FOOD AND THE PHILIPPINES: DIET, EATING CUSTOMS AND COOKING FOR THE U.S. PRESIDENT

FOOD IN THE PHILIPPINES

Filipino food (known locally as "native" food and abroad sometimes as pinoy cooking ) is somewhat similar to Indonesian and Malaysian food but often has a distinctive sour taste. Chinese- and Spanish- influenced food are featured most prominently during holidays and feasts. Native Filipino food is peasant rural food of farmers and fishermen. Filipinos food expert Doreen Fernandez told Newsweek, "We have the least spicy except in one or two provinces. The big colonial mixture has diluted our cuisine."

Most main dishes are stews made with chicken, pork, fish or seafood. Common spices and flavoring include vinegar, patis (a very salty, fermented fish sauce), bagoong (pungent shrimp paste), banana ketchup, lemon, coconut milk, chilies, bay leaves and garlic. The sour taste that Filipinos like so much is made from a mixture of vinegar and unripe tamarind seeds. Rice used be cooked in woven bamboo. Patis is placed on the table to be added to any of the dishes.

According to the Philippines Department of Tourism: “Be ready to put on a few extra pounds as you satisfy your cravings by indulging in a Filipino feast. Dishes to try: Lechon, spit-roast whole pig served with liver sauce; Adobo, pork, chicken or a combination of both, marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic and stewed until tender; Kare-kare, meat and vegetables cooked with peanut sauce served with shrimp paste; Sinigang, pork, or seafood in tamarind soup; or the freshest seafoods— fish, squid, shrimp, lobsters— grilled to perfection. The more adventurous should try Balut or boiled duck eggs containing a partially formed embryo, and Dinuguan, the pork blood stew eaten with steamed rice or Puto, rice cakes. All around the country, there are restaurants offering different cuisines from American to Chinese, from Indian to Greek, from Japanese to French. [Source: Philippines Department of Tourism]

Food is a huge part of Filipino culture—in fact, the local word for ‘Hello,’ is ‘Have you eaten?’ And though little-known, you’ll find our cuisine as beautiful and surprising as the country. Esquire UK described dinner in Manila as a ‘growing flirtation that was turning into true love’. Filipino food is an exotic, tasteful fusion of Oriental, European, and American culinary influences with a wide variety of fresh seafood and delectable fruits. These influences have been adapted to local ingredients and the Filipino palate to create distinctly Filipino dishes. Take “kare-kare” — what started as a Filipino take on curry. Instead of curry paste, some ancient, resourceful cook ground peanuts to make a thick stew, then paired it with “bagoong” (fish paste). The dish now is so far from its inspiration, but has become its own kind of good. watercress, carrots, and onions. [Ibid]

Three hundred years of Spanish rule had a strong influence on the food in the Philippines: The Spanish brought with them their own cuisine and many of these foods were adopted into the Filipino diet. Here’s a list of some of them: corn, flour, squash, avocado, sausage, beef, guava, sapodilla (chico fruit), papaya, cabbage, cocoa, potatoes (white), ham, coffee, beer, bread (made from wheat flour), pickles, sardines. The Spanish also introduced forks, spoons, plates, and cups to the Philippines. To this day, forks and spoons are used when eating (but not knives). However, some Filipinos still prefer to eat the truly native Filipino way, without utensils. [Source: by Rebecca, Philippines Baguio Mission, 2009-2011, the missionary website, preparetoserve.com =]

Women are cooks, but few are chefs. That’s usually a man’s territory. Yet in 2005, Filipino Cristeta Comerford was selected as the first female executive chef in the White House, responsible for whipping up official dinners, private parties and family meals for the then US President George W. Bush.

Filipino Diet

The typical Philippine diet revolves mainly around the local foods, especially vegetables. pork and seafood, and rice and noodles. Filipinos are also very familiar with Western foods, especially fast foods, and the diet of most today is a mixture of all these influences. Westerners familiar with Spanish-influenced cuisine will recognize the Latin-based menudo-type stews, the Cuban-style pork dishes, the tapa-like appetizers, but all with native ingredients of Asian and Polynesian origin. On top of this, add the American hamburger, and other types of fast food (which, in all fairness, are found most everywhere around the world), and you have a sense of Filipino cooking. [Source: etiquettescholar.com]

Filipinos love rice. A meal is not a meal without rice. Rice is commonly eaten for breakfast. Seafood is very common everywhere, as are preserved vegetables and rice dishes, mixed often with coconut pork. and chicken. Restaurants representing various Asian cuisines abound in Manila. There are a few unique Philippine dishes that you will probably be encouraged to try: one of them is balut, which is a cooked egg with a half-developed chick or duckling inside. Winged beans, from the Philippines, can be steamed, stir fried or used in dips.

