In Middle America, during the '80s when I grew up, I watched Chef Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook on PBS. He was the only Asian American cooking on national TV that I can recall. In fact, Yan was probably the ONLY Asian American headlining his own show on American TV, cooking or not. He started the show in 1978! He's been cooking on TV for as long as I've been alive!
In the '80s, when most Americans in the Midwest said "Asian food," they meant Chinese or Japanese cuisine. But the meaning of that phrase is imprecise, to say the least. Hello--it's a WHOLE CONTINENT.
"Asian cuisine," in a strict sense, means Afghani, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bahraini, Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Bruneian, Burmese/Myanma, Cambodian, Chinese, East Timorese, Emirati, Filipino, Georgian, Hong Kongese, Indian, Indonesian, Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Japanese, Jordanian, Kazakhstani, Korean, Kuwaiti, Kyrgyz, Laotian, Lebanese, Macanese, Maldivian, Malaysian, Mongolian, Nepali, Omani, Pakistani, Palestinian, Qatari, Taiwanese, Russian, Saudi, Singaporean, Sri Lankan, Syrian, Tajikistani, Thai, Turkish, Turkemen, Uzbek, Vietnamese and Yemeni cuisines. That's FIFTY countries right there, not including the regional and sub-cultural culinary groupings within.
In these times, I think we are seeing that the term "Asian food" has become as meaningful as saying "European food" or "South American cuisine." The phrases don't mean very much, not that they ever really did.
Sidenote: If you find this listing of Asian countries tedious, check yourself. It's important to be named and recognized. If we can do that at Filipino Kitchen, and show support for our fellow chefs, restaurateurs, home cooks and food writers and bloggers, we do. We see you, fams. All cuisines deserve, at the very least, to be called by name.
Back to the point: beyond these digital walls, life is unfair. Only in recent years has Filipino food just *begun* to be known outside of our own circles and within the mainstream, popular dining consciousness.
Chef-owner Leah Cohen is working to get the cuisines of Southeast Asia out into the dining world at her New York City restaurant Pig & Khao. Chef Leah taps into her Filipino-American heritage, her travels and her professional experience in Southeast Asia to showcase Filipino cuisine alongside its Southeast Asian counterparts.
"I love Southeast Asia," said Chef Leah during our interview at Pig & Khao on a sweltering day in June. "I've been going to the Philippines since I was four. There's so many different dishes and flavors that I want people to experience that I've experienced. So to limit yourself to one type of cuisine is just kind of unfair to everyone else."
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Chef Leah has worked with several acclaimed chefs and restaurants in her career, including Chef David Burke at Park Avenue Café in New York City; Michelin-starred La Madia in Sicily, Italy; Chef Daniel Humm's three Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York City and Centro Vinoteca under Chef Anne Burrell (who is now at the Food Network). But before opening Pig & Khao, Chef Leah gained notoriety on the cooking competition reality show that started them all, Bravo Network's Top Chef, season 5, which premiered in 2008. (I know, I know. We're fans of the show. Is it any surprise?)
For a few years following the reality show, Chef Leah returned to the now-closed Centro Vinoteca as the executive chef, but then took a year-long sabbatical in Southeast Asia in 2010. In her travels, she staged in Bangkok at BoLan and nahm and at Bo Innovations in Hong Kong. Upon her return to the US, the national audience that Chef Leah gained from Top Chef opened the possibility for a restaurant of her own. Soon Pig & Khao was born.
Said Chef Leah of Pig & Khao, "People love the food, they love the vibe, they especially love the music that we play. It's like a fun restaurant to go to. We don't take ourselves very seriously but we do wanna make sure that everyone has a good time and enjoys the food and has great service."
Similar but Different... Southeast Asian Cuisines
Owing to common geography, climates and trading partners, the cuisines of Southeast Asia share a common larder. Though Southeast Asian ingredients and seasonings run parallel, the precise manner of execution, the cultural occasions when they are served and their specific meanings make the cuisines distinct. While it could be any culinarian's life mission to master one of these cuisines, Chef Leah has instead taken it upon herself to bring a piece of all these flavors to New York. Pig & Khao began as a Thai and Filipino restaurant when Chef Leah opened it in the fall of 2012.
