Except for the very few hard-to-find establishments in the nooks of the metro, Chinese restaurants in Manila are predominantly of the Cantonese variety. Our staple orders when partaking in a Chinese lauriat (read: dim sum, lechon macau, roast duck, and braised pork) all fall under the wing of this popular cuisine which originated in the southern part of China. Over the years (or centuries, even), Cantonese has become such an integral part of the Filipinos' diet. It's so well-accepted, it has managed to penetrate the mainstream food industry through numerous Chinese-style fast food concepts and dim sum kiosks.
But just recently, there'd been sightings of Chinese restaurants that do not feature the typical siomai-chao fan-braised beef trio. Through blogs, serious Manila foodies reported the turn up of Chinese hole in the wall restos specializing in regional cuisines that isn't Cantonese nor Shanghainese. Komrad, which recently opened in Eastwood Mall, has just made the burgeoning of the regional Chinese cuisine restaurants official. Its setting up in a place well-accessible to many paved the way to Manila's introduction to Cantonese's fiery culinary brothers: Hunan and Sichuan.
Mao's Little Red Kitchen
An imposing mural of Mao Zedong painted on one of the walls tells you that Komrad isn't a Chinese restaurant like you've seen before. There are no large aquariums of pouting fishes and lazy lobsters at the entrance of this resto. There's also none of the stereotypical circular tables. What Komrad has is a small, red-tinted, and modish indoor space that's just enough for a party of under fifty.
The restaurant's theme is clearly a play on the communist tendencies of China. It's quite a controversial choice for a concept, but is nothing to take seriously. I'm not sure if what they did in the mural is even acceptable, but Chairman Mao sure looks quite happy in a chef's uniform. (Trivia: Mao Zedong, a recognized leader in China, is a Hunan native and a Hunan cuisine advocate)
The real chef: Jason Chen, imported from China
Hunan Vs. Sichuan
I visited Komrad one fine day with the intention of sampling Chinese food that is not Cantonese nor Shanghainese. Not a Chinese native, I heeded the help of Leo Vergara, Komrad's Marketing Officer in wading through Komrad's menu that featured lesser popular Chinese dishes.
“I know both are spicy, but how is Hunan different from Sichuan?” I asked Leo, who had just arrived from his months-long trip in China. He commended me on getting the “both are spicy” remark right, and then proceeded on explaining the more obvious distinctions. “A Sichuan dish is hot. Really hot. In its most potent form, it will numb your tongue. Hunan is also spicy. But spicy in the way Indian food is spicy. Spicy as in full of different spices: fennel, chilies, cumin...” Leo thoughtfully explained.
And because these distinctions are better tasted than heard, I got my group an order of what perhaps is the most distinguished Sichuan appetizer: the Kung Pao Chicken (P198).
Kung Pao Chicken
A plate of this Kung Pao chicken is enough to be shared as an appetizer by three to four people. Peppered with sliced dried chilies, chili seeds, and drops of fiery orange chili oil, the looks of this dish alone will make you reach for a perspiring glass of cold water.
One spoonful of Kung Pao told me that there's not much dimension to its flavors other than it's hot and garlicky. Yes, it's tasty but is no more flavorful than any well-marinated deep-fried chicken piece available elsewhere.
Despite this, it wasn't long before the plate was emptied. “It's pulutan-worthy, isn't it?” I asked my friends. They agreed and were all earnest for a cold bottle of beer.
Spice rating: 3.5 chilies out of 5.
I was informed that our second dish, the Cumin Pork Ribs (P359) is of Hunan origin.
Cumin Pork Ribs
According to Leo, these deep-fried ribs define Hunan cuisine pretty well. Because they are dusted with cumin powder, the pungent aroma is very evident even a meter away.
We each got ourselves a piece. The rib meat, although tender and easy to chew, is quite insistent in clinging onto the bone. We found it impossible to come up with a clean piece.
The ribs' variegated flavors: peppery, nutty, and earthy show evidence of well-marination. However, the hotness of the chili didn't cling as well as the other spices. In order to experience its full wrath, you'd have to scoop the garlic and chili bits that's leftover in the plate. I loved this, but not as much as I loved the Kung Pao Chicken.
Spice rating: 2.5 chilies out of 5.
The third dish is a wonderful break from all the strong flavors of the previous dishes.
Spinach and Century Eggs
The Spinach and Century Eggs (P198), showcased a beautiful balance of freshness from the spinach and saltiness from the century eggs. After wiping off the plate clean, our group deemed this a necessary order whenever in Komrad.
Spice rating: O chilies out of 5.
Last but not the least is my personal favorite among all I've sampled: Sichuan Fried Eggplant with Pork Strips (P198).
This plate featured a neat row of skin-on tempura-d eggplant slices, swimming in bright orange chili oil, and topped with plentiful thin pork strips. Although the overall flavor is just the simple and familiar salty succulence of pork broth (enlivened by the slightly numbing chili oil), I found its soft meat on soft veggies combination of texture most enjoyable.
Spice rating: 3 chilies out of 5.
Our Komrad dessert is, thankfully, sweet-- perhaps the one flavor that I've missed throughout my Komrad meal.
The warm Monggo Balls (P88), semi-drowned in sweet syrup, is an interesting twist on the staple Chinese sweet soup dessert with its hopia-like bean paste filling.
My lunch at Komrad erased my pre-conceived notions that the Hunan and Sichuan cuisines are nothing but spicier versions of Cantonese dishes driven by dry chilies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Thanks to Komrad (and the rest of the hole in the wall restaurants that specialize the other regional cuisines of China), Filipinos like me-- who are spoiled in Cantonese cuisine, will now get to have a more comprehensive idea of what Chinese cooking is about.
Hunan and Sichuan, I'm glad we've met.