My eating repertoire used to be sadly bereft of Filipino food. My foray into the varietes of Asian cuisine started with lo mein out of a take-out box. I blame this mostly on my East-Coast upbringing. Had I wanted a Filipino meal while living next to the Atlantic, it would have required a jaunt to the nearest major metropolis. Even then, I wouldn’t have found Pinoy chefs on every corner.
But why? Phở is as ubiquitous as a cheeseburger, so where has lumpia been hiding? A popular theory was that Filipino cuisine was undefinable, as it melds flavors from other powerhouse food cultures, like Malaysian and Spanish. Over the last few years, however, there has been a huge influx of Filipino food culture in part thanks to the Bay-Area based Filipino Food Movement. Recently, Bon Appetit rated a Filipino restaurant, Washington D.C’s Bad Saint, as its #2 pick for “America’s Best New Restaurants 2016.”
This surge has paved the way for chefs like Eric Pascual of Eats By E, who shares his Filipino heritage and his Hawaiian childhood with his pop-up diners. I recently indulged in Chef Eric’s modern takes on dishes from his family’s kitchen. If Asian cuisine has a Southern soul food equivalent, it is Chef Eric’s lumpia Shanghai, crispy fried egg rolls stuffed with chicken, shrimp, and julienned vegetables. Or perhaps it is ukoy, fritters of shrimp, sweet potato, beets, carrots, rice flour, and coconut milk. Lest we not forget the adobo-glazed pork belly, slow-roasted and unctuous chunks on a puree of butternut squash and coconut cream.
Eating rich foods like these yields a certain well-known pleasure, but on their own they get stuck in a one-sided flavor profile. A french fry, for example, tastes better with a ketchup dollop, and fried seafood benefits from lemon and tartar sauce. Acidity adds brightness to a dish, cutting through the richness and balancing out the tastes.
Enter Chef Eric’s suka, a gloriously simple vinegar sauce that I not only drizzled on top of all of his dishes, but one that I want to put on everything I cook or eat going forward. “Suka” literally means “vinegar” in Tagalog, and this common condiment boasts many monikers and ingredient variations depending on its Filipino region. According to Filipino food blog Pinoy Kusinero, a vinegar dipping sauce is almost as important to a dish as rice is a staple of the cuisine.
Chef Eric’s recipe consists of cane vinegar made of fermented sugar cane syrup, soy sauce, sliced Serrano peppers, minced garlic, diced onions, and black pepper. The result is a salty, spicy, and tangy punch that enhances and intensifies the tastes of lumpia, ukoy, and the roasted pork belly. Had the coconut milk, rice flour, and raspberry-flavored bibingka cake not been so exceptionally moist and delicious on its own, I may have topped it with the suka too.