By Alex Y. Vergara
Images by Pinggot Zulueta
Video by John Louie Inocentes
Perhaps nobody knows Christmas and the Filipino family better than The Manila Hotel. For nearly 105 years now, the heritage property by the bay has been celebrating with Filipinos one of the longest Christmas seasons in the world, and this year is no exception.
And since Christmas is all about family, food, and reunions, The Manila Hotel, through executive chef Conrad Walter and his team, is collaborating this December with three Filipino families who have been gracious enough to share their respective heirloom dishes, as part of Café Ilang-Ilang’s ongoing buffetspread until Dec. 27.
The three families are Guiyab-Camcam, through Edna Camcam, Llamas-Romulo, through Sandie Romulo-Squillantini, great granddaughter of the late foreign secretary Carlos P. Romulo and one of the owners of Café Romulo, and Perez-De Venecia, through former congresswoman Gina de Venecia.
The three families, through their respective representatives, each provided The Manila Hotel’s culinary team with one to four heirloom recipes. These representatives were also actively involved in teaching The Manila Hotel’s culinary team how to properly prepare and cook each dish.
Four to five of the heirloom dishes are highlighted and served daily at the Filipino section of Café Ilang-Ilang’s nine-section buffet spread.
“Some of these recipes have been part of certain families’culinary traditions for four generations now,” said Therese Necio, The Manila Hotel’s VP for Marketing. “It’s a celebration of culture, traditions, and the Filipino way of life.”
The binagoongan baboy at pritong talong; kalderetang baka; Spanish pochero; and pinakbet with bagnet came from the Guiyab-Camcam family, while the ginataang sugpo sa kamias, kare-kareng baka; fruit salad with cheese; and mango jelly with corn were provided by the Llamas-Romulo family. The Perez-De Venecia family shared its paksiw na tiyan ng bangus at ampalaya.
“Apart from their love for good food, these families have a culinary tradition,” said Necio. “They understand how it is to be Filipino, which is all about sharing not only food but stories over a meal. Like most Filipinos, meals to them are treated as moments to bond. Food is also about sharing and welcoming other people to their homes.”
Camcam, a native of Cagayan Valley, for instance, related how her late mother and grandmother, both active members of the Catholic Church, would usually invite friends over for late breakfast or brunch after Sunday mass.
“Both of them were really good cooks,” she said. “The dishes I shared are heavily influenced by Spanish cooking because the lola of my grandmother came from Spain. Thanks to the women in my family, I learned to love cooking because of my exposure to it at an early age.”
Camcam also shared with us a number of secrets behind her tasty kaldereta. It all begins, she said, with the right ingredients. For instance, her mother always insisted that only kalitiran, or beef chuck (meat around the bones of the cow’s legs), is ideal for kaldereta.
Before globalization, it was much harder to source for authentic ingredients, but she also insisted, said Camcam, that they use only the real thing from Spain like olives and canned tomatoes, which her mother mixed with cheese and locally sourced tomatoes.
“Otherwise, the dish’s taste would not only be different, but would also be inconsistent and not authentic,” she said.
In keeping with such practice, Camcam, as much as possible, uses only authentic ingredients unless there are better local alternatives.She also cited the beauty of cooking “to taste” without following any measurements. That’s where experience and cooking from the heart comes in, she said.
“But this time, we had to devise some form of measurements because we’re now cooking for countless number of people,” she added with a chuckle. “I met twice with the hotel’s culinary team, once in my home and once here at The Manila Hotel, to discuss and teach them how to cook each dish.”
She welcomed The Manila Hotel’s invitation to share her family’s recipes with Café Ilang-Ilang. Apart from bringing fond memories of her family, particularly her deceased mother and grandmother, through this ongoing food festival, the hotel, she said, has been very much a part of her family’s own traditions for decades now.
“I also feel like family here,” she said. “This is where my parents held their 50th wedding anniversary reception. My brother and my son also had their respective wedding receptions here.”
The heirloom dishes she and the other families shared, said Camcam, are sure to bring back fond memories to many Filipinos, especially members of the balikbayan community who haven’t had a taste of authentic Pinoy cooking for decades.
“The dishes and venue itself would make them feel nostalgic,” she surmised. “In fact, I had a Filipino friend based in Hawaii who I brought here a year ago. As soon as she entered the Champagne Room, she began to cry. The place, she said, brought back fond memories to her.”
And with luck, diners at Café Ilang-Ilang could also win prizes from the hotel this December. For every single receipt worth P10,000 (excluding discounts and promotions), a diner is entitled to a raffle ticket.
Prizes, which would be drawn on Dec. 28, are a whole lechon stuffed with truffle rice worth P15,500; a pamana heritage hamper, which includes various goodies from the hotel’s culinary team, worth P7,480; and one gift certificate for lunch or dinner for two persons at Café Ilang-Ilang worth P4,300.
That’s why it’s no accident that The Manila Hotel, through Café Ilang-Ilang, has chosen December to introduce these heritage dishes. Not a few Filipinos from all corners of the globe come home during this time of the year to renew ties with friends and family, and to also have their fill of delicious Filipino and even other Asian and Western dishes with that unmistakable Pinoy home-cooked goodness.