Three crops a year are harvested to provide enough rice for the population, and the government keeps surpluses stored for times of drought. Salt water and freshwater of fish and shellfish are eaten daily, served either fresh or salted. Fish, chicken and pork are usually fried, although people are becoming more health-conscious and often choose alternative methods of cooking. Garlic is added to food because it is considered healthful. Filipino food is not spicy. All food is cooked on gas burners or wood or charcoal fires and is allowed to get cold before it is eaten. Rice is cooked first, since it takes longer. When it is ready, rice will be placed on the table while the next items of the meal are prepared and served. [Source: everyculture.com /=/]

The nutritional icon for the Philippines is the six-sided diamond star which divided into six groups; 1) leafy green and yellow vegetables; 2) citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and other vitamin-C-rich fruits and vegetables; 3) succulent vegetables and fruits; 4) milk, cheese, butter, and other fat-rich foods; 5) meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dried beans, mungo and other sources of protein; and 6) rice and other grains. The message conveyed by the star is that food from each group should be consumed. The Philippines guidelines also advise drinking milk everyday, getting enough protein and savoring meals.

The largest consumers of instant noodles in 1996 were: 1) Indonesia (7.97 billion packets); 2) Japan (5.3 billion packets); 3) South Korea (3.73 billion packets); 4) the United States (2.0 billion packets); 4) Thailand (1.34 billion packets); 5) the Philippines (1.04 billion packets); and 6) Taiwan (840 million packets).

Yucky Food in the Philippines

Winston posted in his blog happierabroad.com: “ Food in the Philippines is considered by all foreigners unanimously to be the worst in Asia, hands down. Not only are the ingredients in the food of bad quality, but they are shabbily hacked together with no skill or class. 95 percent of restaurants owned by Filipinos serve food that is so disgusting that you wouldn't eat it if it were free, yet they charge high prices for it and get away with it! It's mind boggling. [Source: Winston, happierabroad.com, December 22, 2011 ~\~]

“The fast food franchises Chow King and Greenwich are disgusting, not even edible and shouldn't even exist, yet they are everywhere in the Philippines! It's bizarro world. To get decent food you have to be very selective, visiting only places that you know have decent food, which are usually foreign owned. Places owned by foreigners or Filipinos who were trained abroad also have a good chance of being decent. ~\~

“The poor choice of food leads to overall nutritional deficits in the Filipino population, which most are unaware of. Also keep in mind, food spoils very quickly in the Philippines, even when it's refrigerated, like it does nowhere else, probably due to the humidity that allows all kinds of molds and bacteria to grow. I've never seen food spoil as fast as it does in the Philippines. Moreover, you can't leave food on the table or anywhere in open space without ants getting to it within minutes. But it's impossible to remember every time to put food in the fridge or within locked containers, so inevitably you're going to have ants getting into some of your food. It's very annoying, and does not happen in colder or dryer climates. ~\~

Unappreciated Pinoy Food

Norma O. Chikiamco wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “I feel disheartened every time I hear people extol the virtues of Asian cuisine. Most likely they'd be referring to Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian or Chinese food; just as likely there won't be any mention of Filipino food. As if it isn't hard enough being called the Sad Sack of Asia, they have to snub our cuisine too. Is Filipino food meant to be loved by no one else but us? [Source: Norma O. Chikiamco, Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 6, 2008 *-*]

“Maybe it's because our food is indistinguishable. Being an aggregation of Spanish, Chinese, Malay, and American influences, it's neither East nor West, neither here nor there. Ours is probably the only country in Asia where American hamburger is seasoned with Chinese soy sauce, “Italian” spaghetti is cooked with hot dogs, and Chinese dishes are called by Spanish names (as in camaron rebosado, morisqueta tostada). And where else but in the Philippines can one find a dish called Arroz a la Cubana which doesn't exist at all in Cuba? All these alongside our own homegrown favorites such as dinuguan, sinigang, pakbet and tinola. Being accustomed to all these, we probably take them for granted. But a foreigner trying our cuisine for the first time would probably be scratching his head, wondering what culinary circus he has stumbled into. *-*

