Chef Amy Besa is practically a legend in Philippine culinary circles.
Amy and her husband, Chef Romy Dorotan have been in the restaurant business for the past 20 years, known for their restaurant Purple Yam in Brooklyn where they gave a face to Filipino food in New York. Purple Yam Malate, their first branch in the Philippines, opened in July of 2014 in Amy’s childhood home in one of the oldest historical districts in Manila.
Amy is also the founder of the Ang Sariling Atin Culinary Heritage Institute (ASA) in the Philippines. The ASA has three primary goals: (1) to produce and publish a book on the Philippine palate based on scientific studies of the flavor regions of the Philippines; (2) build community kitchens to make healthy, nutritious and hygienic food available and accessible to poor communities in the Philippines, and (3) to create livelihoods, impart skills and develop markets for artisanal products for the purpose of preserving our culinary heritage.
Imagine my surprise to see her in the middle of one of Holy Carabao‘s farms in Batulao, Batangas animatedly talking to the owners, Hindy Weber and Mel Teng-Go, about Philippine mulberries while plucking a few of the small, reddish fruit from the trees. I think she was on a writing assignment, discovering what one can forage in the Philippine forests, for both her cook book and an article that was to come out in an airline magazine.
I’ve seen Persian mulberries growing up in the desert, and this was the first time for me to see the local variety, morera. The Philippine wild mulberries are a lot smaller that their Iranian counterparts, and were of a deep reddish color rather than the white or purple variety I was expecting. These delicate berries also ended up staining my hands as I plucked a handful for myself from off the tree. Little did I know it would end up in what was to be dessert later on in the day!
Venturing further into the forest, where the trees got immensely taller with patches of sunlight here and there, we came across what looked like bamboo, except the bark was very prickly (something I discovered after accidentally brushing up against it). The locals say the center is quite sweet once you could get through its tough exterior. I think they were able to chop a piece of the bamboo-like thing down after a while, but for the life of me I have no idea what this is called!
Mel, one of the co-founders of Holy Carabao, collected what looked like weeds and placed it into her cute little basket of foraged items. This was paragis, also called goose grass or dog tail grass. The roots and seeds are edible, and I’ve actually seen my dog chow down on the stalks when I take him out for walks around the village, and was surprised to learn this weed also helps with tummy aches. Or in my dogs case, over eating.
I feel that getting the opportunity to walk around in a forest in the Philippines is a luxury these days, as a lot of the countryside is slowly being destroyed to make way to more and more condominium units and malls. So trudging around and hearing the crackling of the leaves beneath us and the sounds of crickets and other little insects, and discovering little surprises like this giant mushroom (not quite sure if it was edible so we didn’t bother picking it) was quite special.
What I really didn’t like about being in the middle of the forest were the big black ants and the even bigger mosquitoes! I came totally unprepared and was wearing a comfortable pair of shorts and ended up being eaten alive by all the bugs. I think I must’ve gone through half a tube of Hindy’s mosquito repellant to ease the burning sensation around my legs. Yikes!
Hindy, Mel, and Chef Amy laid out their foraged haul to sort through and see what we had managed to gather. There was katmon (elephant apple), paragis (dog tail grass), morera (wild mulberries), tibig (wild Philippine figs), kulitis (amaranth), takip kuhol or gotu kola (pennyworth), kalumpit (myrobalan), yellow wood sorrel, pugo pugo (green water sedge), pansit-pansitan (clear weed or shiny bush), aplan gabi, mani mani (peanut flowers), tenga ng daga (cloud’s ear fungus), makahiya flowers (bashful mimosa), and honeycomb from a nearby hive of aparis or native bees. Not at all bad for a morning’s worth of foraging!
Now, I knew I was going foraging in the forest, but what I didn’t know was that Chef Amy and her team were going to cook lunch for us in the forest, too! We found a small clearing, and they set up their cooking equipment, got out their prepped ingredients and proteins, and just went to work like total pros! It looked so put together yet hardcore at the same time, I had never been so excited to eat lunch! Everything took longer than expected to cook, since we were not in a professional kitchen (or any kitchen, for that matter), but it was worth the wait!
We all tucked into lunch two hours later, and everyone wanted a warm bowl of soup to warm us up as it was starting to drizzle. The Purple Yam team had put one together with chunks of chicken, coconut meat, radishes, and a mildly sour broth garnished with microgreens. Personally, it wasn’t something I particularly liked as the sourness of the broth and the sweetness of the coconut meat seemed to have confused my palate for a few seconds.
What I did enjoy (maybe a bit too much) was the black pig pata humba which used Holy Carabao’s native black pot-bellied pig. This was very tender and literally fell off the bone, paired best with a splash of sukang Iloco, with roasted garlic bulbs adding another dimension of flavor to the simple marinated pork.
Another dish that was a hit at the table was the jap chae with tamarind chilie sauce and a variety of greens, along with the tenga ng daga and katmon that were foraged from the forest, also garnished with a sprinkling of microgreens. Katmon is an odd fruit, whose pinkish-white flesh containing its seed is encased in a greenish yellow leathery flaps of sorts. It’s fruit has a mild bitter and sour taste, and is used in jams and preserves in most parts of Southeast Asia. Also called elephant apple, it is said that this is a favorite snack of Asian elephants, hence the name.
In true Purple Yam fashion, heirloom rice from two terriors are represented in this dish – the Tinawon Fancy from the Ifugao province and Mindoro Black Native rice – with corn kernels, chopped carrots, red onions, and celery, garnished with pansit-pansitan, a weed that is quite common all over the country. It’s so common, in fact, that it was turned into an expression, “Natulog sa pansitan,” (fell asleep in the pansitan, which is what workers from nearby factories would do during their lunch breaks back in the day when this weed flourished along the Pasig river.
The best part of lunch (for me, at least), was dessert! Our Iced dessert in the forest consisted of milk ice cream on a bed of watermelon ice and passion frui sorbet topped with the wild mulberries we foraged earlier that day. Big props to Purple Yam’s Pastry Chef, Agnes, for this! Made with just cream, the base of the dessert was oh, so light, flavored with sweet watermelon and a slight tang from the passionfruit. The mulberries were turned into a compote and was just sweet enough to complement the three other ingredients in the bowl. Of course we fought for who should have seconds.
We started packing up at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, with the drizzle slowly turning into a full on rain shower, and quickly made our way back to the farm’s entrance to wrap things up. Props to the Purple Yam team who came out to cook in the middle of a forest- Rap Cristobal, Shar Santos, and Agnes Lim – and a big thank you to chef Amy and the guys at Holy Carabao for letting me join them on this one-of-a-kind trip. So the next time somebody tells me how they wish they could go to Copenhagen and visit Noma because “they forage what they serve,” I’m going to recommend that they check their backyard – they’ll probably find something interesting growing there, too!