There’s so much talk about Filipino cuisine. What is it? Where in Toronto can we taste it? Having traveled through the Philippines I still can’t adequately define it, so I jump at the invitation to dine at Casa Manila.
A historical fusion of Malay, Chinese, Spanish and indigenous cuisines across thousands of islands and years imprinted on the spice route, there are regional variations as well as colonial influences. The Malay beginnings include peanuts, a staple of indigenous cultures is the coconut, and the Spanish instilled a love for garlic, onion and tomatoes. This is the foundation.
As with other Southeast Asian cuisines, there is no substitute for the true ingredients. Every dish here is made from scratch. There is neither msg nor preservatives. Tamarind, an essential spice, is farmed and dried in the Philippines, and shipped directly from source. The menu is an extensive culinary map from the Sulu Sea to the Pacific. Co-owner and creative director Mila Nabor Cuachon keeps an eye on every detail. We are confident in the authenticity of this kitchen.
A hearty and nutritious soup of okra, bok choy and a medley of other vegetables is a soothing opener for the main event, which is a bright and unique smorgasbord with serious wow factor. Presented on a runner of banana leaves along the centre of the table, a tropical spread of Philippine delicacies like crunchy fried pork belly, tangy sticky ribs, tender marinated and skewered chicken, fresh mango salad, papaya and bitter melon, adorn a whole fried tilapia—head included. Sides of steamed rice, shrimp paste, and a trio of sauces: ginger, sesame and rice wine, and vinegar add more possibilities to mix and match all the contrasting flavours and textures.
Although forks are provided upon our request, we are encouraged to use our hands. For my companion this is disconcerting. Others in our group, however, relish the opportunity to enjoy a different style of dining. This is Kamayan style, where diners savour a picnic style feast with their hands in this traditional Filipino custom.
Ever tried a Filipino Sundae? Well, Halo Halo (mix mix). Twelve ingredients served in a glass punch bowl are layered and then mixed in front of us: purple yam ice cream; red and gold beans; palm fruit; cocoa gel; young coconut strands; rice flakes; crème caramel custard; stewed banana; pandan syrup. Distracted by the sparkler in the centre, I lose count at ten. Sweet and sinful, it’s a carnival in a bowl, and reminiscent of a hot summer night under the neon lights of Manila.
~Casa Manila, 879 York Mills Rd, 416-443-9654~