"I mean, in the beginning, [the menu] was mainly just Thai and Filipino," said Chef Leah. "But since I've been traveling, once a year I go to Southeast Asia, and I went to Burma and then I was just in Vietnam. I try to bring all those dishes that I learned there to the restaurant."
An eager dining audience favoring Thai flavors may find Vietnamese and Filipino dishes pleasing to the palate, too. In a way, it's like the Netflix or Amazon model of dining: offering cuisines you may also like based on past purchases or browsing history.
"I think it’s easy in that sense that if you’re gonna do a Southeast Asian restaurant and you’re getting the clientele that really wants to eat Southeast Asian food, you have a little bit of room to play with different types of cuisines because people come in wanting those flavors. And you know, Filipino food is actually quite different from Thai food, but they do use fish sauce, they do soy sauce, they use vinegar a lot more than Thais. But there are still similar flavor profiles and everyone loves pork, so we have that going. It’s not difficult to kind of bring all the cuisines together."
The Pig & Khao menu, as of press time, includes khao soi, a northern Thai coconut curry egg noodle soup; khayan dhi pope thote, a Burmese salad of charred eggplant, shallots and dried shrimps; and a Singaporean hawker-style barbecue skate wing with sambal (chili paste). Also on the menu: sizzling sisig!
On our last visit, we tried Chef Leah's well-known version of sizzling sisig, the pig's head (cheeks, skin and ears) pulutan! Paired with her sweet & sour cilantro soda -- we added gin, in true pulutan style! -- the combination was spectacular. Drink responsibly, kids.
SHE GETS IT FROM HER MOMMA.
"Originally I wanted to do just Thai food. But my mom would have been pissed if I didn't do Filipino food as well," said Chef Leah at 1:20 in this Vice Munchies Chef's Night Out video published last week. (Chef cooks sizzling sisig at the top of the video and extols the virtues of Maggi. Push 'Play' already!)
Well, thank goodness for Chef Leah's momma! In fact, the Romblon born-and-raised mother often consults with her chef-daughter about the Filipino items on the menu.
"I ask my mom. I’m constantly texting her, ‘cause I’m half and super white. I mean I’ve been to the Philippines more than a lot of people. Even my best friend, she’s full Filipino and she hasn’t been there in like ten years," confided Chef Leah. "So I do know a lot more than most Fil-Ams but I’m still not from there, so I’m constantly just asking my mom tons of food questions, questions about the culture. And it helps that we have like five Filipinos that work here too. Anytime I have questions, between them and my mom, I think I got it covered."
Chef Leah told us that Pig & Khao's Filipino dish rotation includes fresh lumpia with house-made wrappers, lumpia shanghai, chicken inasal, crispy pata, dinuguan, puto, Bicol express, champorado on the brunch menu, halo-halo, turon, whole roasted lechon and pinakbet.
Pig & Khao's latest newsletter announced the addition of a family-style feast for four (reservations required): pork belly lechon and Filipino-style paella swimming with cockles, chorizo, mussels and head-on prawns.
"I try to keep it like we at least have five Filipino dishes on the menu at once," said Chef. "Our menu is not that big so it's probably a third of what the menu is. And then the rest is divided up between all the other countries."
As for the future, Chef Leah plans to focus her next Southeast Asia trip exclusively on the Philippines. She wants to explore our regional cuisines and restaurant scenes outside of Manila.
"But next year I’m actually gonna take a trip to visit. I think I’m only doing the Philippines, ‘cause I usually do two or three countries on each trip ‘cause I go for three weeks. But I think I wanna spend most of my time just traveling all over the Philippines. But when I was younger, my dad would take us to different regions. We’d mainly just go to my mom’s province though, and Manila," she said.
Chef Leah has her eyes particularly set on Cebu. She wants to crack that lechon code of alternately basting with oil and carabao's milk.
"I really want to go to Cebu and learn about the way they do their lechon there... My sous-chef is from the Philippines and one of our servers is from Cebu and he’s always like, 'Ahh, it’s the best lechon you’re ever gonna have.'"
Bring that Cebuano lechon back to New York City, Chef! We'll be on your heels.
Try Chef Leah Cohen's Southeast Asian creations at her restaurant, Pig & Khao, located at 68 Clinton Street, New York City.
Header Photo Courtesty: www.sarankco.com