Succulent ‘bangus’–that’s real summer food
It’s too hot to do anything these days. It’s pointless to shop for clothes because what you want to do is throw them off. The mall cafés are full of people nursing one iced tea for hours to sit out the heat.
I’m not even inclined to browse for new music, because at the end of the working day I just want to pop a double dose of ibuprofen and retire to a very quiet, dark room with a wet towel over my forehead.
The Koreans believe that at the height of summer, the yin-yang balance can be restored by eating a bowl of hot porridge with chicken stewed in ginseng. I try this every year but perhaps because I’m not Korean, it has never worked for me.
Salads as a meal have never worked for me as well. A handful of crunchy, cold, raw leaves with a drizzle of oil is very nice indeed beside something, preferably a good barbecue—but not in the middle of a plate, especially when one realizes, in a moment of panic, that one’s host has no intention of serving anything after the salad.
In a tropical country like ours, salad is an upper-middle-class conceit, dependent on refrigerated trucking and uncontaminated water with which to deliver and wash raw leaves and season them with imported aromatic oils or dressings.
The cookbook writers who claim that a light salad, a bit of cheese, and a glass of Chardonnay make up the perfect summer evening meal are obviously undergoing a different kind of summer than ours. Over here, by late morning the best fresh greens at the market are shriveled and wilted, the pork slabs are half-braised in their raw juices and covered with flies, and any fresh dairy produce will have become a putrid and decomposing mass.
Matutina’s in Urdaneta
On the other hand, seafood are plump and bountiful, and there’s nothing to remind us of it like a gigantic papier-mâché fish the size of a small dirigible being held aloft with people dressed as milkfish singing and dancing in the Bangus Festival (yes, really), which runs up to the end of this month in Dagupan.
This is the best time of the year for truly succulent milkfish. If you go to Baguio this summer, you owe it to yourself to stop at Matutina’s in Urdaneta, Pangasinan, where the kilawin na bangus and malaga sinigang are two of my new favorite things in the world. I know someone who likes it so much that she asks for takeout when I’m on my way back to Manila.
This is real summer food, quivering bits of fish in aromatics or in a tangy soup when you’re hot and tired and hungry and the last thing you want is a fistful of leaves or a block of meat. I would eat there every day if it weren’t 200 km away. Go to the one on the right-hand side of the road going north, not the annex on the left.
Dek A in Makati
A little closer to home, I finally got the chance to check out Dek A which has been getting some word-of-mouth. It’s a Thai restaurant, formerly a hole in the wall in a far-flung part of Makati, which has opened a second branch closer to civilization in the salubrious warren of streets behind Rockwell, which has become a rather interesting grid for pleasures of a gustatory nature as well.
The Thais, like us, also understand summer, though their culinary approach to it is somewhat different: The idea seems to be to sweat it out, so even on a summer’s night you could do worse than to sit outside and cool down on the seats set up in the driveway of an old house.
Dek A is a step above a hole in the wall, so while you won’t find carved vegetables and orchids garnishing your plate, you have proper chairs and tables and even a little pavilion where you can sit cross-legged under a canopy. The owner is a young Thai woman who was chatty and brimming with enthusiasm.
Not bad, could be better
The food is not bad but could be better. I say this with great reservation because the area already has one mediocre Thai restaurant and does not need another.
I want this to be Bangkok street-corner food that bursts your head open from the inside with so much flavor that you can hear colors. The tom yum soup is a bit grim, but the salads are good and perfect for a warm night, as are the excellent and well-balanced curries.
It’s very rough around the edges but the prices are reasonable, there’s enough good food to outweigh the bad, and the essential sprit is there.
What the owner needs are competent wait staff and a willingness to go out on a limb and depart from the well-worn favorites of pad thai, chicken in pandan leaves, tom yum gung, and other mainstays, as well as a less timid hand with the spices.
It’s not a transcendental meal by any means, but, like many other establishments in the area, it satisfies an urge, and in this heat, that’s good enough for me.
Matutina’s Seafood Restaurant is on MacArthur Highway, Urdaneta, Pangasinan; tel. (75) 5688288
Dek A Authentic Thai Food is at 5887 Fermina St. cor. Enriquez St., Makati; tel. 5005933