“That is why it's so gratifying when, once in a rare while, we get a bit of unsolicited publicity. I almost jumped with pride and joy when I saw Martha Stewart featuring Filipino cuisine in her highly-rated TV shows. With Martha by his side, Filipino chef Romy Dorotan demonstrated how to cook lumpia and adobo. The doyen of domesticity even had some favorable words to say about our cuisine and pronounced Romy's cooking delicious. Likewise, in an issue of Gourmet Magazine a few years ago, halo-halo was included among the featured Asian ices. And in the reality show “Fear Factor” (and later, in “The Amazing Race Asia”), one of the challenges contestants had to hurdle was eating balut, the dark, forbidding unhatched duck embryo that's a unique Filipino delicacy. As expected, it had some contestants gagging, and while this might have given Filipino cuisine some notoriety, it at least brought our much overlooked cuisine its 15 minutes of fame. *-*

“With more and more young Filipinos now going into culinary arts, is our cuisine then next to be launched into international stardom? Is a renaissance of Filipino food soon in the offing? I wish the answer could be “yes,” but I think it's more of “not yet.” True, there has been so much renewed interest in dining out, and options for the dinner crowd have expanded tremendously. And yet, what I see is young chefs opening Greek restaurants and French bistros, working in international ocean liners and developing recipes for American food imports. Few are those who have ventured into Filipino cuisine, or who've championed the cause of Pinoy food. Maybe it's because other endeavors are more lucrative. Maybe chefs feel (with reason, I believe) that their countrymen wouldn't pay restaurant prices for dishes they can cook at home. Maybe it's just a reflection of the diversity of our culture that our chefs can adapt so easily to foreign cooking. *-*

Recently someone said something about Filipino food being the best kept secret of Asia. And there perhaps we've found our squeeze, our rightful position in the global community. Filipino food as the ultimate culinary secret, a hidden treasure whose bewildering ways are understandable only to a chosen few. Never mind being snubbed and being obscure. While others are unaware of this last frontier, it's ours to savor and ours to enjoy. After all where else can one find pitisu, a derivative of the French petite choux, side by side with pancit Canton (which isn't really from Canton) or lumpiang Shanghai (which isn't really from Shanghai either).

Eating Customs in the Philippines

Table knives are not used. Forks and spoons are used for dining. The food is eaten from a spoon. Many Filipinos eat with fork in the left hand and a spoon in their right hand and push food onto the back of the spoon with the fork. People often eat with their hands, even rice and stews. The traditional method of placing food on a banana leaf and eating with one's hands is also used throughout the country. It is acceptable to eat food with one's hands at restaurants as well as in the home. As is true in Muslim countries people eat with their right hand. Unlike other Asians, Filipinos eat their food quietly.

According to etiquettescholar.com: “Chopsticks are used to eat Chinese food. Otherwise, forks, spoons, and knives are used with Philippine and Western food. In some Philippine restaurants (the more authentic and usually downscale places), no utensils at all are used. Avoid using your left hand for any kind of eating, especially if you are eating directly with your hands and not using utensils.” [Source: etiquettescholar.com]

Meals are regarded as a social experience. There is often a lot of food and a lot of talking. Even middle class families sometimes have cooks and servant who cook and serve the food. Filipinos typically arrive 30 minutes late when invited for dinner. Guests are expected to eat a lot. If one eats heartily it is regarded as a compliment. If one doesn’t eat so much it is considered an insult. When something is offered, Filipinos usually refuse the first time and accept the second time.

Filipinos often eat a late dinner Spanish style at around 9:00pm or 10:00pm. They also often eat an afternoon snack merienda. On the street food is often served on a banana leaf and drinks in a plastic bag with a straw. Dinner is often followed by a visit to a nightclub or a bar. Dutch pay is considered tacky. The person who does the inviting pays.

