By CJ Juntereal
I had always assumed that the cuisine of Cavite was nothing extraordinary, that it was just the usual adobo, inihaw, menudo, mechado, and morcon. It was food that could be found anywhere in the country. I knew that Cavite was well-known for tamales—a dough made of rice flour and ground peanuts, stuffed with shreds of chicken or pork, hard boiled egg, garbanzos, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed—but I had tasted too many overly sweet versions studded with lurid red hotdogs to ever consider going on a hunt for the best tamales. Cavite was pretty low on my list of places to visit, because I didn’t think I would find any food items that were unique to the province. That was until I met Ige Ramos, award winning book designer, food writer, and a Caviteño who passionately promotes the cuisine of his province.
Through Ige I learned that unlike other provinces where food is usually pagkaing pang mayaman (food for the rich) or pagkaing pang mahirap (food for the poor), in Cavite the distinction is between pagkaing pambisita (food for guests) and pagkaing pambahay (food eaten at home). During fiestas, Caviteños served kare-kare, morcon, pancit, and menudo to their guests. The more interesting dishes and delicacies—quesillo, the Caviteño version of bacalao, pancit calandracas, pancit pusit—was just what that Caviteños ate on a daily basis, so it was never put out during a fiesta. Except for tamales, these were dishes that I had never even heard friends who lived in Cavite talk about.
Ige goes on to explain that for Caviteños, food is a truly personal matter and beloved family recipes are cooked only during family gatherings for the holidays or funerals. Another reason we rarely see these specialties, even in Metro Manila, which is practically cheek to jowl with Cavite, is that they have limited shelf lives. So the likes of quesillo (a soft carabao’s milk cheese with a salty, creamy, slightly sweet taste profile) rarely went further than the local market because producers could barely keep up with what the Caviteños themselves purchased. Of course, the cooks that keep Cavite’s culinary heritage alive are slowly getting older and not all of them have someone to keep their recipes alive.
Cavite’s geographical location and its topography shaped its cuisine into one that looks simple, until you take the time to understand its history. During colonial times, a lot of commercial activity went on in Cavite. Galleons plying the Manila-Mexico Galleon Trade route anchored in Cañacao Bay. Sangleys, small boats and clipper ships from Fujian Province in China, would dock to trade rice and silk for Mexican silver. Shipbuilding and dry-docking operations were also established in Cavite. This meeting and intermingling of Spanish, Basques, Fujian Chinese, Mexicans, and Filipinos is what made Cavite’s food and culture into what it is today. The varied features of Cavite’s topography—its coastal area fronting Manila Bay and the South China Sea, its hills and highlands around Tagaytay, and its fertile central plains that became friar lands and haciendas—contributed to the diversity of ingredients used in the province’s cuisine.
It’s ironic that Cavite is so close to Metro Manila, but often overlooked. It’s probably because we always think that it’s so near that we can go anytime, and so we turn our eyes and stomachs further afield. It might be because Cavite’s towns and roadways are so small and compact that it’s difficult to get around without weaving your way through traffic. It’s probably also because the best of its cuisine is found in private homes, in the markets, and in small carinderias that quietly go about their business feeding the locals. If one isn’t friends with a Caviteño who is willing to take you around and share his little food secrets, then food options are very limited. Have I already mentioned how grateful I am for an Ige Ramos who explores all these hidden gems and shares them with the rest of us?
Ige invited me recently to Viaje Feliz: Lasang Republika 2, an event at the Aguinaldo Shrine that brought together purveyors of some of the best that Cavite has to offer. The event also introduced CAVITEX (the Cavite Expressway) and the new CALAX (Cavite Laguna Expressway) that broke ground recently. Cavitex is already a lifesaver because it cuts so much travel time from Roxas Boulevard to Kawit, Cavite, where the Aguinaldo Shrine is located. CALAX, when it is completed in 2020 will extend CAVITEX through Cavite and Laguna, and end at the SLEX-Mamplasan Interchange. The eight interchanges that will be built along the 45-kilometer route will allow access to Kawit, Silang, Governor’s Drive, Laguna Boulevard, Sta. Rosa-Tagaytay, the Techno Park, and Silang, among others. Just think of all the previously difficult to reach restaurants, food purveyors, markets, and carinderias that we will now be able to visit!
