burby’s chicken are at the top of my list. I had to let that out.

Glancing at the menu I didn’t really feel that their desserts were pulling me in. They were pushing an all-day breakfast menu among other things. The dessert might as well be a reliable but less popular foil.
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Then the cookie was served. It wasn’t as big as Yedy’s face. It was baked in a ceramic plate. It didn’t look like much so expectations weren’t all that high.
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I got my little spoon and scooped out a piece at the fringes. It was chewy and full of flavour. It was good, I thought to myself. I couldn’t stop myself from taking another bite because that’s just how I roll.
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Right there…fireworks. My face lit up, and my mouth formed an ‘o’. I may or may not have muttered a curse word.

I got its point.

That was when things went from above average to warm, chewy and gooey. The cookie dough hasn’t fully set, with a textured, chewy exterior and a warm, an almost melt-in-your-mouth interior. It’s like that cake batter left on the spoon that you couldn’t resist licking. It’s like that sexy, silky yolk you just have to mix with rice. It was sweet with a dash of salty and the chocolate an explosion of decadence. Spoonful after spoonful of warm cookie mixed with ice cream was just a treat. Decadence. Happiness.

A great, unpretentious dessert can really hit you with a wave of comfort. It can make you feel good, even if you might have overindulged. Count the calories later, or never.

Who knew a cookie could be more than the sum of its parts? It’s probably one of the best things I’ve had this year.

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Just for the record, after we demolished the first plate we regret not taking a photo of it. Then we got a second serving, and we were happy kids. I used the second one for the photographs.

A special thanks to Eugene for being part of the photo!

A good day at Kettle

I turned twenty-three almost a week ago. It wasn’t a spectacle. I spent it at the restaurant, baking breads and plating a few dishes for a crowd of twenty people (which in my book, is already stressful). My birthday week was my last week interning at The Goose, and as I’m writing this there’s a smile on my face because I survived three challenging months at the restaurant I’ve always wanted to work at. I’m left with a sense of accomplishment, but also uncertainty. I have plans I want to happen, a few paths I want to take but everything isn’t set in stone. Of course I’d love to (finally) earn my keep but more than half of my body and brain is screaming for a vacation. (Am I too demanding, universe? Do I even deserve a vacation?)

I did have two golden Sundays in a row though. The first one I spent with my friends I’ve had since high school at this little restaurant called Kettle. One blog I read about it warned that I shouldn’t make a mistake of ordering one dish per person because the servings are generous to begin with.

It totally makes sense that the five of us ordered six dishes then. Two orders of buttermilk fried chicken, four pieces of boneless chicken thighs and six pieces of cornbread all in all. The chicken was everything good in the world about dark meat – juicy and flavorful.
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The blogs were right. It’s great chicken, partly because of the fact that people actually go the extra mile to serve uncomplicated, boneless chicken and partly because the same people know flavor. It’s not as if demolishing a bone-in chicken isn’t hard. I’ve had a solid reputation of “cleaning” the chicken well, leaving only the bone (sometimes even cleaning up after people’s chicken mess!). But not everyone is gifted with such profound talent.
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The rest of the dishes whizzed by: lamb adobo, a shrimp po’boy sandwich, angus corned beef hash (a great breakfast item that I might go back to Kettle for), and the surprise of the day, seared salmon on a bed of cold soba noodles and a mango relish on the side. I didn’t order it, they did. I had this look on my face that questioned their motives, but I caved in. It was served at an inconvenient time, when we were about to be filled to the brim with all the protein and fat that came before it. I think I said to them, “You ordered the salmon, you eat it”, or something to that effect. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy salmon. But I didn’t condition my mind for salmon, so I was less than enthusiastic.
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They began to devour it, taking the soba by the forkful then piercing the salmon to get shreds of juicy meat. From them came a nod of approval. “Masarap” (delicious). It was my turn to taste it, still on the fence.

Looking back I didn’t see why I was so worked up to begin with. It’s a dish that plays on the richness of the salmon with the freshness of the soba and the cleansing effect of the mango relish. The dark horse was delicious indeed.

We were too hungry that day, so I think ordering too much didn’t allow a lot of savouring to happen. But I was in the company of great people so I didn’t mind it too much.

There’s a part two y’all! Wait for it. Meanwhile, follow me on instagram, because it has more food than selfies. I’m on twitter too!