Eating Habits in the Philippines

A typical Filipino meal consists of a main seafood or meat dish served with soup, vegetables and rice, with tea or coffee. Chicken often has bones in it. Fish often come with the heads attached. In much of the Philippines breakfast, lunch and dinner are same: Filipino-style rice with some pieces of meat and vegetables in it.

Filipinos tend to rise early and breakfast is usually eaten between 6:30am and 8:00am. A typical Filipino breakfast is comprised of daggit (dried fish), rice, fruit and ensair mada (sugar buns), or eggs, sausage and pan de sal (sourdough bread). In some places Spam is a popular breakfast treat. In other places breakfast is simply tea or coffee with rice or food left over from the night before that is not reheated. Rice is served either as a porridge-type cereal that can be flavored with any number of ingredients (nasi gorang), with eggs in a variety of styles, or with pickled vegetables. Tea may be drunk plain or with lemon, cream, milk, or sugar. Eggs and sausage are served on special occasions. Small buns called pan de sol may be purchased from vendors early in the morning. Bread often refers to toast. [Source: Mike Lininger etiquettescholar.com <*>, everyculture.com /=/]

Merienda is the name of a midmorning and afternoon snack that was introduced by the Spanish and was traditionally served around 3:00pm after a siesta. It is usually features cakes, tarts, fritters or sweets made with coconut milk and palm sugar. Some people take a morning miernda around 10:00am. Since Filipinos are fond of sweet foods, a mixture of instant coffee, evaporated milk, and sugar may be served. Coca-Cola is very popular. Sweet rolls, doughnuts, or a noodle dish may be available.

Lunch is traditionally the main meal of the day, and even today, in busy cities, it can still be an elaborate affair with several courses-or it can be a simple noodle dish or fast food bolted down in a matter of minutes. Lunch can also be a light meal with rice and one other dish, often a fish or meat stew. Lunch is served from about 12:00noon to 1:00pm and consists sour soup, cooked pork, meat stew, fish, and/or vegetables, served with rice and fruit or cakes. Many dishes can be steamed, stir-fried, or boiled in a variety of different ways, either simply or more elaborately. Lechon, or pork, is usually roasted or barbecued, and is a very popular meat. You will see adobo, a spice, just about everywhere. Fish sauce and fish paste are available with most ethnic Philippine foods, and have very pungent flavors: start out carefully. Filipinos enjoy sweet pastries, so a very sweet dessert of fruits, pudding, or cake is usually available for every meal. Typically, the drinks served with lunch and dinner are soft drinks, beer, and/or tea or coffee. <*> /=/

Dinner is served from 6:00pm on, with 7:30pm the customary late time and is usually a fish or seafood dish served with rice and a vegetable dish. Even if the main meal of the day was lunch, dinner is only slightly lighter-this is often the case with families at home. The dinner menu is often similar to that of the more formal lunch. Fish, pork, or chicken is served at dinner with a soup made of lentils or vegetables. Fatty pork is a favorite. Portions of small cubes of browned pork fat are considered a special dish. Fresh fruit is a common dessert. It is almost always peeled. If alcohol is being served, predinner drinks may begin with beer or rice wine, then move on to beer during the meal, and end with a sweet wine and/or coffee or tea. Western liquors are served in upscale restaurants and at business dinners. <*> /=/

Table Manners in the Philippines

According to etiquettescholar.com: The most honored position is at the head of the table, as in the western European style, with the honored guest(s) sitting to the right of the host (and hostess): If there are couples, the honored man sits next to the hostess, and the honored woman sits next to the host. (Spouses are usually not invited to business meals, though, and most formal meals in restaurants are business meals: do not ask if your spouse can join you; it will embarrass your Filipino colleague into doing something that is uncomfortable for him.) The honored guest sits on the side of the table farthest from the door if possible. [Source: Mike Lininger etiquettescholar.com <*>]

You will always be offered more food. Leave a bit on your plate if you do not want more food. You will be implored to take more two or three times, in the form of a little ritual. The game is as follows: first you refuse, then the host insists, then you refuse again, then the host insists again, and then you finally give in and take a little more. If you really don't want more, take very little and leave it on your plate. You may always have additional beverages; drink enough to cause your cup or glass to be less than half full, and it will generally be refilled. A reminder: never refill your own glass; always refill your neighbor's glass, and he or she will refill yours. <*>