I was able to sample some of the food during the event, and I’d like to share with you a few of the places and products that I’m happy I will soon have more access to.
The ViewPark Hotel’s restaurant sells crispy tawilis packaged like potato chips. Surprisingly, they remain crisp, even when cold and packaged. Disappointingly, they are coated in a powder that reminds me of fake barbecue spice. I’d still buy them because they are addictingly crisp, but I wish they would sell a plain variant.
Siglo is located at 3500 Calamba Road Sungay East,Tagaytay-Calamba Road, Tagaytay; 63 917544 6396
They make the best version I’ve tasted of pancit choko ensu tinta or pancit pusit. It’s a pancit dish that combines the Filipino adobong pusit (squid cooked in ink) with sotanghon, fried garlic, crushed chicharon, chilies, kinchay (a pungent Chinese celery), and kamias to add a note of sourness. Asiong’s also makes excellent bottled products like haleyang sampaloc, and bihod (fish eggs) sautéed in garlic and oil. The restaurant, which is owned by Sonny Lua and his family, recently opened a branch in Silang, near Tagaytay. The original restaurant, which is over 50 years old, is located along Paterno St. in Cavite City.
Asiong’s is located at Buenavista St., Bucal, Silang, Cavite;63 926 713 9400
The Wild Juan
The Bed and Breakfast has a restaurant run by a young chef who likes to mix Filipino comfort food flavors with Western ideas. That means buffalo chicken wings with a caldereta sauce, and some super crunchy pork belly served with his homemade barako lechon sauce, and a side of pineapple atchara. The lechon sauce and atchara are available for sale in bottles.
The Wild Juan is located at KM 68, Pinesville, Tagaytay-Nasugbu (National) Highway, Tagaytay City; 63 915 432 4196 and 63 917 8404 211
The restaurant on the second floor of an old house in Tanza, Cavite serves a good version of pancit calandracas—a wet but not quite soupy noodle dish that is redolent of shrimp broth and studded with bits of chicken, shrimp, and vegetables. It also sells bottled patis tanza, the pungent, Cavite version of fish sauce that is made with alamang (fermented shrimp krill).
Calle Real is located at Tanza, Cavite; 63 46 505 2836
Susmaryosep Chili Sauce
The classic blend, the garlic flavor, and the vinegar spirit variants are all spicy but balanced, with a flavor that lingers in your mouth long after. The vinegar spirit variant can hold its own against a certain branded hot sauce anytime. 63 917 525 2838
It is supposedly the go-to of many Caviteños. The only mildly sweet and stuffed with shredded chicken and thin slices of pork cooked like adobo with annatto oil, wedges of hard-boiled egg, and chick peas.
Robinson’s Tamales is located at 8 Sta. Cruz St., Tanza, Cavite; 046-505-2836
Baloy’s Ensaymada de Cavite
Unlike the rich and buttery Pampanga-style, Cavite’s ensaymada is made of pillowy-soft bread dough coiled like a snail. I’m sure it also has eggs and butter, but it’s a more restrained version, one that you can eat every day and not feel like your doctor is giving you the evil eye.
Baloy’s Bakeshop is located at 1056 Manila Cavite Road, Sta. Cruz, Cavite City; 63 917 849 1860
Big Ben’s Imus Longganisa
I’ll admit it. I’m not a longganisa fan. Most of the versions are either too sweet or have so much raw garlic flavor in them that I’m burping longganisa all day. Except that I really like this version of Imus longganisa. It’s salty, the garlic makes its presence felt but doesn’t hit me in the face, and it has just the right amount of fat. Best of all, it’s available in glass bottles, “hubad” (meaning without the casing) and topped with oil. It’s the perfect gift to bring to homesick Filipinos.
Big Ben’s Imus Longganisa is located at General YengcoSt., Imus, Cavite; 63 915 137 1888