I had lived in Malaysia for a while around six years back, alternating between Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur, and Kota Kinabalu. And what struck me the most about that country was the food. A mix of Indian, Chinese, and Malay, I loved the spicy curries, savory Chinese dishes, and the heavy use of spices in almost all of their cooking. In fact, I love it so much, I have a whole shelf of sambal sauces and chili pastes at home to prove it!
Unfortunately, when I came back to the Philippines, I realized just how rare the taste of sambal is in Metro Manila, and was quite saddened by how I would never really taste nasi goreng or Malaysian satay without having to purchase a plane ticket, that is until I discovered Pink Panda Southeast Asian Diner about a year ago. I was so happy to see they had Beef Rendang on their menu list! I went back a week ago to give some of their newer dishes a go, and lo and behold, most of them were inspired from my favorite Malaysian dishes!
I have found love at Pink Panda, and it isn’t Erwan Heussaff. Their Green Curry Chicken Potstickers (Php 300) have me swooning with their rich curry taste, best had with its accompanying spicy sambal peanut sauce. One bite brought me back to those hole-in-the-wall restaurants in KL that I loved to dine at, where almost everybody ate with their hands, tearing at roti chanai before dipping into the thick, coconut-based curry or getting extra messy eating with their hands, pinching mouthfuls of rice slathered with the spicy green liquid before going in for some chicken and veg.
A dish that is closer to home is the Sisig Siopao (Php 250), with chunks of crispy pork mask, actual pork, egg, caramelized soy onions, atchuete aioli, and tofu. When I introduce my foreign friends to sisig, I prefer them to actually taste the dish first – they usually can get through half the plate – before telling them what’s in it, but Pink Panda’s version is ‘tourist-friendly’, having a ratio of more meat to face.
This pao is pretty big, so attacking it with just your teeth may not be the best way to go about it. I suggest a more delicate approach, a.k.a. using a knife and fork, cutting into it like one would pie, and relishing each bite, the balance of soft bun and savory, crispy insides with big chunks of fried tofu filling you up.
A smaller stuffed pao would be Pink Panda’s Singaporean Chili Crab Bun (Php 240), offering a delicate umami flavor – the crab meat, grated ginger, and finely chopped leeks lending a savory, mildly spicy taste, accentuated with the with the Thai chili paste served on the side. The filling almost melts in your mouth, bringing back fond memories of my solo trips to Singapore, where all I’d do is eat my way through the day, discovering out-of-the-way hawker stands, friendly uncles and aunties that would recommend their favorite local spots to try, getting lost in the little country so many Filipinos have learned to call home before eventually finding my way back to Bugis where I would take a teksi back over the bridge to Johor.
My favorite dish for lunch that afternoon that brought back so many fond memories of Malaysia was the gigantic bowl of Mixed Seafood Sambal (Php 550) – something you can opt to demolish on your own or share with a friend. I’m not kidding with the portion size, it really is a lot! The humongous bowl held treasures of mussels, fish, crab, and chickpeas, all in a thick, savory tomato sambal curry, served with four pieces of fresh prawn toasties for added texture. This is amazing! If you can only go in for one dish at Pink Panda, this has got to be it – I promise you will never leave disappointed.
Lastly, I was surprised to see Grilled Goat Koftas (Php 400) on the menu, something that reminded me of Arab Street in Singapore, and the times my dad would experiment with goat dishes, as my half-sisters and step mom happen to be Muslim – making everything from goat menudo to biryani. Served in a shallow wooden bowl, the kofta balls are slathered with spiced tomato sauce and yogurt, served with sweet onion chutney, sugar and spice tossed fried saba, a radish and cucumber mint pickle,chickpeas, and mantao flat bread. The goat, surprisingly, tasted more like lamb – it was not as tough as I though it would be with a mild gaminess to it that went well with the tomato and yogurt sauce, and marrying its flavors with the cucumber pickle.
Overall, it was one very filling lunch, and I left with a big smile on my face with memories of my own Malaysian food adventures swimming in my head. Good Malay food really is hard to come by in the Philippines, so I am chuffed that Pink Panda has made it so accessible for people who miss the taste of spicy sambal or for the curious folk that want to give Malay cuisine a go. I’m definitely going back for more – the Mixed Seafood Sambal and Beef Rendang being high on the list.
Pink Panda Southeast Asian Diner is located at the Ground Floor of Y2 Residence Hotel, 4687 Santiago Street corner B. Valdez, Poblacion, Makati and is open daily from 11am to 11pm. For inquiries and table reservations, please call 0917 839 0714.