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Chris Leffler on the meal of a lifetime on the Island of Mindanao.

Nestled away on the coast of the Island of Mindanao, the friendly town of Salay sits basking in the Filipino Sun. Salay is far from the island hopping tourist routes, and even further from the hustling Manila. I had found myself in Salay to visit the family of my Filipina-Australian fiancee. It was a long way from my home in Melbourne.
There are many things that I will remember about this time, but at the top of the list is the unexpected lunch of kings. Clearly our friends had been working in the little stone kitchen in the scorching-thermometer-cracking temperatures for much longer than we could stand on the nearby beaches and we were slowly turning from an askance white to a crimson disgrace. Our hosts had us seated in the dining room, an arm off the kitchen into the open air. Our seats were made from local timber cut into long benches. The shade was only a partial reprieve from the relentless heat.

I was sitting alongside my future-relations and seeing the uncompromised friendliness that they had to offer. Two fans at each end of table pushed the piping hot temperatures of the dishes on the table in a crazed cyclone of aromas, spices and gorgeous unforgettable memories. We sat down; sweat uncomfortably beading on our foreheads. Grace of course preceded our inevitable dive into the plates in front of us then arms went flying. Dishes passed from left to right, drinks scooting by in the opposing direction. The rice by the end of the lunch had been passed the equivalent distance of the Tour de France, and still didn’t look like flailing. I can comfortably say that it never actually sat on the table during the entire meal.

As soon as the first spoon entered our mouths, our consciousness of the uncomforting heat was replaced almost instantly with the soothing of culinary satisfaction. Rice of course formed the base of the meal. No microwave-quick-cook-long-grain rice for us, straight from the boiling flame cooked pots. No one but the Asians do this with such skill. There was always more rice coming out of the bottomless ‘magic’ pot. The fish soup complemented the rice perfectly as we allowed it to be soaked up by the rice on our spoons before sucking down each mouthful. The Kinilaw is probably my most favourite Filipino dish – close to my favourite sea-food dish ever. Raw fish, marinated unforgettably in a manner irreproducible anywhere else in any country. Such a unique flavour. The succulent pieces literally felt like they were melting in our mouths. The dish seemed so smooth; the secret I was told in between mouthfuls, was that the raw fishy bite was removed by the sour taste of the local Calamansi juice. That, in conjunction with the sheer freshness of the fish – straight from the local fishing boats. I later found out that the dish was made from a method of cooking called “kilaw”, which cooks not with fire, but with vinegar – perhaps extracted from the seemingly endless supply of buko (coconuts).

The feast could not possibly be a feast without a few pots of pork adobo. Perhaps this dish could be considered the national dish of Philippines. Each mouthful delights the taste buds as you can hear your arteries clogging up with sheer delight. Adobo is a style as much as a dish, a stew of – in our case – Pork based on vinegar and soy marinade. Meanwhile the word had spread around the insect world, and the flies had started to join in with our feast. Quickly our hosts signaled one of the helper boys to stand on the side and continuously wave the flies from our meals with a make shift horsetail. Excellent Crispy Fried Chicken also graced the table. It’s a dangerous place for fowl to grow up, born a female, you are doomed for the deep fryer, born a male, and you are doomed for a Sunday afternoon at the cock-rink. Salay is definitely no Florida for poultry expecting a peaceful retirement. Of course the condiments included bags full of fried chips – of which our hosts apparently traveled three hours to the closest city and back to purchase especially.

The meal was topped off with a selection of the juiciest freshest tropical fruits to fill what little space remained in our stomachs. Dripping Mangoes and Sweet, sweet, Bananas. The pace of the meal slowed inversely proportionately to the expansion of our bellies. The mercury was still soaring; the fans still whirring; sweat still dripping down the well-worn routes of least resistance. Our hosts were still in the kitchen, which was easily an extra ten degrees warmer than the dining room – their dedication for perfection and our enjoyment was touching. Our psychological escape from the heat for the duration of our meal was slowly creeping back – but it didn’t matter, everyone was filled with satisfaction. My fiancee’s father, with the catalyst of his childhood tastes and aromas, reminisced by continuing on his goal of emptying as many plates as possible. In his jovial manner, he asked each dish to be passed down the table so he could share them with his friends – when we each refused, as he knew we would, he would scoop another spoonful onto his plate. Between mouthfuls he would cheekily throw one line disclaimers – “I’m on holidays” and “We can not waste the food”.

There was one more course to go, down by the beach. Out into the bright early afternoon sun we headed. Along the road to our Tito’s house by the beach. A few pesos later, one of the harvesters clambered up the coconut tree, machete clenched in his teeth. As the ferns on the tree rustled, the cracking of a bunch of baby coconuts slammed on to the ground below. A few swift stabs of the coconut husks, and our tropical cocktails were ready. The perfect way to finish off the meal; an endless supply of coconut milk and meat of the coconut. In our travels we have come across some unforgettable culinary delights. For me, the benevolent hospitality and excellent preparation of such fresh food on that Saturday afternoon in the south of the Philippines, is to this day, unrivalled.

© Chris Leffler 2001

email: Chris Leffler

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