Bella Yuchengco paints the perfect picture of the hostess with the mostest.
An invite to her home is much coveted. The meal I had there a couple of years ago still lingers, more than just for the tastiness of her food, but for the overall experience.
A gustatory adventure awaits her lucky guests, who expect to get wowed not just by her signature fare, but also by the way she masterfully presents them.
Tita Bella has an extensive plate and tableware collection that consists of practically everything you can think of—from tea cup sets to candelabras turned into tempura plates. She began accumulating them while living in Japan in the ’70s. Her passion for collecting table curiosities never waned. Her pieces are stored in a well-appointed room that mimics a showroom.
Just last week I was fortunate to have been invited once again. This time, in the company of culinary greats and foodies.
I walked into a dining room adorned with colorful mums on blue and white vases. On the table amid the flowers were porcelain girls garbed in cheongsams, holding candles. I sat at a table that was almost full. I came shamefully a tad late, as the traffic from La Vista to Alabang was less than ideal … But indeed, the long journey was well worth it.
Inspired by travels
For starters we had a cool and refreshing serving of Crab with Cucumbers. On a little bowl were large chunks of crab meat and cucumbers dressed in an oriental vinaigrette. Then came the delicious Salmon Sashimi Egg. The dish was made of diced fresh salmon tossed in a blend of rice vinegar, some sugar and soy, capped with a fried egg. It was so good, it hit the spot. Simple yet delicious.
Next was Tita Bella’s most creative potage of Corn, Grape Tempura and Potato Shrimp Tempura. Corn soup from Japan has always been her favorite, and her rendition of it was inspired by her travels to the Land of the Rising Sun with her father, Ambassador Alfonso Yuchengco. During their stay, they would call the Imperial Hotel their home, and where she would always have their corn soup, ordering it even for breakfast.
The addition of grape tempura came to be as she chanced upon an article on fried grapes in a magazine. She thought, why not serve it with corn soup?
So she did, and her kids loved it.
Tita Bella intimated that her children are her “guinea pigs.” “Every Saturday, I would always serve new dishes to my kids for lunch, and from there they would tell me what they like or don’t like—and those that were pasado to them, I would serve to my guests.”
The crème brûlée was served. The custard came generously topped with uni, salmon roe and caviar. It was an explosion of umami. It was a dish so decadent that it left an imprint on my palate.
Our main dish was a duet of Anago and Wagyu Prime Rib over Corn Sushi Rice with Ponzu Sauce.
A most interesting Panna Cotta with a ginger-laced Watermelon and Pineapple Granita capped a most memorable evening. Tita Bella cooks dishes that are known to all but whipped her way and majestically plated.
By invitation only
To the palate her creations are hearty, with a homemade feel to it. The manner in which she puts her edible masterpieces together, coupled with her graciousness as a hostess, are forms of art.
According to Tita Bella, her cooking style isn’t too complicated … but then again, that’s according to her. Her Chinese menus are inspired by her mom, Paz Sycip’s dishes, mostly of meals she enjoyed growing up. Her Filipino repertoire is homey with a little twist here and there, while her French and Japanese menus are inspired by her travels.
She confessed that her penchant for cooking came to her late in life. “When I got married I didn’t know how to cook or even how to boil water.”
She first dabbled in it when she took up lessons with the legendary Sylvia Reynoso, and when lived in Tokyo since, in her own words, “I didn’t have much of a choice.”
When she moved to Alabang and would entertain, her friends would ask if they could invite their friends, to partake of her food. Through the years, she grew in confidence—and now, is her own culinary star!
Meals at Tita Bella’s are summed up as good times, spent in the company of good friends, overflowing with good food. Unfortunately, meals at Casa Bella are by invitation only. To get an invite, “just make kulit,” she playfully quipped.
Tita Bella’s Crab and Cucumber
5 oz dashi
2 Tbsp sugar
6 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp light soy sauce
1 Tbsp fresh ginger juice
Boil crab in salted water. Pick meat.
Slice cucumber into thin strips. Sprinkle with salt. Let stand 5 minutes. Wring out moisture.
Make vinegar sauce. Combine everything except the ginger juice and bring to a boil. Cool and add ginger juice.
Arrange crab and cucumber and pour sauce over them.
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