If the meal is served help-yourself style, be sure not to be the first person to take food; let the host or hostess begin. At the end of the meal, you may be given pabaon. a doggie bag with the leftover food in it. This is a common expression of hospitality; make an effort to reject it, but ultimately take it. If you invite someone to an event, you will rarely be turned down directly-people will say things like "Yes, I think I can make it" but this is no guarantee that they will actually come. Do not take the last bit of food from a central serving plate if there is one (more often than not, Philippine meals will be individually served); that means there will be none left in case someone else wants more. Also, a sauce may be mixed with the rice, and the main dish may be eaten with the rice.<*>

Toothpicks are often used at the end of the meal. The best way to handle a toothpick is to work away with one hand, while keeping the other hand in front of it over the mouth, as a sort of mask. If you cover the working hand this way, you can join in the toothpick session in public at the end of the meal with the best of them! Just never do it walking down the street: that's simply not done. Smoking is ubiquitous throughout the Philippines. Usually, you do not smoke at the table until the meal is over. <*>

Eating with Your Hands in the Philippines

According to etiquettescholar.com: “Food you eat with your hands is known as "banana-leaf" food. “It includes wonderful vegetarian or meat curries, served with rice and sauce on a large banana leaf. No plates, no forks, no spoons, no chopsticks. You reach into the rice, take some with your fingers, gently roll it between your index and middle fingers and thumb (not your palm!) into a kind of self-sticking ball, dip it into the sauce on the banana leaf, mix it with a vegetable or a piece of chicken, then pop the whole thing in your mouth. Here are some other things to note about eating in such restaurants.” [Source: Mike Lininger etiquettescholar.com <*>]

“Wash your hands before you sit down to eat. Many banana-leaf restaurants have washrooms and sinks out in the open specifically for this purpose. (However, you may want to wash your hands with bottled water at the hotel first, since the water at the restaurant may be more hazardous to your health than the germs already on your hands!) You will also need to wash you hands again at the end of the meal, especially after eating the saucy dishes, since you've probably got a good bit of it running down your arm. Don't worry, it's to be expected: don't dress up if you're eating banana-leaf style. <*>

“Dining etiquette for using your hands. Use your right hand when picking up and eating food. Keep your left hand at your side. Do not place your left hand on the table, and do not pass food with your left hand, as the left hand typically is considered the "unclean" hand in Muslim tradition, and many banana-leaf restaurants are Muslim establishments. If you absolutely cannot eat without some kind of utensil, it's usually all right to ask for spoons in such establishments. The proprietors are more than pleased to accommodate Westerners. <*>

Filipina White House Executive Chef

Cristeta Pasia Comerford (born 1962) is the White House Executive Chef since 2005. She is the first woman to be selected for the post, and also the first of Filipino descent. Elizabeth Williamson wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Ms. Comerford, 47, attended the food-technology program at the University of the Philippines. She got her start in Chicago-area hotels, including the Sheraton and Hyatt Regency near O'Hare airport. In Washington, she did a stint at Le Grande Bistro in the Westin Hotel before she was recruited by former White House chef Walter Scheib III to work at the presidential residence in 1995. Laura Bush appointed her to the top job in 2005, making Ms. Comerford the first female, and the first ethnic minority, to hold the position. [Source: Elizabeth Williamson, Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2011 ||||]

“Her friendly manner carries an undercurrent of toughness. When her assistant suggested her "spring rolls" are a signature dish, she shot him a look and said, "No, that's not who I am." A Cristeta Comerford meal is known for its Asian spice, colors and "extra garlic," she said. One recent afternoon, she prepared seared lamb loin on chickpea purée for an Obama family dinner, the purée's strong garlic balanced by parsley and mint. The dish was finished with orange zest and streaks of vibrant finishing oil, made by cooking light olive oil with handfuls of parsley until the oil glows a vivid green. ||||

“Great cooking comes from "people who have an innate capacity to taste and see and smell," she said. Ms. Comerford rarely measures spices. She tastes as she goes, relying on her palate, experience and training—and sometimes, her assistants—to tell her when it's right. After she draws up a menu, she conducts multiple tastings for her staff and a full dress rehearsal. Travel, including an August trip to Beijing, exposes her to new ideas, ingredients and techniques. She belongs to the Club des Chefs des Chefs, composed of those who cook for heads of state, and sharing tricks "is what makes you a good chef," she said. Mostly, she said, the club shares secrets on the tastes and quirks of global leaders. Apparently France's President Nicolas Sarkozy loves chocolate of any kind. British monarch Queen Elizabeth II is a huge fan of fish. ||||

