Food Diaries: Alessa Lanot on Eating More Greens and Pipino Vegetarian's New Menu

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Pino, that restaurant in Teachers Village and in Jupiter Street serving modern and fun Filipino food, is Pipino's older brother. And as a caring (but cool, of course) kuya would, the older child took under his wing the little hippie sister, starting off with just six healthy vegetarian items within Pino's existing menu. Then the green bohème experienced more and more customers, and saw herself in the company of a growing community of like-minded people wanting the same kind of vegetable-loaded yet delicious food. It was time for Pipino to take flight and blossom into a full-fledged restaurant, and Pino was more than happy to oblige, helping his sister set up shop just beside it in Quezon City. This was 2010, and now fast forward to 2013, we see Pino and Pipino still growing strong, now with Makati branches that yes, still have these happy siblings side by side.


Inside Pipino Jupiter branch

It just so happened that I visited Pipino on its actual birthday, October 10. And just like any invited birthday guest, I greeted co-owner and resident vegetarian Alessa Lanot a happy third birthday when our party of two arrived. "Thank you!" she replied, then proceeded to line up a long table full of colorful dishes, veggie-loaded eats that are both old favorites in the menu and new items to celebrate its three years.


A veggie feast!

In between bites of lip-smacking vegetarian (and vegan-friendly!) fare, Alessa shared to us her veggie tales, food favorites, and celebrating Pipino's third birthday with new vegetarian dishes. Read on to find out how her journey to eating more greens started, and more fun food trivia about Pipino's co-owner and graphic designer.

Question: How long have you been a vegetarian?

Alessa Lanot: I'm vegetarian by convenience, but if I had a choice, like when I cook at home, it's mostly vegan. The restaurant is vegan friendly. We don't say Pipino is vegan because the vegan term is super strict, it encompasses the whole lifestyle. If you're vegan, you can't share a kitchen with a non-vegan restaurant. I became a vegetarian when I was sixteen. I just tried it, and then my body liked it. Even if I went back to meat, I couldn't any more. I was in high school when I started. I used to play basketball, so medyo nahirapan ako sa transition. I went back to chicken and seafood, and after college when I had more control over my schedule, I went fully veg.

When you were starting, what were the initial challenges for you?

Well, it was easier in high school kasi you have a fixed lunch schedule, an eating schedule. So you could make your baon from the house, it's more convenient, you're just in one place. It was harder in college. You know, you eat out all the time, you're not confined to just school--it was a bit harder. And then after college naman, I studied in the States, there were so many options. I went to New York and I realized that I can go without the chicken and seafood.


Alessa Libongco-Lanot

How about here now, currently. Are there more vegetarian options around the metro?

Yes there are more options now. Although it wasn't that hard before. The thing is when you become vegetarian, it's important you know how to cook your own food or to prepare your own food, because you can't rely on other people to feed you all the time.

So were you into cooking before you became a vegetarian, or because you changed your diet?

I knew how to cook the basics. But when I went to the States that's when I really learned kasi it's too expensive to eat out all the time. So I just learned from my tita, my mom, reading books, watching TV... I only took formal cooking classes in 2011. I took some courses in Natural Gourmet Institute, but this is specified to vegan culinary.

And then there's Pipino. How did that come about?

PJ [Lanot, co-owner of Pino] and I started dating, and they had just opened Pino. And then I couldn't eat anything in Pino [laughs]. My family was in the restaurant business since I was a kid, so I guess it was natural to move into that as well. It was one of my dreams actually to put up just a kiosk, as in a take out stand. Like really small, parang Jollijeep.  Yung talagang vegetarianism for the masses. Then PJ was like, "Why not take it to a higher level? Just open a real restaurant!"  So we considered that. But before we launched Pipino in October 2010, we launched it on Earth Day, which was March? April ata. Six months of test run in the market to see if people were receptive to it. But Pipino was there already, it was just in the same menu as Pino.


Pipino in Teacher's Village on the year it opened
 

Alessa and PJ Lanot (photo by Raya Mananquil)

We noticed people would come back just for the vegetarian dishes. Especially there in UP Village, there's a really big under-served vegetarian market. Kasi yung frustration ko as a vegetarian, when you eat in restaurants, all you can order are either salads or side dishes. Not the main dish. So with that problem, that's what we wanted to target with Pipino.

It's your third year already with Pipino. Now you have a new menu. Can you tell us more about it?

We added new dishes for each category. Before, the Pipino menu was just 'choose whatever you want.' But now we organized it--there's the appetizers, the starters, the salads, the main dishes, the Filipino vegan, and the burgers and pastas.


A peek into Pipino's new menu

We added the Chickpea Burger (P165), the Tofu Bistek (P185) which I had for lunch, and the Monggo Malunggay Soup (P165). Still highlighting the vegetables as the main dish. Because here at Pipino, we don't try to mimic meat. A lot of vegetarians will go that route for the convenience or maybe they're scared to let go of that 'meat'? Here, we try to highlight the vegetables talaga in the dishes, we still go with that philosophy.


A very 'meaty' Chickpea Burger, served on whole wheat bun with a side of baked potato bites and vegan mayo
 

Tofu Bistek, with crisp fried spinach and wild annatto rice
 

Their Monggo Malunggay Soup is topped with crisp vegan chicharon made out of gluten

And then for new appetizers, we have the Veggie Triangles (P125), and the Cauliflower Fritters (P125) mixed with our new sauces, the vegan mayo and pesto.


Crisp and delightfully flaky Veggie Triangles, stuffed with mixed vegetables and served with curried chili sauce
 

Pipino's Cauliflower Fritters, served with soy mirin and vegan mayo, reminds one of crunchy pakora fritters
 

Bring home Pipino: Kale Malunggay Pesto (P130), Pineapple Jam (P150), Vegan Mayo (P130), and Puttanesca Sauce (P150) now available in bottles for lazy (but healthy!) cooking

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about being vegetarian?

Number one, that you only eat salads. As in like, "Ah, we have a vegetarian guest. O eto, salad." [laughs] Parang, ummm, okay... [laughs] And that, it's not filling. And that it's yucky, that veggies aren't delicious.

Do you think our local cuisine is vegetarian friendly?

No... Well actually, sorry--it's only in Manila that's so meat-centric. If you go to the provinces... Because PJ and I for our honeymoon we went on a Visayas trip, as in all the provinces in the Visayas. When you eat out in carinderias, ang unang nauubos talaga, the vegetarian dish. Maybe because it's cheap, but it's still part of their daily meal. Everyone has gulay with their dish. It's hard actually when you eat at Filipino restaurants na typical Pinoy talaga. I always have to ask them not to put pork in my gulay. Parang Pinoys are so scared na walang lasa yung food pag walang karne? There's so many other flavors! At tsaka dapat nga a nutritionally balanced plate--and to get that, you need colors in your plate. That's why you'll notice that our dishes have many different colors. It's how we play with the nutritional content. If you notice Pinoy food is all color brown, always just brown--menudo, mechado, afritada, adobo--pare pareho lang yung kulay niya.


Color your meals healthy: try the Pan Pizza (P365) made with whole wheat malunggay dough generously topped with veggies and tofu feta
 

Not just brown: Try Pipino's mushroom dish for Mushrooms Go Pink PH, Adobong Mushroom sa Gata on Quinoa with Caramelized Saba

For people who want to start going vegetarian or at least add more veggies to their diet, do you have any tips on where to buy produce, or where to eat out?

