Memphis, Elvis’ Town, home of the blues and the best barbecues in the world—Tessa and I are here because I was invited to participate as a guest chef for the celebration of Memphis in May 2012, as the city salutes and pays tribute to the Philippines.
Memphis in May is an annual celebration, with various events taking place all over the city. There’s the music festival, the international festival, the symphony concert, etc., all held on the banks of the Mississippi River overlooking Arkansas.
The Philippines is the guest country this year. Cultural shows and exhibits from home are featured here, such as Filipino art, dance, textiles, cuisine, history and more. Claude Tayag and I were chosen to cook a Filipino dinner for locals to experience.
Nervous and excited
Claude’s successful dinner was last week. Mine is today. I’m a little nervous and a lot excited! I will be cooking my own recipes which will use authentic Filipino ingredients and nothing that has any western ingredients like cheese, tomato sauce, etc.
On our way here, we drove from Vancouver to Seattle to take our flight from Seatac. As soon as we got to the US border, the immigration officer asked where we were headed. I told him where and, with a poker face, he quickly replied that he couldn’t allow me to enter—because he had to take my place!
He was obviously a foodie envious of my good fortune. “We don’t know how to cook here!” he whined as he regaled us with stories of his amazing dining experiences in Memphis. He talked about the most amazing ribs, both beef and pork, and the garlic shrimps which he said costs $20 a bucket and served with a pint of beer and garlic bread.
“Put some newspaper on a table, dump the shrimps on it, and with your beer and garlic bread, you’re all set!,” he said.
We were both so excited for me and the event. For a moment, I wondered how the car behind us must be freaking out thinking they had chosen a lane with a strict officer. If they only knew. After chatting up food with the guy, we eventually went through, leaving him with his good memories of great Memphis barbecue.
As soon as we touched down at Memphis airport, we were met by a cool lady, Brigid, who whisked us off, in her top-down Mustang convertible, to the tailend of the five-day barbecue competitions, where the Philippines had its very own Cebu lechon as one of the 200 contenders.
Chef Carlos Dingding of Marco Polo was flown in for this event. The lechon was delicious but, as I always like to say when I don’t win in badminton, “Winning is not important!”
Once at the barbecue, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t know where to start. There were lines of creatively decorated booths selling ribs, various sausages, shrimp, turkey drumstick, funnel cakes (these are like fried strings of donuts sprinkled with powdered sugar), fried chicken, lemonade, ice cream, snow cones and lots and lots of beer. It was fun and, of course, a rocking event!
We were met with the distinctly happy and warm Southern hospitality. Memphian chefs are very proud of their barbecue, and are generous to share it. As soon as they found out I was a chef from out of town, chefs Roger and John invited us to sample their entries.
Central Barbecue has been a consistent winner in this yearly event and I can see why. The ribs and pulled pork are roasted and smoked for hours in a special kind of griller common to the south, not the kind you’ll find at Home Depot. Central barbecue is mildly sweet and a touch spicy, the texture is perfect, the meat juicy to the bone.
And the beer handed to me opened my eyes to that perfect combination of cold beer and ribs. Best ribs I have ever tasted!
The Memphians have to be the kindest and most hospitable people I’ve met in this country; there is definitely something to be said about that Southern charm.
They were equally amazed by the dedication and support the local Pinoy community has been giving them, too. Never have they encountered the same solid response from any culture, they said. It made me proud.
Best chicken joint
Sunday noon, we walked for about 30 minutes in the warm sun but cool Memphis air to sample one of the best fried chicken joints in town. As soon as Gus’ Fried Chicken opened at 11, all the tables were taken and they already had a line. We were there at 11:45 for lunch and waited for another half-hour to be seated, but all that was worth the wait.
The place looked like a real joint with its packed tables, mismatched aluminum chairs, beer neon signs hanging on the walls and pictures of chicken everywhere. The perfect ambience for a fried chicken joint.
Fried in peanut oil (contrary to the belief of many that the best ones are fried in pork fat), this fried chicken gets better and better with every bite. With eight pieces between Tessa and myself, we had sidings of coleslaw, baked beans, potato salad and fried rice.
This is the type of food one dreams about. Grabe, ang sarap talaga. The skin is chewy-crunchy, the outside not oily at all and the inside nicely tender and moist. I ended my meal with homemade pecan pie— good but nothing earthshaking. I cannot imagine not going back to this place before we leave.
We have a few more days to explore the culture and cuisine. We still need to see Graceland and a few museums like Human Rights Museum. We’ve made a few friends and we look forward to hosting them in Manila.
I’ve already picked up a few interesting recipe ideas for my baby restaurant, Wooden Spoon, and I’m thinking I might put them on the menu. I will keep you posted on the rest of my food explorations.
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