Chicken in burnt coconut–startling but tender | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

“TINUMOK” or coconut and shrimp in “gabi” leaves
“TINUMOK” or coconut and shrimp in “gabi” leaves
“TINUMOK” or coconut and shrimp in “gabi” leaves
“TINUMOK” or coconut and shrimp in “gabi” leaves

One of the reasons I learned to cook was for survival.

I lived in a household where both parents worked. After the family cook passed away, taking almost all of the recipes with her, the rest of my childhood was spent at the mercy of her successors, who tried, with varying degrees of aptitude, their mettle in the kitchen.

On a lucky day we would come home to a basic meal of adobo or sinigang, and fried hasa-hasa with the heads still on (the most delicious part). Eventually our luck ran out and we had a string of cooks who could murder even the most mundane of dishes.


There is a sepia-tinted nostalgia for the days when extended families lived in houses, rather than nuclear families in apartment units, but the redefinition of the household unit is well on its way, and unlikely to be reversed. Those who had lived under the old conditions will tell you that it was not always pleasant, and that eating out of a common pot meant there was always a hierarchy, whether in the mansions of the wealthy or in cramped houses with leaking roofs.

The apartments that seemed to be the future of the middle classes were small but mercifully free of nagging mothers-in-law and tyrannical patriarchs. Their narrow, galley-like kitchens, however, hinted that their functions were limited mostly to reheating takeaway rather than assembling complex meals.

Still, gritting our teeth and keeping the it’s-the-Indian-not-the-arrow philosophy firmly in mind, we persevere with trying to cook balanced, multicourse meals. But as the regularity of this space attests to, we eat out quite a bit. And, apparently, so do a lot of other families.

ALAB restaurant
ALAB restaurant

New family kitchen

Since the restaurant boom began, we have been wondering when it would go bust, but it shows no signs of slowing down. A friend has put forward the theory that a corresponding decline in supermarket sales may indicate not just that people are eating out more, but that more people are eating out. The days of a household either having one member, usually the mother, knowing how to cook or outsourcing it to a domestic servant, are coming to an end.

The kind of restaurant that rises to fill that gap is given the unique business opportunity to be the new family kitchen, as well as the unexpected social responsibility of becoming a repository of the great Filipino cookbook. Restaurants like Myke Sarthou Tatung’s Alab are the hearth of the urban home because the prices are friendly and there’s a bit of inventiveness in addition to the classics. These have made it not just a neighborhood restaurant but one worth the detour.

Standout dish

Alab’s standout dish is undoubtedly the chicken in burnt coconut, pyanggang manok, which is traditional Tausug fare. We will wait for our colleagues to comment on its authenticity. The presentation is a little startling, but fear not, under the blanket of ash the chicken pieces are tender and uniquely flavored with the charred bitterness of incinerated coconut flesh, smoothed down by the sweet, mellow milk.

This is not by far the most intense version we have tasted, but it is very likeable. The tinumok (coconut and shrimp in gabi leaves) and prawns in Maranao spices and crab fat acquitted themselves commendably, as did a salad of palm heart, which we would recommend.

The only dud in the appetizers was the kinilaw, which first arrived with the fish as little blocks of ice in seasoning; we sent it back and it was defrosted, but, although not popsicle-like, was still not scintillating.

We missed out on the famous poqui-poqui (sauteed eggplant) baked like a quiche, which a friend later said is the best reason to visit Alab.

As for dessert, the best thing to get, if available, is a bibingka cheesecake. It was warm, rich, and it coated the inside of our tummy with goodness. It was one of the best things we’ve had in ages.

Those in a more adventurous mood will probably want to try the laing ice cream, which, surprisingly enough, really tasted like laing without being disgusting at all. In fact, it tasted like green tea ice cream with an extra kick, probably from a bit of chili that we bit into once in a while. It’s homemade, and came in cheese and “camote-q” flavors as well.

There is so much to come back for, and how we wish that it were in the neighborhood where we live in Makati— alongside the artisanal ramen places and high-priced foreign franchises.

Alab is at 67 Scout Rallos cor. Tomas Morato, QC; tel. 3649631

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