I like going to the Sunday markets kasi doon yung bagsakan ng mga farmers, especially the organic farmers. Our local groceries have a good range of organic produce also, Rustan's and SM, they have organic sections. Eating out? A lot of other Asian cuisines are vegetarian friendly. Persian cuisine is vegetarian friendly also. I think we get our pagiging meat-centric from our Spanish influence, kasi usually when you go to a Spanish restaurant the only thing a vegetarian can order is torta, the omelette, diba? Everything else has meat or cheese. There are a lot of options, especially now that the world is becoming health conscious. It's pretty easy. If you're a strict vegetarian, you better stay away from the ramen places because it's all pork stock! Wala talaga.

I sometimes get confused with what's vegan and what's vegetarian. Can you enlighten us with the difference between the two?

Vegetarian and vegan are different levels. In vegetarianism there are even more levels. Vegetarians can consume food products with either eggs, dairy, or both. There are pesco-vegetarians that eat fish, and semi-vegetarians who can consume chicken. The vegans do not consume any animals or animal byproducts. Not even honey, because it's from bees; not even white sugar. Because some white sugar is ground by bone. They use bone to grind white sugar. Milk, can't. Eggs, can't. Or cheese... but there are alternatives. And also, veganism is a lifestyle. Vegans don't wear leather, or use leather. So it doesn't just define food, being vegan. But being vegetarian it defines just your food. We are Pipino Vegetarian as opposed to 'Pipino Vegan,' although our food is vegan friendly.

If you had to prepare a vegetarian meal in 30 minutes, what would you prepare?

What would I cook at home? I do a lot of one-pot cooking. I'd cook ramen. Wheat noodles with vegetable stock, I make my own vegetable stock. Just onions, garlic, and ginger. And then I put in chopped spinach, broccoli, kale, and seaweed. For a vegetarian that doesn't eat seafood, seaweed is important because you get the minerals of the sea without having to eat seafood. So there. And some chopped tofu, maybe.

Do you still remember the first vegetarian meal you prepared?

Hmm... I think fried rice? I think I missed eating out, so I made my own. And then you can cheat, especially if you don't like vegetables, you can mix it all up and it's still good.

What's your favorite ingredient to use when cooking?

Garlic.

Any favorite cuisine when you're eating out?

Asian, I think anything Asian. I love Asian flavors, whether it's Thai, Japanese, Filipino, or Chinese...

Is there any dish in Pipino that can convince meat lovers to try being vegetarian--or at least skip the meat once in a while?

Our Mushroom Salpicao (P125) is really good. I'll order that now!


Add their savory and flavorful Mushroom Salpicao as part of your meatless movement

It's really good, as in, when people taste it, parang "Uy, okay ito, kaya kong mag-vegetarian." Even if it's just one meal. Kasi one thing about Pipino also is we don't tell you to be a vegetarian. We just say, you should eat more vegetables, or add more vegetables to your diet. Personally also, it wasn't imposed on me. It was my choice to go vegetarian. So it's just better for you to eat more vegetables even if it's one meal in a day, and one day in a week. It can even offset your carbon footprint, a detox day for you.

Is there something that you cannot ever give up eating?

Rice? [laughs] I think, yeah, carbs!

If you can host a dinner with any group of people, who will you invite?

Ellen DeGeneres! Isama mo na si Oprah [laughs], dream lang naman eh! Of course Justin Timberlake, and... Sino pa ba? Gosh... Bill Clinton. He's also a vegetarian.

And then what would you prepare?

I'll ask Chef Ed [Bugia] to prepare it, not me! I'm gonna sit down and talk to them [laughs]. Actually, every birthday, I ask him to make a five course dinner. It's my challenge to him to create new things, to do something new. Just a creative project every year. Then the things that we really like from there, we can place in the restaurant.

 

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Alessa blogs at www.lifeafterbreakfast.com and regularly holds Craft Workshops. Visit her blog for the schedule of her Crafternoons and posts on craft, design, food, and other musings.

To know more about Pipino Vegetarian Food by Pino, visit www.pipinovegetarian.com and follow them on Twitter and Instagram (pipinoveg).

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