No matter what happens

We’re halfway through January and here we are with my first real post for the year! You’ve got to give me some credit, people. I’m almost done with internship and I absolutely have no idea what to do next. Well, I have been throwing around a couple of things, but most of it involves climbing a mountain to marvel at a sea of clouds or lounging about by the shore of a virgin beach. Career shmareer. It can wait!

I’ve only begun to discover the joy of instagram. My handle is @thehungrygiant, and I rarely post selfies so follow me to appreciate just how much of a glutton I am. And while we’re on the subject, here are a few things that have made my January. It’s a stark contrast to the quality of the photos I usually include in my posts, but I’m attempting to write this on my new ipad so allow me to be brisk, just for the sake of written word.

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Baking bread almost every day is one of the things I absolutely love doing. And I’m not writing this just because the people I work with read my blog from time to time. I love baking, let’s just put it out there. And to think I went to cooking school because I wanted to become a savory cook. Well, plans change. And I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the universe is listening.

I’m also a tad out of shape lately, thanks to the almost daily after work binge eating. We end service at around 10 or 11, so I guess I must be going against every bullet point on healthy eating. And it scares me that sometimes (okay, most of the time) I eat for two people. But whatever, I’m happy. Don’t judge! Carinderia food is the bomb.

I have great news coming up and it really deserves its own post. Some of you may know about it already since it’s not really a secret and my facebook timeline says it all but still, a follow-up post is in order.

I promised myself that I would never abandon the blog because it has given me so much. So I won’t. Resolutions don’t really work for me, so I can’t promise that regular posts are coming. But I told myself the other day that no matter what happens, I will write. I’m on to something here, and I’d like to believe writing about whatever could open a few more doors for me. I love this blog too much that it doesn’t deserve to be filled with useless brain farts. My twitter would be a better option for that! (Follow me @giooraay)

I’m not dead y’all. Don’t count me out just yet.

To the year that was

Here we are again, it’s the end of another year. I’m parked right where I was a year before: at the edge of my parents’ bed, home for the holidays. I’m typing, trying to fish the words out of a bowl.

I completely take all the responsibility for not taking advantage of the holidays to write. I didn’t try hard enough. In a way, I didn’t try at all. It’s funny because towards the end of the year, so much has happened.

So many great, amazing blessings came my way, and I kept it to myself for the most part, save for a few status updates on facebook.

But most of it involved the blog, one way or the other, so it would be such a disservice to simply box everything in a blurb. So here it goes:
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The Hungry Giant is Mindanao’s best food blog (!). Google Mindanao and the first few articles you might stumble upon might not be the most flattering of descriptions. It’s a study of contrasts: forward and backward, good and bad, yes and no. But there’s a pulse that insists that 1/3rd of the Philippine archipelago is chock full of talent.

I couldn’t attend the Mindanao Blog Awards personally because I was at work (I’m doing my internship at The Goose Station!) so I had to settle for a screen-grab one of my friends posted on my facebook wall. Oh yeah.
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I’m part of a book. My name and mug are on print, out now in National Bookstore outlets around Metro Manila. Eats 2014, published by Hinge Inquirer, is a guidebook for all the curious, lustful people who intend to eat out for most of the year. Yes, I am a subtle pervert.
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But seriously, the consolidation is remarkable. It’s divided into categories, from burgers to seafood to dessert. The broad list is further broken down according to budget – from save, reasonable to splurge. I was given the opportunity to write about restaurants with international flavors, from German to Mexican to Vietnamese. It’s a great book and worth every penny.

Coming from a purely amateur writing background, it’s humbling that my writing has been taking off, and taking me places.

In as much as I’d like to stay on cloud nine, it hasn’t been a smooth year. I lost one of my best friends a few months before all of this happened. When you lose someone you care about in a violent way, it shakes you up and leaves you with not just scars but questions. That much is true.

Sometimes I have to remind myself to take a step back, breathe and take it all in both the good and the bad. In my paltry twenty-two years of living, I know that there is nothing absolute about living in the world.

For what it’s worth, 2013 was such a ride. If online Chinese astrology is any indication, 2014 will be my year. As always, I’m hopeful. But I’m not counting on that just yet. In the meantime, since I’m being all confessional here, towards the end of the year I realized Oasis has the perfect song for me.

From the scars on my skin and heart, here it goes. My anthem: