I have a confession to make. You all know the term fusion cuisine? The catch-all term that restaurants laugh at and stay away from? The phrase that used to describe dishes that were cutting edge mash-ups of concepts and ideas? The term that every chef suddenly started using to describe their avant-garde dishes? Well, that term used to be all me. I was the poster child for incessantly using the term "fusion cuisine" a decade ago and I built a (very) mini-empire in Quezon City out of it. I always described my first restaurant, PINO in Teacher’s Village, as Filipino Fusion Cuisine.
We served a lot of mashups that were first seen in our kitchens before proliferating in menus all over the metro. We became known for our Mini Sisig Tacos and the now famous Kare-Kareng Bagnet. They were unabashedly inauthentic in a way that we wanted to present dishes that were never seen before, and it was as simple as putting together existing dishes already into an amalgam of new culinary creations.
You know what, though? This stroke of perceived genius wasn’t really that new. Filipinos have always been mashing up their favorite food items for years now. Sure, we put it to the forefront by establishing a foothold in the fast casual segment, but it was always everywhere. Suman at Mangga! Champorado at Danggit! Puto at Dinuguan! Kare-Kare at Bagoong! This article will be a celebration of the lesser-known, fun, super delicious fusion recipes that we all love to eat and put it in the forefront for everyone to discover and try maybe making or searching for. They won’t be as famous or as mainstream as the examples I just gave, but trust me on this: by the end of this write-up you’re going to be wondering why they aren’t as popular yet!
One of the first ones I ever got to try is a Titas of Manila merienda favorite: Turon with Keso! This was served to me at a college groupmate’s house. I remember her proudly proclaiming a snack break to everyone and requesting we have an open mind to what she was about to serve us. Imagine the classic sweet, earthy, fried plantain spring roll; then serve it with creamy, salty, good ol’ Filipino processed cheese on the side. I’ve seen versions served with Keso de Bola, too! The charm of this sweet and savory union is how people don’t actually put the cheese inside the turon and fry it together. They keep it separate so that the cheese still retains its form, and since it usually comes straight from the fridge, there also is a nice play in hot and cold temperatures.
The next dish is actually a two-in-one. I first saw this dish decades ago on the now classic television show Palibhasa Lalaki. I remember the family matriarch giving the show’s lead, Joey Marquez, a proper verbal beatdown because he was adamant about having his Pinoy-style spaghetti with sunny side-up eggs on top because he was insistent that it was breakfast time and he had to eat his meal with eggs! It was a hilarious back and forth with him ending up eating the meal on camera to the sheer delight of the live audience. Fast forward a few years, and I encounter the exact same dish being served in a now-defunct Indonesian restaurant in Manila. Sunny-side up eggs on spaghetti actually WAS a thing! I tried it without hesitation, and thoroughly enjoyed it--it worked! The creaminess of the runny egg yolk gave a nice counterbalance to the sweetness and acidity of the Bolognese-coated pasta. We’re not done with this combo though. Fast forward even a couple more years and I end up being best buds in High School with a guy who ate his Bolognese spaghetti with, guess what – MAYONNAISE on top! At first I found it even weirder than the eggs on top version, until… he made me try it. Of course, I tried it. I fell in love all over again. The same creaminess that the eggs provided were still there and it felt like they were always meant to be served together. It wasn’t until I grew a fondness for the culinary world that I found out that mayonnaise was actually an egg and oil emulsion and it just all started to make sense. They were one and the same! I still sneak mayo on to my spaghetti from time to time or fry an egg to top it with and it feels like I get to relive my childhood whenever I do so.
This last food amalgam example is actually more famous in the provinces of the country than in Manila. It was taught to me in person by my paternal grandparents. This dish sustained them all throughout their childhood and especially during World War 2, which they had both experienced and lived through. This is a very peasant dish but packs a lot of flavor and richness. This dish is Warm Carabao Milk poured on top of white rice – then you are a given a choice of making it sweet or savory by sprinkling your instant porridge with either white sugar or salt. The dish is so simple but packs a wallop of flavor. Carabao milk, you see, has a gamey unctuousness that can be equaled to umami. It moistens and enriches your stable carb of rice and extends it a bit because of the added subtle flavor. The sugar on top I prefer doing during the mornings while the salt-sprinkled variant I opt for during either lunch or dinner. It sounds so simple yet it got my grandparents through days of having barely anything to eat because of the embargos and food shortages during the war. Fresh Carabao milk is understandably harder to come by in Manila more than the provinces, so I have actually seen versions of this dish prepared using evaporated milk instead. I’m sure it will be as rich and decadent, but nothing beats the unique flavor of the original,
These 'fusion' dishes were actually what shaped my palate into understanding and appreciating the importance of combining unique flavor combinations and forming new dishes that are both delicious yet would make you go “what in the world was that?”—in a good way! Sure, call it fusion, but I guarantee you that you’ll also be saying “Where was this dish my whole life?!” So really, never be afraid to experiment when it comes to food. If done right, your gamble might bear fruit to a new and exciting dish that can hopefully make it mainstream for everyone to try.