April 16 marked the 121st birthday of Doña Engracia Cruz-Reyes or Aling Asiang, founder of the much-loved Filipino heritage restaurant, The Aristocrat.
To celebrate the legacy of one of the most respected figures in Philippine culinary history, Aristocrat is relaunching four of Aling Asiang’s most popular merienda dishes.
Dubbed the “Big 4” are Lumpiang Ubod Sariwa, Dinuguan at Puto, Arroz Caldo, and Pancit Luglog.
“These are still the original recipes of Lola Asiang served at Aristocrat,” said Nancy Reyes-Lumen, granddaughter of Aling Asiang, at the launch at the Nostalgia Room of Aristocrat. The event was attended by relatives and closest friends of the Reyeses, including the youngest son of Aling Asiang, Victor Reyes, now 72.
Lumpiang Ubod Sariwa consists of heart of palm, minced pork and shrimps wrapped in egg crepe and topped with brown sauce and peanuts. A popular alternative to this is Fried Lumpiang Ubod with heart of palm, minced pork and shrimps in rice wrapper, deep-fried and served with spiced vinegar.
Dinuguan is a thick and tasty stew made of blood and beef paired with white puto (steamed rice cakes).
A nice warm bowl of Arroz Caldo or rice porridge has always been a Filipino favorite. An alternative soup bowl would be the Pospas de Gallina (rice porridge with chicken).
Arroz Caldo is usually paired with a side order of Tokwa’t Baboy or cubed pork and fried tofu in a bowl of vinaigrette.
Pancit Luglog (or Pancit Palabok) is rice noodles with shrimp and crab fat sauce.
“Most of Aling Asiang’s heirloom recipes are slow-cooked. She would cook everything from scratch,” said Lumen. “I remember she would thicken the shrimp broth with duck egg for the pancit luglog. For lumpiang ubod, she would always get the inner part of the ubod.”
Lumen fondly recalls how her Lola Asiang would announce “Merienda na!” when it was time for her family to partake of her home-cooked dishes.
“Sadly, the merienda culture is fading, in fact, dying,” she said.
Merienda is mid-afternoon snack.
Before, Lumen added, people used to go to Central Market for halo-halo. There were certain places people went to specifically for merienda dishes.
“Merienda is so Filipino because we eat—how many times in a day, maybe four to six times? You always look forward to it. Why? Because that’s when the children come home from school and you serve them your merienda. You bond with them. Kasama sa merienda ang tsismis, kwento and the discussion of what’s for dinner.”
She added: “Because everybody is working and busy now, sometimes Pinoys just survive on coffee, tea or soda. We are losing the fun, enjoyment, memory and the culture of merienda. There should always be the thrill of going to a destination for your merienda.”
Aristocrat has always been a destination not only for good food, but for its varied and mouthwatering merienda fare, which Aling Asiang introduced 76 years ago.
Aristocrat has become a familiar landmark on Roxas Boulevard. Aling Asiang’s pioneering spirit, coupled with her innate gift for cooking Filipino food, raised once lowly Filipino dishes into well-loved creations here and abroad. From its humble beginnings as a mobile snack place in 1936, Aristocrat has grown into a restaurant enterprise with branches in Metro Manila and in Luzon, all serving the same quality food that has made it “The Philippines’ Most Popular Restaurant.”
Lumen has kept many of the cooking practices she herself learned from her lola.
“Top of mind, it should always be slow cooking,” she said. “Whatever it is, food has to be slow-cooked. Then, always get the freshest ingredients from the market.”
“Lola Asiang would never throw the head of the shrimps. She’d crush it and pound it and use it as seasoning for her dishes. She would always use overripe tomatoes because they’re sweeter and almost have a fruity taste. She would really wake up in the morning to do all these things in the kitchen. She was way advanced for her time. She would always sauté her garlic, onions and tomatoes in oil or Star Margarine in advance, so it would be easy for her to cook everything all at the same time.”
The Aristocrat has 10 branches: Roxas Boulevard in Malate (open 24 hours); Jupiter in Makati City; SM Mall of Asia; SM San Lazaro; The Block in SM North Edsa; Robinsons Place Manila; SM Manila; Subic Bay; San Pablo, Laguna; and at Banawe St., Sta. Mesa Heights, QC. The Aristocrat opens soon in SM Dasmariñas Cavite.
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PHOTOS BY ALANAH TORRALBA