Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Farmers Market in Cubao is bustling on a Sunday morning. Filipinos, with their woven baskets or palengke bags, scuttle around the maze of the market, going around the rows and rows of stalls that display a wide range of produce.
The market becomes even more alive as chef Margarita Forés arrives. She is touring Fil-Am chefs Tom Cunanan (the owner of Bad Saint restaurant in Washington D.C.) and chef Grant “Lanai” Tabura (the host behind the show “Cooking Hawaiian Style”), as they have been invited to the Philippines by the Department of Tourism (DOT) for the “Chefs’ Food Trip Project,” a program that seeks to position the country in the global gastronomic scene.
Forés leads the guests to the stalls brimming with fruits. “A lot of our fruits came to us via Mexico. And if you’re going to Mexico, they call this fruit chico zapote,” Forés says, as she shows the domestic fruit chico.
She continues to gush over the fruit. “When I went to Italy, and I ate prosciutto with figs, I imagined, ‘Oh my god prosciutto with our chico will probably be better.”
Forés proceeds to peel manggang supsupin, a kind of small mango that is called its name because of how one is supposed to eat them: suck or “supsup.” The chefs have a taste of the curious fruit, and their eyes widen, heads nodding in approval. She then points to the pomelo and jackfruit, explaining how these fruits from the south of the Philippines end up costing more in Luzon because it needs to be shipped by sea. “It’s a pity that it never really gets to Luzon as often as the apples from China,” she says. “That’s something that we should work on.”
As the tour progresses, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is more than just exposing the Fil-Am chefs to the variety of ingredients that are endemic or most commonly used in the Philippines. It’s part-history lesson, part-food trivia, part-food trip.
“This is so good by itself,” exclaims Cunanan, as he takes a bite of a green mango. Forés encourages him to try it with a shrimp paste. He dips a slice into the can of paste, and almost out of words, simply says: “That’s so good. That’s amazing.”
The group is led to the vegetable stands, and Forés shares her relationship with her suki. “When I started to do my work and I needed good tomato sauce, I would tell my suki, who’s like my regular vendor, to give [tomatoes] to me when it’s nearly overripe.” She then talks about how in the last eight years, people in the Philippines have experimented and brought back tomato seeds from Italy and California, and grown them in places like Bukidnon. “For the chefs, it’s better for us now [because there are so many varieties of tomatoes], but 30 years ago, it was just our local produce,” she says.
Forés points to the banana heart. “Puso ng saging,” Cunanan says, feeling proud of his use of Tagalog. The chefs were then shown the iconic calamansi, broccoli and peppers mostly grown up north, and a bounty of souring ingredients. Forés holds the kamias up, explaining how we put them on our salads and how National Artist Ben Cab actually invented the kamias shake.
In the stall of souring agents, Cunanan teasingly says: “Do they have Magic Sarap?” Forés laughs, and explains how raw tamarind used to be the most common souring element for sinigang, way before the sinigang mix was invented. “You just boil it, smash it, and get the essence,” she says.
The tour, like any other Filipino tour in particular, is not complete without performance. As the group huddles around a corner of a coconut stall, a vendor immediately shows off his skills, unleashing a single-edged knife to peel coconuts in mere seconds. “In the market, you’ll always find somebody who knows how to do this,” says Forés.
The chefs go down the wet part of the market, the pungent smell of raw fish and meat filling the nostrils. Forés leads the guests to a tiled counter surrounded with uncooked shrimp and crabs. Her team had prepared versions of kinilaw, with bowls filled with vinegar, kamias, sugar, and chili. Without hesitation, Forés dumps her hand in the container of raw shrimp, picks one, and submerges it in one of the kinilaw mixes.
“Look, the raw shrimp is getting cooked by the vinegar,” Forés exclaims, showing how the shrimp is indeed turning a bit orange. She dumps her hand again, this time in the container of crabs, breaks the crab to pieces, and submerges it in the mix. She encourages the chefs to get a shrimp or crab themselves. Cunanan and Tabura oblige, and they all got their hands soaked in this seafood dish. They proceed to feed each other, getting another shrimp, another crab, having a taste, their fingers soaking in vinegar — the chefs are in their purest element, the joy of experiencing the lusciousness of food emanating from their faces.
In the next stall, another performance ensues. Budoy, one of the vendors who can debone fish the fastest, lays out three pieces of bangus on a wooden counter. The group forms a circle around him, and within seconds, he is able to get the bones out with ease. The people surrounding him erupt into cheers.
Forés then guides the guests to other areas, talking about our sausages, such as the longganisa, and how this shows the influence of the Americans and Mexicans on Filipino cuisine; she points to the stalls selling a variety of rice, garlic, and other spices; and finally, the tour ends in a corner store selling balut.
Tabura is hesitant to try the widely known “exotic” food. He says he’s had it when he was younger, and remembers he didn’t like the taste. Forés assures him that the soup inside the balut is delicious. He reluctantly says yes, takes a sip, and relieved, he says, “It tastes like ramen soup.” Forés adds: “It’s really not as bad as how others make it out to be.”
The tour is only the start of a two-week food exploration that the chefs will go through. After Manila, they head to Pampanga, and in the succeeding weeks, Cunanan and Tabura will also be joined by chef Charles Olalia, the owner of Los Angeles restaurant Ma’am Sir (named as GQ Magazine’s Best New Restaurants in America for 2019), to visit Iloilo, Bacolod, Cebu, and Davao.
Forés says it is crucial that these Fil-Am chefs visit other Philippine cities and provinces. “They’re going to be able to visit Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, [so] the diversity of what exists in every part of the Philippines, the regionality, is something that’s also reflective of how rich our cuisine is.”
But before they head to what the rest of the Philippines has to offer, Forés says it is good to start the tour in the market because it is one of the quickest ways to understand Filipino food. “[It shows] why we have these products, why our flavor profile is the way it is,” she says. “It’s like a crash course of understanding our cuisine and what our whole heritage is about.”