The many ways Sarsá ‘reinvents’ Filipino food

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In Sarsá, Chef JP Anglo plays around with his menu, but never forgets what makes his dishes distinctly Filipino. In photo: coconut grilled liempo in coconut sauce. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For a chef as dynamic and creative as JP Anglo, to make new dishes is an impulse as natural and irresistible as a hot bowl of sinigang, or maybe a plate of sizzling kansi. Not less than six months after updating the menu of Sarsá, his Negrense bistro, he comes up with 11 new dishes for hungry eaters around the metro: this time, reinventing Filipino street food and other ‘Sarsá classics.’

But maybe ‘reinvent’ is not quite the proper term, so much as Anglo takes old favorites and cooks them the best way he knows how: with an attention to detail, by borrowing techniques, maybe with an anecdote or two about how the dish came about. It’s always fascinating to talk about Filipino food with Anglo. In a previous story about calamansi, for example, he describes for me the singular taste of the Filipino ingredient, even bringing out a plate of chicken isaw to be dipped in a measured sawsawan including soy sauce and sinamak vinegar. “Lasang lupa,” I remember him saying, after which he goes into a story about kinilaw.

Atay in tsokolate sauce (2).JPG An unlikely combination that works in Sarsá's new menu: atay on a stick, drizzled with tsokolate sauce. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

A few months later, for dinner in Sarsá’s Rada branch, he explains the spread of new dishes before a crowd of eager visitors: sharing how a writer told him to create the atay (liver) with tsokolate sauce, how the kansi rice noodles was supposed to be an entry for the World Street Food Congress, and how a lady from Mindanao inspired him to create the coconut grilled liempo, one of his personal favorites. The visitors mill around him — and around the spread — as you would in a buffet table in a fiesta.

“It took me a while and 30 dishes,” Anglo tells me later, as I ask him about the time it takes to create new dishes. Tracie Anglo-Dizon, his sister and business partner, laughs as she recounts how they had to trim down the dishes to 11. One wonders about the dishes that did not make the cut: will they be unveiled six months from now, with Anglo telling new stories about them?

sinigang fried chicken and pork isaw.jpg New takes on old favorites include the sinigang fried chicken with bell pepper sauce, and pork isaw. Photos by KITKAT PAJARO

Filipino food, more than anything, has been all about “indigenization,” wrote Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez in her notes on Filipino food. You take a foreign element, the chef adapts it to local tastes, uses available ingredients, “thus creating a new dish that, in time, becomes so entrenched in the native cuisine and lifestyle that its origins are practically forgotten,” she says.

Thus, to speak about “authenticity” in the context of Filipino food is to forget how the cuisine is essentially and inherently a joyful mix of influences from all around the world, now made more evident by the many ways our chefs have fun blending what they know taste good and what they feel eaters will appreciate. The test is intuition, not authenticity.

Spicy chicken isaw (2).JPG Light and crunchy spicy chicken isaw, grilled until just slightly burnt at the edges. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Kansi rice noodles in kansi soy sauce.JPG Taking his cue from the kway teow, a Chinese rice noodle dish, JP Anglo creates kansi rice noodles with kansi soy sauce. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Anglo’s kansi rice noodles cooked in kansi stock is an illustrative example. Kansi is a key dish in Bacolod, cooked as a soup that blends bulalo and sinigang, but here, made into a noodle dish reminiscent of kway teow, a Chinese rice noodle dish. The dish is specific to the chef’s roots as a Negrense chef with Asian influences, as the restaurateur behind Mai Pao and Mu Shu in Bacolod, as well as a chef who doesn’t do fusion cuisine. The Asian and Chinese restaurants account for the techniques, Anglo says, but the dishes still taste Filipino.

“Our cooking philosophy, or cooking culture, is that we always push Filipino food, but at the same time remembering we don’t lose the very essence of it,” he says. In his spicy inasal pa-a and gata inasal pa-a, the inasal is still inasal: not dropped into a tinola or made into a pastel as to lose what makes it itself. Even with the gata inasal pa-a, there is only the slightest addition of coconut meat, the chicken tinged with sourness as to remind you of the marinade that makes an inasal. “If you want to innovate,” says Anglo, “it still has to taste Filipino.”

Gata inasal pa-a (2).JPG Sarsá is known for its chicken inasal, and stays true to its Negrense roots through this slight variation: the gata inasal pa-a. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Then there’s the sinigang fried chicken with bell pepper gata sauce, a dish that could go wrong if the requisite sinigang sourness is not immediate to the tastebuds. In this case, the sinigang shows up in the skin, lightly fried yet crisp. The thick orange cream sauce accompanying it is a surprising twist, balancing the zest of the sinigang taste with the refreshing sweetness of the coconut cream and bell pepper.

Perhaps the only misplaced dish in an otherwise satisfying new lineup is the crispy fish fillet in peanut sauce: misplaced not because of its taste, but rather because of its identity. Somehow the fillet does not fit in a menu filled with otherwise intriguing takes on local cuisine, such as the sizzling monggo with lechon kawali (best eaten hot).

Sizzling monggo with lechon kawali.JPG Sizzling monggo with lechon kawali, topped with crispy kangkong leaves. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Nevertheless, it’s a delight to sit in and experience Anglo’s Sarsá again and again, as he continues to meld experience and culture into the form he knows best: his own cooking. “What we do is we borrow cooking techniques from around the world, and we use local ingredients,” he says. But the most important part? “At the same time, we’re having fun.”

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Sarsá has branches in BGC Forum, UP Town Center, Rockwell, Rada St. in Makati, Mall of Asia, and Megamall. For more information, visit sarsa.ph or connect through Facebook.