“White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford generally won't endorse products, but here's the equipment she used while preparing a lamb dinner for the first family last week, plus a few other of her favorite things: 1) Range: Vulcan; 2) Refrigerator: Traulsen; 3) Espresso maker: La Cimbali M32; 4) Pots/pans: Mauviel stainless. In the kitchen at Buckingham Palace, Ms. Comerford was captivated by a collection of pots dating to the 1700s, but White House vessels go back only a generation or so; 5) Knife: Misono 440; 6) Cutting board: The White House kitchen staff uses boards made of a fiber composite that doesn't shred (like plastic) or hold bacteria (like wood); 6) Thick, white, cotton terry hand towels: Ms. Comerford calls these "the best thing here." She uses them instead of paper towels for most jobs, from drying meat before searing to drying hands; 7) The Hobart 300 gravity-feed food slicer: Ms. Comerford's latest, favorite toy. It's "like driving a sports car," she said, allowing her to shave just about anything lace-thin; and 8) Birkenstocks: When it's just the chef and her assistants, you'll find her in a worn pair. But for company, she breaks out a pair of black patent-leather Dansko Professional clogs.” ||||

Filipina Chef Prepares American-Style State Dinner at the White House for the Chinese Leader

Elizabeth Williamson wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “As world leaders and celebrities streamed into the White House for the highly anticipated state dinner honoring China's President Hu Jintao, White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford had a discomfiting thought: "In five minutes we're going to serve 200 people. This is not the time to fail." She donned her Dolce & Gabbana bifocals, a move signaling to her staff that it's "game on," she said, though in the heat of preparation, her glasses often steam up and she'll wind up casting them aside. (She recently found them in the refrigerator.)[Source: Elizabeth Williamson, Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2011 ||||]

“The importance of the dinner went beyond its usual social value. When Mr. Hu visited in 2006, he was invited to lunch, which the Chinese took as a slight. So, at a time when the U.S. is pressing Beijing on economic issues like the value of its currency, but relying on its help with thorny regional problems like North Korea, the pressure was on to underscore the value of the relationship by pulling out all the culinary stops. ||||

“The Chinese asked for a "quintessentially American" dinner. What does that mean to a Philippines-born, French-trained chef, married to a chef of Irish descent? To Ms. Comerford, quintessentially American "reminds you of home." Her family Thanksgiving table is an amalgam of Mayflower and Manila, some 20 dishes prepared by the couple with baking help from their 9-year-old daughter, Danielle. The chef's sweet potatoes are a presidential favorite: She roasts them with oranges and star anise. ||||

“Her starting point for the menu for the state dinner, as with any meal, was a review of the best ingredients available locally, arrayed on one of her stainless-steel work tables. Seeing the items together helps her to draw new lines between them, creating different combinations. The meal, five courses served to 200 people in 48 minutes, was choreographed in Ms. Comerford's 10-year-old Volvo, "where most of the creative things happen," she said. On the hour-long drive from her Columbia, Md., home, she fine-tuned the recipes, envisioned colors and created the final plating in her mind. Then she instructed the staff, down to the last knife cut. ||||

“Goat cheese was featured in the dinner's appetizer of D'Anjou pear with fennel and black walnuts, dressed with white balsamic. The orange-glazed carrots served with black trumpet mushrooms alongside poached Maine lobster were so fresh they tasted almost as good raw, she said. Dry-aged rib eye beef was cooked in a thermal immersion circulator, a hot-water method that ensured uniform doneness. ||||

“The day of the China dinner, Ms. Comerford assembled a team of 41 chefs. The key to managing a greatly expanded staff in a high-profile situation is advance preparation and practice, so Ms. Comerford—who during an event directs her staff by using hand signals, like a baseball coach—issues very few commands in the heat of battle. Her team works in near silence, their rehearsed movements akin to "a ballet," the chef said. But there still must be enough flexibility to handle the unexpected, whether it's a soufflé that doesn't rise properly or the 2½-inch fingerling potatoes she ordered that were much smaller when delivered. The meal was transported from the kitchen and plated just outside the White House's Red, Blue and State dining rooms. With the serving of the main course, "a whole burden...is lifted from me," she said.” ||||

