Sunda's Filipino American History Month menu: Kare-kare
"It’s what I always remember as a kid. When you talk about it, people are like, Ox tail? They get put off, especially with me growing up in the '70s. When they asked What’s in your lunch box, [you tell them ox tail, then] they’re like WHAT. It’s one dish that I remember my mom making all the time… It’s the one I remember from my childhood that I always enjoyed: the meat is so tender, the sauce is so different -- peanut sauce. Now that I work here at Sunda I get to do those things all over again."
-- Chef Jess DeGuzman, Executive Chef, Sunda
Kare-kare is a savory peanut stew with long-cooked oxtail to soften its cartilage and tenderize the meat interlocked with the vertebral bones. "A distinctive Malay dish," according to Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, the name kare comes from a Tamil (South Indian) word -- kari -- for sauce for a stew. Smoky eggplant, crunchy bok choy, green beans and carrots, served with a side of bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) so the customers can bring up the saltiness of their own dish to taste.
When we first sat down to interview Chef DeGuzman, from his cellphone, pulled up the list of questions we sent in advance to Rockit Ranch Productions' PR team.
Our mission: Interview Chef DeGuzman about the Sunda's Filipino American History menu. Maybe he thought I was going to pop-quiz him about Filipino history? Born and raised in Morton Grove, he is a self-taught chef who got his start in and then rose up through Chicago's sushi restaurants. Later in our talk Chef DeGuzman noted that among their mainstream and often high-flying clientele, Sunda's Filipino dishes are very warmly received. We asked him what FilAms said, and specifically what the Aunties, Uncles, Lolos and Lolas say.
“For the most part, people enjoy it. People say they're proud of me because I’m showing the Filipino culture to the mainstream." He paused, "Unfortunately learning Tagalog was not something that happened when I was younger because there was no family [here], besides my parents -- who were working. It was tough."
Speaking again of some of the feedback he hears from some of the Aunties-Uncles-Lolos-Lolas, Chef DeGuzman continued, "So they were like, Oh, you’re one of those. I get that all the time. And then I'm kind of like [switching gears], Uh, are you enjoying everything?"
"One of them said, You’re not Filipino… It's like [to myself], Oh wow.” The consummate professional, he added, "I take it as it is. For the most part, people support me," said Chef DeGuzman.
Yet, this chef is at the helm of the kitchen at one of Chicago's high-profile restaurants serving Filipino food.
You have to teach them what about Sinigang?
Before our meeting, Chef DeGuzman told us through their PR representative that much of the back-of-house staff was Filipino, too. We weren't expecting it, but the chefs invited us into their kitchen.
"You guys are the first Filipino bloggers we've had back here," said Executive Sous Chef Mike Morales. They let loose with us a little.
"How many packets do you throw in there?" I teased Chef Morales, as I insinuated the use of household Knorr or Mama Sita flavor packets. He chuckled and finished plating the soup, setting atop the vegetables slightly above the broth, a large breaded and deep-fried ball. It was arancini, about the size of a large tomato. Arancini are Sicilian rice balls, battered and deep fried, sometimes with stuffed with meats or vegetables. So, what's that doing in my sinigang?
"It's hard to explain to some of our customers to eat their rice with their soup," said Chef Morales. It's second nature to us Pinoys, but I can imagine this insight must have struck as too many cleared plates with the side of steamed jasmine rice remained untouched. Again there's a method to their madness, educating clientele with a simple twist, that there is a reason Filipinos call their "entrees" by the word ulam, a Tagalog word meaning "to be eaten with rice."
Sunda's sinigang is a bold tamarind and salmon-soured broth with tomato, green beans, spinach. To finish he added shrimp with another generous slab of pork belly. Of course.
How to get the FilAm Monthly Specials at Sunda Any Month
Dear Readers, sidenote! As it's October 26 at press time, we're sure you want to know if and how you can enjoy these Filipino dishes through the year. The short answer is yes, you can. Chef DeGuzman assured us that clients can inquire with the waitstaff, who will consult with the back-of-house team, and if they can accommodate your request for sisig, kare-kare, Bicol express, sinigang or pinakbet, they certainly will. Sunda has also debuted a new menu featuring new Filipino dishes, too.
Go Coco for Bicol Express
It's as if a Polynesian tiki-drink bartender line danced with a Filipino coconut and chilis, more predominant in Philippines' neighbors to the south and west -- Indonesia and Malaysia. Bicol Express is a coconut milk stew, not shy with the chilies, lemongrass, with braised pork belly and shrimp.
