Dinner from the Philippines

What do you do when you crave the taste of home but home is almost 9,000 miles away?

That’s the dilemma that faces Lake Claire resident Liza Rivera, a native of Tarlac City, two hours north of Manila on Luzon, one of the largest of the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines.

Rivera moved to the United States in the 1980s to go to nursing school and after forays in New York and Florida, settled in Atlanta just over 20 years ago. With no Filipino restaurants close at hand, the only way to enjoy food from home is to make it herself.

And to do that, she had to learn to cook those dishes long distance. “At home, we had someone to cook for us so we children didn’t learn to make these dishes. When I moved to the States and wanted sinigang, I had to call home and ask how it was made,” she said.

Sinigang is a tamarind-based fish or pork and vegetable soup that can include okra, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, bok choy and spinach.

Between calls to home, the acquisition of a few cookbooks and now the widespread availability of recipes over the Internet, Rivera taught herself to cook the food she grew up on. These days she prepares the food of the Philippines once or twice a week. Adobo, pancit and lumpia all come easily to her now.

Meals at home were several course affairs. “We always have a soup at lunch and dinner, even in the summer. Then a main dish of adobo or something grilled, maybe something fried. Jasmine rice is served at every meal, including breakfast where it would be garlic fried rice made from the leftover rice of the day before,” she said.

Rivera remembers family meals as being totally seasonal. “We ate what was available around us. Now, as almost everywhere, much of the food in the Philippines is imported. But then, we ate by season.” They enjoyed wild mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots, more freshwater fish and snails in the rainy season from June to November. Then in the summer or dry season, they’d have more fresh coconut and jackfruit. Bananas were always available.

Fruit was served at every meal. “The mangoes there are the best in the world. And we have fruit you don’t see anywhere else like the marang, which looks like breadfruit and tastes like soursop, so highly perishable that you can’t even transport it from one island to the next. It’s delicious, but to eat it, we had to go to Manila, catch a one-hour flight, and then take a two-hour trip by sea boat to Camiguin. And it’s worth it.”

Dinner parties at home involved days of preparation with a butcher hired to bring a pig and a goat and pit roast them for a buffet-style dinner. Here in the States, she and her wife Ruth Perou entertain on a more casual scale with a Big Green Egg for grilling and screened porch for enjoying an insect-free dinner party.

Rivera looks forward to her trips back to the Philippines to visit her mother and two brothers every year or every other year to enjoy the fruit and dishes she doesn’t make in her own kitchen like Filipino tamales. This labor-intensive dish is made with toasted rice which is ground into a powder and mixed with roasted peanuts and meats, then wrapped with banana leaves and steamed.

How does Filipino food differ from the food served in other Southeast Asian countries? Rivera says it was widely influenced by Spain and Mexico. In the 19th century, the Philippines were a Spanish colony ruled out of Mexico because of the distance from Europe. “We serve paella and lechon, tamales and flan. We enjoy yucca which I don’t think is eaten in any other Southeast Asia country. And although we use coconut milk widely, we do not do curries,” she said.

Topper: This dinner party is almost totally make-ahead. Prepare everything, including peeling and cubing the mango a day ahead, and on the day you’re entertaining, your only task is to pullout the blender and whip up those green mango shakes.

Green Mango Shake

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Serves: 6

The name of this refreshing drink is a little deceiving. The “green” refers to the unripe mangoes, not to the color of the finished drink. Turn it into a cocktail by adding a light white rum. Rivera likes Tanduay rum imported from the Philippines.

When Rivera lived at home, this was a restaurant dish since Filipino home kitchens weren’t equipped with the blender required to make this drink.

3 green mangoes, divided

6 tablespoons Brown Sugar Simple Syrup (see recipe), divided

3 cups ice, divided

Peel mangoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. In the jar of a blender, combine half the cubed mango and 3 tablespoons simple syrup. Process until smooth. Add 1 1/2 cups ice and process again until smooth. Divide between three glasses and serve immediately. Repeat with remaining mango, simple syrup and ice.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Liza Rivera.

Per serving: 87 calories (percent of calories from fat, 3), 1 gram protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium.

Brown Sugar Simple Syrup

Hands on: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Makes: 3 cups

Extra syrup can be used to sweeten fruit salads, iced tea or to stew fresh fruits like bananas and peaches.

2 cups water

1 1/2 cups lightly packed light brown sugar

In a small sauce pan, combine water and brown sugar. Bring to a boil to dissolve sugar. Once sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and allow to cool. May be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Liza Rivera.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 17 calories (none from fat), no protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, no fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium.


Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Serves: 6

“Halo-halo” is Tagalog for “mix-mix” which is what you and your guests will be doing as you enjoy this dessert. In the Philippines this is served at home, but is also available from street vendors who customize it for each buyer.

Ingredients for halo-halo are available at Oriental markets and the Buford Highway Farmers Market. You can also find an already combined mixture labeled “Sweet Fruit Mix.”

The list here is only a suggestion. When choosing what to include, make sure your offering is as colorful as possible. Rivera likes to cook the banana in some of the brown sugar simple syrup from the Green Mango Shake.

6 cups finely crushed ice

1 cup ube (purple yam) jam

1 cup canned jackfruit, thinly sliced

1 cup diced grass jelly

1 cup palm seeds

1 banana

1/2 cup creamed corn

1/4 of Leche Flan (see recipe)

1 cup evaporated or whole milk

Use a food processor to finely crush ice. You want to be sure the ice is processed into very fine pieces. If doing ahead, put crushed ice in a sealable plastic bag and freeze until needed. When ready to use, use a rolling pin to break up any clumps that have formed.