Cristeta Comerford's Recipes

Sweet Potato Pie: According to the Wall Street Journal White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford's Sweet Potato Pie is a presidential favorite. The sweet potato filling can be prepared on its own, as a side dish. Ingredients: 1) Filling: 3 sweet potatoes, 4 sticks cinnamon, 5 star anise, 1 orange quartered, 2 tbsp melted butter; 2) Dough: 1 cup butter, ½ cup sugar, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp lemon zest, 2 egg yolks, 2 ½ cup flour; 3) Custard: 3 cups crème fraiche, 4 whole eggs, 1 tbsp vanilla, 2 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp nutmeg, ½ tsp salt. [Source: Elizabeth Williamson, Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2011 ||||]

Preparing and Cooking: 1) Pre-heat oven to 350; 2) For the pie dough, cream the sugar and butter. Add the dry ingredients and gently mix. Incorporate the vanilla, zest and egg yolks. Form into a ball and let rest in the refrigerator. Roll the dough to fit a 12 inch tart pan. Top with parchment paper and cooking beads and bake blind for 12 minutes. Set aside to cool. 2) For the sweet potato puree, bake the whole sweet potatoes and all the aromatics on a sheet tray at 350 degrees until tender. Scoop the meat and pass through a chinoise. Set aside to cool. In the meantime, mix the custard base and fold into the cooled potato puree. 3) Pour into the cooked tart shell and finish cooking until set, about 35 minutes. 4) For the honey meringue topping: 3 egg whites, 2 cups honey, reduced by half. 5) Whip the egg whites until stiff and incorporate the hot reduced honey. Top the cooked sweet potato pie and broil until the meringue gets a toasted color. ||||

Seared Lamb Loin on Chickpea Puree: This is an adaptation of a dinner Ms. Comerford prepared for the Obamas when the Wall Street Journal visited her kitchen. Amounts are approximate, because she doesn't measure in advance, but tastes as she goes. Ingredients: 1) Boneless lamb loin, 4-6 oz per person; 2) Zest of an orange. Combine in a food processor or blender: A) 1 to 1-1/2 C. canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans), about 1/3 C. tahini (sesame seed paste); B) About 2 T., or to taste, harissa (North African chili pepper paste); C) 2 cloves garlic, or to taste; D) About 2 T., or to taste, harissa (North African chili pepper paste)About 3 T. fresh mint, chopped; E) About 3 T. fresh mint, chopped; F) Freshly-ground sea salt and pepper, to taste. ||||

Preparing and Cooking: 1) Process/blend ingredients above with enough olive oil to form a puree; taste and adjust aromatics, seasoning. 2) Gently warm the puree in a saucepan on the stovetop; do not boil. Set aside. 3) Slice lamb loin into rounds ½-3/4" thick; dry thoroughly with paper or cloth towel. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. 4) Sear lamb on both sides until medium-rare. Do not overcook. Spread about ¼ C. of the puree, or more if desired, onto the center of a warm plate, lay two or three lamb rounds over the top. 5) Garnish the lamb with orange zest. Decorate the plate with bright green finishing oil, if desired (recipe below). Serves 4. ||||

Parsley Finishing Oil: Chef Comerford says every top chef has a favorite recipe for a finishing oil, used to add colorful streaks or designs to a plated dish. Hers is vivid green, prepared with parsley. Gently cook 1 lb. chopped parsley in 1 C. of light extra virgin olive oil on the stovetop until the oil turns a vivid green. Strain through a paper coffee filter into a bowl floating in an ice bath, to preserve the brightness. Store in a fine-tipped squeeze bottle. ||||

Manila Prisoners Draw Knives for "Iron Bar Chef"

Michaela Cabrera of Reuters wrote: “Convicted murderers and rapists in the Philippines faced off against each other in a prison battle using knives, but also aprons, hats, pots and pans. Enter "Iron Bar Chef," the latest recreational effort at the largest prison in the Philippines -- part of a broader programme that officials say has vastly helped tame the mood of the jail's restive inmates. Inspired by reality TV cooking show "Iron Chef," the version at Manila's New Bilibid Prison pitted six teams against each other, tasking them to create an appetizer, a main course and a dessert in 60 minutes.[Source: Michaela Cabrera, Reuters, January 10, 2012 <\>]