Said Chef DeGuzman, "One of the ways we make these Filipino classics 'New Asian' is through plating, translating these dishes into a smaller plate. It's about experimenting. This is something that myself, my Executive Sous Chef [Morales] talk about ‘Make it like your mom makes it.’... It’s about playing with food, and taking it to another level."
Arguably it's the most famous dish from Bicol and one of the few well-known ones outside the Philippines that is spicy. It's named for the train from Manila to Albay, as fast as you'll take a bite and take a swig of ice water or a heaping spoonful of steamed rice.
Pinakbet... "Bahay kubo, kahit munti"
It's funny to see a bunch of culinary heavyweights cringe at the mention of bittermelon and okra, when I pressed the chefs about the absence of them in the pinakbet.
Absent the okra and bittermelon (the latter of which, I agreed with our hosts, I am not particularly fond), the pinakbet was spot on, vegetables wonderfully a bit al dente. Chef Morales twisted this classic by adding whole shrimp and a generous slab of roasted pork belly instead of the ground pork that us homecooks add. Instead of serving it as a drier saute, Chef Morales made a kabocha squash puree, an autumnal orange backdrop with eggplant, tomato, green beans and shrimp sauce (evoking the bagoong). Ilokano sister here got my side of bagoong. Ilokano brother understood and obliged.
Pinakbet is an Ilokano dish (from Northern Luzon) where my own family originates, the dish I tend to mention when people say "Filipino food is all about meat." Pinakbet puts the bounty of vegetables front-and-center like the Tagalog children's song, "Bahay Kubo." Even though our home is small, goes the song, our garden's bounty is full of variety -- singkamas (jicama), talong (eggplant), sigarilyas (winged beans) at mani (and peanuts), sitaw, bataw, patani (string beans, purple hyacinth beans, lima beans).
Postscript: Family Meal
Quid pro quo. The hospitality goes both ways.
After they demonstrated the menu, the chefs sat down with us. Natalia and I ate the pinakbet, Bicol express, sinigang and kare-kare, and on the other side of the long family table, our chefs grabbed a breath before dinner service prep with their family meal of Al's Beef.
"Hey, why don't you guys cook for us one time?" shouted over Chef Morales.
"Yeah, we're game!" we replied, with simultaneous inner dialog, OMG we have never cooked in a professional kitchen, but ok, maybe they're bluffing.
Next day, Chef DeGuzman emailed, "Hey no rush, but if you want to send us over your list of ingredients for Family Meal, we can take care of it." Welp, okay -- THEY'RE NOT JOKING.
Natalia took the sweet side of the menu: ube halaya cheesecake with a polvoron (sweet powdered milk) crust. A pretty plate popped off the silicone rubber mold, and topped each cheesecake with a cube of slightly opaque nata de coco.
As Natalia strove for excellence in the perfection of pastry, my approach was humor.
With the savory, I made lumpiang sariwa (fresh eggroll, not fried) -- a riff off of my ninang's (godmother's) and Filipino vegetarian uber-bloggers, Astig Vegan. Uncooked eggroll wrapper, a jicama-carrot atchara (pickle) slaw, raw bean sprouts; French-cut, steamed green beans; a saute of extra firm tofu, a garnish of romaine and a soy-sesame-pandan dipping sauce.
For the mains, I went with a ChickenJoy throwback to Jollibee largely based of the two recipes from The Adobo Road Cookbook by Marvin Gapultos. Since Sunda Sous Chef Brawnson Rattanavong expressed his love for banana ketchup, we went with a Jufran-based Filipino spaghetti with the Purefoods off-brand red hot dogs rendered in pork belly fat. A day-long marinated, coconut milk-dredged and battered fried chicken to accompany the spaghetti with shredded quick melt cheddar.
The following week, we had the pleasure of putting on chef's whites, aprons, dishtowels and hairnets, in their prep kitchen downstairs cooking aside professionals happy to welcome two eager homecooks in, sous chefs and dishwashers all helping us with prep and navigating. It was a tremendously proud moment for Natalia and me to feed the professionals at Sunda -- Shout out to Chef Brawnson, Chef Rijay, Chef Louie, Chef Nia, Chef Edson, Richard, Chef Alice, Chef Jose, Chef Mike and Chef Jess.
Salamat po sa inyong lahat, we salute you.
Stay tuned to the next post for Family Meal recipes.