Once upon a time I was asked to write about food.
This was an article I wrote and was published in a national daily…
Bacolod City does not have a typical Chinese enclave like Binondo. It does not have a Chinatown that engulfs your senses with the sights, sounds and scents of a faraway Oriental place. The Chinese presence in the city has been integrated well within most of our culture with their presence in commerce, the academe, the arts and others that we do not see them as foreign. And it is because of this that eating Chinese in Bacolod does not mean searching high and low for secret little places that serve them good.
Chinese food has long been an integrated element in our food experience, common and extraordinary at the same time, that it has become comfort food to the local palate. It has become comfort food not only in terms of the convenience of ordering Chinese food during birthdays, graduations and other occasions but also comfort in the sense of the familiarity of our palate with noodles, siomai, spring rolls and the myriad ways the Chinese do wonders with pork, beef, chicken and seafood. It was this childhood memory of having home cooked Chinese dishes made by his aunt in his grandfather’s house that cultivated the gastronomic desires of a developing foodie soul in the young JP Anglo. It was only after a few years of trying out a few varied college majors that the passion for food beckoned and he enrolled and graduated in a culinary school. He could have gone the French or Italian way like his peers but it was that serious passion and longing for Chinese comfort food of his younger days that made him choose the kitchens of the Chinese food courts and learn more about the rudiments from an uncle in Hongkong with his dad acting as interpreter/food taster. Armed with formal training of culinary school and experience gained from different Chinese kitchens, JP went home to Bacolod to open Mai Pao Restaurant in September of 2001. Mai Pao features in its menu a list of Chinese specialties such as siomai, crispy bihon, garlic spareribs, hot-sour soup, prosperity spring rolls and other offerings that is no longer comfort food only for JP Anglo but for other Bacoleños who continually patronize the quaint little restaurant.
Nghohiong kheng, owachian, chao pat chien, kiampong! These are not the screams you hear in the cacophony of a frenzied mahjong session but some fairly new food items (at least in my vocabulary) available at the recently opened Red Moon restaurant aside from the more common and familiar offerings. Ngohiong which is quite uncommon in Bacolod is actually a delicacy widely available in the neighboring province of Cebu. It is almost like lumpia except for its distinct use of ngohiong or Chinese 5 spice powder as main flavoring ingredient. Owachian is an oyster omelet and whoever’s ancient ancestor who dreamed up of marrying oysters and eggs deserve accolade for this wonderful cholesterol-be-damned treat. Chao pat chien, who could easily be the lead in a Hong Kong action flick, is actually a dish of vegetables stir fried with varied meats, a chopsuey with a pedigree. All these exciting flavors are best enjoyed with spoonfuls of kiampong or fried rice.
One of the best times to indulge in Chinese food is this January when Bacolod City once again celebrates Bacolaodiat to welcome the Chinese New Year of the Ox. It is a festival “cooked-up” by the local Tsinoy community to celebrate their presence and contribution to the city and give us a view of their rich cultural heritage which the city folk rarely see in public before. Bacolaodiat is a portmanteau combining the words Bacolod and “laodiat” which is Fookien for celebration.
For some the concept of Chinese food is always an exclusive and complicated ten course lauriat complete with all the pomp and pageantry akin to the closing ceremony of the Olympics. For others it a standard office party and celebratory fare and a quick no-brainer feast you order in a panic when unexpected visitors surprise you for dinner, but for most of us it is comfort food. Comfort defined by the soothing experience of sipping spoonfuls of broth from of a steaming bowl of noodles with the distinct perfume of sesame oil wafting gently, the familiar and anticipated crunch of a perfectly golden spring roll or the sublime pleasure of slicing open a siomai dumpling, stuffing it with chili garlic, dipping it in soy sauce and slowly taking it in bite after bite after bite.