“Each three-man team was given a box of ingredients including meat, fish, vegetables and fruits. When the clock started, the inmates began frantically chopping, frying and steaming. "This is my passion, that's why I was really interested in doing this," said Bienvendio Diaz, who worked as a cook and caterer before receiving a 27-year-sentence for fraud. The January 7 showdown at the prison was just the latest venture in a wide-ranging rehabilitation program that aims not only to reform inmates but also to cultivate their skills and prepare them for a possible return to the work force. <\>

“No strangers to the kitchen, most of the cookoff participants had worked in restaurants and catering businesses before entering prison, and were glad to put their kitchen skills to use. Maximo Delmo, who worked as a cook in Japan and as chief steward of a cargo ship, is serving multiple life sentences for murder. He hopes his time can be reduced for good behavior. "Even if we're here inside, we can use our skills and prepare ourselves. Maybe, if no one will give us jobs, we can open up our own business," he said. The event also aimed to encourage camaraderie between rival gangs. Other inmates watched the cookoff, and even got to taste the finished products. <\>

“After closely watched judging, Delmo's team tied with Diaz's for first place. They wowed judges with dishes like roast beef in marinara sauce, squash nuggets with fresh fruits, and Chinese-style steamed tilapia. One of the judges, executive chef Mark Crisologo of All Seasons Resort in Katherine, Australia, was impressed. "I was very surprised with the dishes that they created, with the limited time and the limited resources," he said. <\>

“The contestants were delighted with the day, both with their gourmet creations and cash prizes. The top winning team received 15,000 pesos ($340) while runners-up got 5,000 pesos. But the best rewards were intangible. "This is a big deal, it helps and encourages our fellow inmates who have lost hope," said Rommel Chua, a former restaurant cook serving a three-year sentence for illegally recruiting workers for overseas jobs. "Even if you're behind bars, you can still do what you want to do." <\>

Food Poisoning Kills at Least 27 Children

In March 2005, more than two dozen children died and 100 were hospitalized after eating snacks made from cassava. Some think cyanide in the cassava was not properly removed. Associated Press reported: “At least 27 elementary school children died and another 100 were hospitalized after eating a snack of cassava — a root that’s poisonous if not prepared correctly — during morning recess in the southern Philippines, officials said. Francisca Doliente, said her 9-year-old niece Arve Tamor was given some of the deep-fried caramelized cassava by a classmate who bought it from a regular vendor outside the San Jose school. “Her friend is gone. She died,” Doliente told The Associated Press, adding that her niece was undergoing treatment. [Source: Associated Press, March 9, 2005 <+>]

“The roots of the cassava plant, a major crop in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, are rich in protein, minerals and vitamins A, B and C. However, it is poisonous without proper preparation. Eaten raw, the human digestive system will convert part of it into cyanide. Even two cassava roots contain a fatal dose. “Some said they took only two bites because it tasted bitter and the effects were felt five to 10 minutes later,” said Dr. Harold Garcia of Garcia Memorial Provincial Hospital in the nearby town of Talibon, where 47 patients were taken. <+>

“The victims suffered severe stomach pain, then vomiting and diarrhea. They were taken to at least four hospitals near the school in Mabini, a town on Bohol island, about 380 miles southeast of Manila. Mabini Mayor Stephen Rances said 27 students were confirmed dead. Treatment was delayed because the nearest hospital was 20 miles away. Grace Vallente, 26, said her 7-year-old nephew Noel died en route to the hospital and that her 9-year-old niece Roselle was undergoing treatment. <+>

“There are many parents here,” she said from L.G. Cotamura Community Hospital in Bohol’s Ubay town. “The kids who died are lined up on beds. Everybody’s grief-stricken.” Dr. Leta Cutamora confirmed 14 dead at the hospital and 35 others admitted for treatment. Dr. Nenita Po, chief of the government-run Gov. Celestino Gallares Memorial Hospital, said 13 were brought there, including the 68-year-old woman who prepared the food with another woman. Two girls, ages 7 and 8, died. A specimen of the cassava was taken for inspection at the local Crime Laboratory Group. <+>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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