I’ve written extensively on the rise of Filipino food, for CNN, Destinasian and others, highlighting how and why it its’ maligned reputation isn’t deserved. Sure, not all the food you’ll get there is great, but name me a country where that doesn’t apply? Each and every time I return to Manila, there are scores of new restaurants to try – almost all of which deliver pleasant surprises. A recent case in point is Manam in the area known as BGC, around the former military Fort area. A simple, unpretentious spot, heaving with customers, they are emblematic of a new wave of confidence in classic Filipino dishes and ingredients. This is now their fourth spot, following Greenbelt, Mall of Asia and Ayala Fairview.
As their logo says, they’re all about ‘Comfort Filipino’ – a claim that my wife, her mother and 90 yr old grandmother all agreed was on the money. Why? It’s about using quality ingredients, local where possible, and not messing around too much or trying to innovate. These dishes are classics and comforting for a reason. They come in different sizes, depending on your group, starting with a small plate of crispy calamari, some flakes of chilli and dipping sauce.
A ‘Manila Caprese’ bought house-made kesong puti cheese, somewhere between feta and cottage, with fresh basil, native tomato and olive oil. Excellent produce, simply compiled. A winner.
Overloaded garlicky pork belly adobo was subtitled ‘a nostalgic childhood memory’. If that memory involves sticky, sweet, pungent garlic, slowly cooked pork that comes with just the right ribbon of fat, then this is your happy place. One thing I’ve never understood about adobo is the ratio of sauce to meat, but this isn’t a stew in the classic European sense. The meat has taken on all the flavour, so the sauce is more of an afterthought than in an Irish stew, for example. Also it’s always so hot in the Philippines that you don’t want to feel like you’re constantly eating soup.
Pancit palabok bought glass noodles with crunchy shreds of chicharon (pork crackling), baby squid rings, shrimp and egg, all doused in a house made sauce and finished by squeezes of those little green gems, calamansi.
One look online and on social media shows that Manam is most renowned for one dish, sisig. Now I know why. To the uninitiated, sisig risks sounding grim. It’s essentially chopped pig’s face, including the ears, along with liver, fried til sizzling and crispy. Which is ironic, as in the Kapampangam dialect where it originated, it was first noted by an Augustinian friar as referring to ‘a salad of papaya or guava eaten with garlic or vinegar’. There’s real skill in making the most of a pig’s head – just ask Fergus Henderson – and a respect for the animal in ensuring that the whole beast is eaten, with nothing wasted.
The secret to good sisig does indeed lie in this mix of textures – some slippery, some crunchy, some somewhere in between the two. As Bourdain puts it when he tries to convince Anderson Cooper, ‘it’s the delicate interplay between meat, tendon and cartilage, crispy skin and fat’. There’s garlic, onions, chilli and ginger, with a squeeze of calamansi’s acidity to cut through the richness. Having had my share, this was by far the best so, next time you’re in Manila, looking for the real local deal, then Manam has gotta be at the top of the list.