A few months ago, I got an e-mail from Memphis, Tennessee. It said that the Philippines was chosen as host country for this year’s Memphis in May celebration.
Memphis in May is an annual celebration that features the host country’s music, dance, arts, culture, cuisine, etc.
The e-mail was an invitation. “Are you interested to cook for a dinner and cocktails during the event?” it said. I had never been to Memphis, and it is always a privilege to share Filipino cuisine with another country, so my response was a resounding, “Yes!”
Did I mention that Memphis is the home of Elvis, the Blues and world-renowned barbecue?
That fulfilling dinner and cocktails ended just last week, and I must say it was one of my most memorable and meaningful visits to the US.
We arrived in Memphis a few days before my cooking event, so my wife Tessa and I had the time to do some culinary exploring. We asked about and visited most of the places that claimed to have the best barbecue pork ribs, burgers and fried chicken. And the beer, whoa! I never ate so much pork in my life. If you ask me, these places have to include Lipitor on their menu. Unfortunately, saturated fat is always napakasarap.
We concluded that the best barbecue ribs we had was at BB Kings and Central Barbecue. Wet-rubbed or dry-rubbed ribs, they were the best. The meat was moist, fell off the bone, with a perfect blend of sweetness and spice.
For burgers, Tessa and I frequented Huey’s. According to our local host, dining at Huey’s is akin to a Memphian rite of passage. We feasted on the Blue Cheese Burger, Reuben sandwich and chicken salad.
As for good old fried chicken, there’s no other place like Gus’s, which many recommended. We’ve heard oohs and aahs about the place and, therefore, we expected much. However, when we got there, the fried chicken didn’t look extraordinary. It was simply that— fried chicken.
Yet, this unpretentious dish surprised me with a flavor that was totally out of this world. The skin was mildly spicy, crispy and crunchy, not oily at all, the meat moist all the way to the bone. Served with sidings of coleslaw and fries, it was heaven on earth for the chicken lover. I craved for this, and Tessa and I went back for more.
Who visits Memphis without paying homage to the king of R&B? We did the Graceland tour, visited the STAX Museum and walked down “rockin’” Beale street.
Graceland was a curiously interesting place. It felt strange to walk through the home of a great celebrity like Elvis. It was like stepping back in time. We had a headset that walked us through each room, giving interesting details about the home. It was as if Elvis himself was giving us a tour!
One would think a huge property like Graceland would have a grand and imposing home, but the home was not as big as we expected. It was actually a modest, regular-looking North American house. There are houses in Manila that are 10 times bigger than this.
Human Rights Museum
After Graceland, we visited the Human Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. We stood in room No. 306 and saw his bed, coffee cups and ashtrays exactly as he left them. It felt eerie standing in the exact location where this admirable man was shot.
From where we stood, we could see the small window across the street where the gunman’s shot came from. One cannot go to Memphis and miss this historical site.
Going back to why I was in Memphis in the first place, I was blessed to have met and worked with another Pinoy chef.
Rodelio Aglibot hails from Nueva Ecija but grew up in Hawaii. He has made his mark in the culinary world in the US and is definitely a Filipino doing the country proud.
He is chef and owner of two (going on three) restaurants in cities like Chicago, LA. He is also consultant to restaurants in HK, many cities in the US and Manila. Hearing his twang, you wouldn’t think he is Pinoy at all—until you watch him cook. When we cooked longganisa, he whipped out a pan, fried two eggs, combined them with sinangag and ate away. I smiled and thought he’d just given himself away—a true Pinoy through and through!
Where did I draw inspiration for my menu at the Madison Hotel Memphis Tennessee? I’ve always believed that the reason our cuisine is not so popular abroad is because we use many Western ingredients—tomato sauce, cheese, cream, etc. Our cuisine is not as exotic as Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, where ingredients are mostly from Asia.
With this standpoint, I created my menu. For cocktails, I made lumpia sotanghon, chicken barbecue, lechon kawali chips with garlic and spring onion sauce, and good old longganisa. I got very good feedback. The locals loved our longganisa and other appetizers.
For dinner menu, I prepared crispy crab pancit. My main dishes were Bicol Express and Chicken Dinakdakan. Chef Rod prepared a Catfish Fillet in Taba ng Talangka sauce, and eggplant and string beans with soy garlic sauce.
For dessert, I made Reyna Blanca and Sago cake. I dreamt about this menu for months. With all my prayers, the dinner was a success.
Diners raved about our food. To most, these were new flavors, and to our kababayan who supported us, they were familiar flavors but not the common dishes one cooks at home.
What a trip! Some work, education and a lot of eating, and learning as well of new culinary techniques and ideas. Go to Memphis in May!
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