In Search of a Cooking Class.

El Nido had plenty of things to fill our time, but one of the many downsides of not going to Thailand (as originally planned) was the fact that we’d miss out on the opportunity to attend a cooking class or two. Filipino cuisine is not as celebrated as Thai food, but that didn’t stop us from trying to find someone who would show us our way around some pork blood, belly or face.

After asking strangers, “Will you teach us to cook your food?” a few times, it looked like we might have someone say yes. There were two close calls, including this street food vendor. After buying a skewer of chicken skin (so, so, good) I asked for cooking lessons. She told us to come back the next day.

Perhaps she didn’t think that we’d follow through, because when we turned up, cameras and pens in tow for our Filipino street food cooking seminar, she pushed us onward. She did not envision herself as a teacher. Slightly dejected, we wandered over to The Alternative, for our second pre-scheduled class for the day. We were told that the chef wasn’t there, and ended up spending part of the afternoon with the lunch staff, who made some calls on our behalf, but ended up breaking the news that our educational experience was not going to happen.

Does this man seem alarmed to you? This is the startled look of the Alternative’s head chef, Cesar Inting, when faced with a tipsy American girl armed with camera, notebook and cooking questions. Upstairs, Maya, Bethany and I had ordered a few pre-dinner drinks. It was then that San Miguel and determination to have a cooking class – scheduled or not – inspired me to wander to the kitchen for some answers. After the initial shock, the chef happily (yet quickly) explained the processes by which he and his team create the dishes that kept bringing us back to his restaurant. This was not a hands-on experience. Instead, I hastily wrote down what I could while taking pictures and trying to avoid the rest of the kitchen’s stares and laughter directed my way. While the Alternative offered skin care treatments and Coke Light, it was clear that cooking classes were not on their regular tourist-attracting agenda. Nonetheless, I’d take what I could get.

First up: curry dishes. The restaurant was open, so I was limited to dishes that customers were ordering for dinner. Chef prepared two different curries while I watched: eggplant and banana heart. (If I remember correctly, the latter of the two was for our own table.) The backbone of the curry was made up of Indian curry powder, coconut milk, brown sugar, salt, pepper, tomatoes and bell peppers. He simply mixed the ingredients and sauteed them with the eggplant and banana heart, separately.

The second demonstration featured adobo. Once again, brown sugar played an integral role in this classic Filipino dish. As he threw the ingredients into the pan, he explained to me that garlic should be used liberally, a sentiment that I whole-heartedly agree with. Onion, soy sauce, vinegar and seasonings help to create the sauce that envelops many a protein on tables in the Philippines.

He wasn’t kidding about the garlic.

In retrospect, my written interpretation of his verbal instructions was not as helpful as the visual. After the garlic was cooked, he brought the potato, chicken and pepper to the pan.

The dish finishes with the liquids.

When the dishes were done and ready to be delivered to their tables (including mine), I finished up the “class” with a photo of the chef and his team. It wasn’t quite the class we’d dreamed of when planning our southeast Asia adventure, but I did come away with a fun story or two, and three recipes, including one for kinilaw. The main lesson learned, though, was that it may be culturally unacceptable to say no to someone, but our host wasn’t any less gracious when I refused to take that “no” for an answer. His hospitality still shone through: Chef Inting sent me back to the restaurant with smiles and an autograph. I suspect that he may have even secretly enjoyed being a teacher. Who knows where this could lead?

Eggplant/Banana-heart Curry

Eggplant or banana hearts, cut into pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon curry powder
Sliced tomatoes
1 red or green bell pepper
1/2 cup coconut milk

Saute together on medium heat. Serve with rice.

Kinilaw

200 grams tuna or mackerel, cut into cubes
1 teaspoon grated ginger
6 pieces calamansi
1 small red onion
1 small tomato, deseeded and cut into cubes
3 tablespoons vinegar

Mix all ingredients together and serve.

Chicken Adobo

3 tablespoons garlic (the more garlic the better)
3 tablespoons red onion
Corn or coconut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons vinegar
potato
bell pepper
chicken breasts and thighs

Sauté garlic and onion in oil, until soft. Add the potato, bell pepper and chicken and cook until “not so sticky.” Then add the rest of the ingredients and saute until the chicken is cooked and the liquid has reduced.

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