Spoon jam, jackfruit, jelly, palm seeds, banana, creamed corn and flan into individual serving dishes. Arrange on table along with pitcher of milk. Give guests tall sundae glasses and allow them to layer ingredients as they prefer. Add 1 cup ice to each glass, then top halo-halo with flan and milk. Eat right away.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Liza Rivera.

Per serving: 650 calories (percent of calories from fat, 25), 13 grams protein, 116 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 19 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 59 milligrams cholesterol, 191 milligrams sodium.

Leche Flan

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, plus cooling time

Serves: 12

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk

1 cup whole milk

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a large roasting pan with enough water to come half way up the side of a 1 1/2 quart baking dish.

In the jar of a blender, combine condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk, egg yolks, Grand Marnier and vanilla. Process until thoroughly blended, then set aside to allow foam to subside.

In a medium skillet, combine sugar and nutmeg. Heat sugar over medium heat until it caramelizes to a golden brown color, about 10 minutes. Be careful not to make it too dark. Carefully remove pan from burner and pour caramelized sugar into a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Swirl to coat bottom and sides with caramelized sugar.

As soon as caramelized sugar is set, place baking dish in prepared roasting pan. Pour milk mixture into baking dish and carefully move roasting pan into oven. Bake 1 hour and 30 minutes or until center of the flan is set. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. May be made up to 1 day ahead.

When ready to serve, run a knife around the edge of the baking dish. Place serving dish on baking dish, then quickly flip so serving dish is on the bottom. Flan should slip out of pan and onto serving dish. Serve cold.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Ruth Perou.

Per serving: 251 calories (percent of calories from fat, 27), 6 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 93 milligrams cholesterol, 85 milligrams sodium.

Fresh Lumpia

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Makes: 12

When Rivera makes this dish she cooks a whole chicken and uses 1 cup of the cooked chicken and 1/2 cup of the resulting chicken broth in the recipe. We’ve substituted ground chicken and used more shrimp broth.

This same filling can be wrapped in softened rice paper and fried to make fried lumpia, or mixed with noodles to make Pancit, a Filipino noodle dish.

1 pound head-on shell-on shrimp

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 cup minced onion

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 pound ground chicken

3 cups diced green beans (cut on the bias into 1/4-inch long pieces) (about 3/4 pound)

2 cups julienned carrots (cut into 2-inch long pieces, 1/4-inch wide) (about 3/4 pound)

1/4 cup lightly packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons fish sauce

4 cups slivered Napa cabbage (divide thicker stem pieces from thinner leaf edge pieces)

2 1/2 cups mung bean sprouts (about 1/2 pound)

Fresh Lumpia Wrappers (see recipe)

12 large soft lettuce leaves

Lumpia Sauce (see recipe)

1/2 cup crushed dry roasted unsalted peanuts, for garnish

Cut off the heads and shell the shrimp. Combine heads and shells in a medium saucepan and add water just to cover. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover the pan and allow to cool. When mixture has cooled, strain the shells, heads and some of the cooking water into the bowl of a food processor and process until finely chopped. Return shell-and-head mixture to saucepan and stir. Strain the liquid into a measuring cup. Discard solids. You should have at least 2 cups liquid. Set aside.

Cut the shrimp meat into 1/4-inch pieces. You should have about 2 cups. Put shrimp in a bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

In a large wok. heat oil just until smoking, then add onion and garlic and stir fry 1 minute. Add chicken and cook until just done, about 2 minutes. Add beans, carrots, brown sugar, 1/2 cup reserved shrimp cooking stock and fish sauce. Cook 3 minutes or until carrots and beans are tender. Stir in stem end pieces of Napa cabbage. Cook 2 minutes. Add reserved shrimp and 1/2 cup shrimp cooking stock and cook 2 minutes. Add remaining Napa cabbage and bean sprouts and cook 1 minute. Taste for seasoning, adding more fish sauce if needed. Remove mixture from cooktop and allow to cool. When cooled, strain vegetables and meat from cooking liquid. Reserve cooking liquid for making Lumpia Sauce. Refrigerate filling until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, diners layer one lumpia wrapper with one lettuce leaf, then add filling and roll up, burrito-style. Top lumpia with sauce and crushed peanuts.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Liza Riviera.

Per serving: 351 calories (percent of calories from fat, 38), 28 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 15 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 199 milligrams cholesterol, 321 milligrams sodium.

Fresh Lumpia Wrappers

Hands on: 35 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Makes: 12

Fresh lumpia wrappers are made just like crepes.

6 eggs

3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing pan

1 teaspoon salt

2 1/4 cups water

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, whisk eggs until very light and foamy. Add oil and salt and whisk to combine. Alternately add water and flour, whisking until mixture is smooth.

Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly oil the surface. Using a 1/3-cup measure, pour batter into skillet and swirl so mixture coats the bottom of the pan. Cook until a few brown spots appear on the bottom side and edges start to curl, about 1 minute, then turn the wrapper to lightly brown the second side, about 30 seconds. Lay the cooked wrapper aside to cool. Continue until all the batter is used, putting a piece of parchment paper between each wrapper to prevent sticking.

May be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and kept at room temperature, or made up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Liza Rivera.

Per serving: 134 calories (percent of calories from fat, 49), 5 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 7 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 106 milligrams cholesterol, 213 milligrams sodium.

Lumpia Sauce

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Makes: 2 cups

2 cups liquid from lumpia filling (see Lumpia recipe)

1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

4 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons corn starch

In a medium saucepan, combine lumpia filling liquid, brown sugar, soy sauce and minced garlic. Bring to a boil.

In a small bowl, stir water and cornstarch together, then add to boiling mixture. Cook sauce just until it thickens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and allow to cool. May be made up and refrigerated to 1 week in advance.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Liza Rivera.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 14 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 167 milligrams sodium.