The whole party went for more than one serving of lambanog-mango cocktails, and we were running out of supplies…
Travel and food are inseparably intertwined. Wherever we go, we need to eat.”
Those words, by award-winning travel editor-writer Don George are in his introduction to the book “A Moveable Feast: Life-changing Food Adventures Around the World” (Lonely Planet Publications, 2010).
What further whets the appetite, especially when abroad, is knowing what a particular dining place is famous for. Our first dinner in Brussels meant going through the central square called Grand Place, then proceeding to the narrow side-cobbled streets and looking for Chez Leon.
The whole area is where tourists go, including the restaurant we were headed to. But there were a lot of locals as well—students celebrating, senior citizens enjoying their meal.
Mussels and fries
The obligatory order had to be moules—frites, mussels and fries. Our hosts told us earlier that mussels were not in season, but the waiter didn’t say so and came with pots laden with the fattest, juiciest mussels cooked in wine. These and the fries needed something else to complete the meal, and so we had the other Belgian specialty, beer.
Myrna Segismundo, whose brother’s business in the United States is importing beer, recommended the brand Chimay. We thought it sounded like the condescending slang for domestic help, but, as it turned out, the waiter pronounced it “shee-may.”
Our very first meal in Brussels, however, was brunch at Peck’s, hosted by Ralph Abarquez, consul at the Philippine Embassy. After an early morning train ride from London through the Chunnel, our group, Team Kulinarya, was famished and glad there was Bellini and mimosa on the menu, and the other food Belgium is noted for, waffles, served with our choice of salads with perfectly poached eggs.
One advice from our friends in Brussels: If you’re looking through the menu, the waiters will not go to your table. When ready to order, close the menu and they will come.
Yet we were travelers of a different sort, because we were bringing Filipino food to Europe through a talk, a tasting, and a sit-down dinner.
Alan Daniega, chargé d’affaires in Brussels, was surprised that tickets to the dinner sold out quickly even if the price was steep by the place’s standard. Maybe it was also due to the venue—the upscale Sofitel Brussels Le Louise.
Before dinner was the exhibit at the Brussels Press Club and our talk, which hopefully answered the question many had been wanting to ask: What is Filipino food?
Our answer covered geography, history, flavor profiles and the way we eat.
The talk was reprised in the morning before the dinner at the Sofitel, together with a demonstration on how to cook adobo. Meanwhile, preparations were ongoing for the five-course dinner.
The Sofitel staff is a commendable crew, from executive chef Adwin Fontein who stayed on to assist in the plating and gave the group access to his own kitchen and assigned staff to help; to the Sofitel point person, Xavier Corralo, who took charge of coordination; venue manager Larry Gene, a Filipino who has lived most of his life in Brussels so that his Filipino words have become Frenchified, and to the assigned bartender, who gave me a lesson in being “cool” even when the whole party went for more than one serving of lambanog-mango cocktails and we were running out of supplies.
Cherry Briosas, cultural and information officer and attaché, as well as the rest of the embassy staff, made this phase of the trip a breeze.
Dinner went smoothly, each course annotated by Segismundo. A treat for guests that evening was a performance by a Filipino cellist, who was in Europe for studies.
Many stayed on after the dessert buffet, including Belgian travel and food writers, as well as bloggers.
Filipinos who attended were a mixed lot, all dressed up and who told us they were happy to know that Pinoy food and those who cooked them could prepare such “classy” (their word) dishes.
The project was to show that a well-cooked meal, arranged in a neat manner, is all that is needed to let the world know how really good Filipino cuisine is.
Raul Ramos had reserved trimmings from the rib eye steak and cooked these as salpicao, its secret seasoning contained in a small container bought at the Asian market. It made for the team’s after-dinner food.
Don George also said that food takes travelers “to a deeper, more lasting understanding of and connection with a people, a place and a culture.”
We hope that, even if we were the travelers, the Filipino food that was cooked and served in Brussels and in the other three European cities made that connection with our guests, not only in taste but also in thought.