National cuisines and tastes may, like languages, be difficult for foreigners to understand. The first time I had Philippine food I encountered this difficulty. I was given fried tilapia slathered in sweet and sour sauce. It was not bad, but I simply could not understand it: why would anyone put sweet and sour sauce on tilapia? The middle-aged Filipino who had ordered everything on the table watched me proudly as I sampled this and other mystifying foods. Tonight I returned to Krystal Cafe & Pastry Shop, which enjoys the (some might say dubious) distinction of being perhaps the most authentic Philippine restaurant in town to gain a better understanding.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that a country whose primary language has one of the more intimidating grammars I’ve seen also has a bewildering sense of taste. The national cuisine probably also collects elements from the idiosyncratic cuisines of the many local communities of the Philippines, which is spread out over more than 7000 islands. The country has at least eight major ethnolinguistic groups. The Cebuano of Bantayan Island like sun-dried fish “marinated in sea water” (Labtingaw). The Waray have many dishes cooked with coconut milk, including crabs cooked in coconut milk. The Bicolanos supposedly make a spicy dish out of shark and sting ray.
Of course, Philippine cuisine has absorbed much from neighboring countries, and some of the more infamous dishes of the Philippines actually come from elsewhere. The century egg, which is buried and left to age for a month, is a Chinese invention—though American servicemen discovered it in the Philippines. (On the other hand, the balut, which is a fertilized egg that has been allowed to develop almost to maturity before cooking, may have originated in the Philippines.)
This time I decided to try what is sometimes described as a national dish of the Philippines, chicken adobo. Chicken adobo is chicken marinated and braised in a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic. According to the Post, this marinade acts as a preservative, and the meat can be left unrefrigerated for several days after being prepared as adobo. My chicken adobo was soft and falling off the bone, and sweet with the taste of soy sauce. It was served with a heaping plate of steamed rice. This was a dish that required no translation, and I can recommend it to anyone who plans to visit Krystal Cafe. I also ordered one of the dishes the Philippines has imported from its neighbors: egg rolls (lumpiang prito). Very good.
I ended the night with a glass of halo-halo. This is a mildly sweet treat made with shaved ice, milk, sweet beans (such as mung beans) and fruit (such as jackfruit and mango), and, at Krystal Cafe at least, tapioca. I am not inclined to try anything with shaved ice, but this is a wonderful combination—and it is the perfect thing for the coming hot summer nights.
Krystal Cafe & Pastry
6902 Roosevelt Ave, Woodside, NY 11377
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