Meeting good people (and tasting the best empanada along the way)

Last week, I had to go to a province 10 hours north of Manila for a story. The photographer and I were welcomed by a generous farming couple in their organic farm, where we spent most of the time talking to them about their chosen line of work and exploring the farm and the surrounding fields and rivers. It’s one of those assignments that makes me feel grateful that I get to do what I do.

The photographer expressed the same feeling of gratitude on the way home, telling me how lucky we were with our jobs. And it’s not just because we get to travel sometimes or are given the chance to tell somebody else’s stories, but it’s really the fact that we get to meet all these different people–good, honest people with a passion for what they do whether it be farming, designing furniture, making music, or simply keeping a family tradition alive by cooking the best empanada.

Chef Giney Villar (center) with her culinary inspirations and "keepers of tradition" Mercy Antonio and Tess Luriaga. Photo by At Maculangan for Yummy magazine, May 2011

For a May 2011 Yummy magazine story, I had to find and interview different professional chefs and restaurateurs and their inspirations in the kitchen who didn’t have any professional culinary degrees. One of the chefs was Giney Villar of Adarna Food & Culture. Known for specializing and promoting Philippine regional and heirloom recipes in her restaurant, Giney chose Mercy Antonio, 74, and Tess Luriaga, 60, as her culinary ‘idols.’

Hailing from Malolos, Bulacan (a nearby province north of Manila), Mercy has been making the beloved empanadas de kaliskis since she was a child and her family has been at it since 1820 (well, before our time, right about when the country was still a Spanish colony). Giney had long wanted to find this Bulacan specialty and through the introduction of a friend to Mercy’s grand niece, the chef finally got hold of the empanada and the people behind it. (I’m a big fan of empanadas, especially the old-style, deep-fried versions. If I see one on the menu or in any new place I visit, I make sure to order one. The empanada de kaliskis is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. The dough is almost like a croissant, flaky and rich. And it’s filled with an ample amount of chicken.)

Its recipe, which is a guarded family secret, has remain unchanged for almost 200 years. Says Giney: “The quality, the premium on freshness have not changed… Every day they wake up at dawn to start making the empanadas. They get their chicken from only one place, they’re very particular with their ingredients, and they don’t attempt to do shortcuts. That’s something I really like about them—uncompromising in their standards.”

It’s admirable how these two women have devoted their lives to making good-quality food and uphold a valuable family tradition at the same time. You can tell that keeping that tradition alive was not always easy (especially when they don’t have a lot of capital to work with and there’s the cost of the high quality ingredients they use), but you can sense their passion and unwavering devotion to what they do when you talk to them and that is inspiring.

Mercy and Tess: “Pangkarinawang tao lang kami, maliit lang puhunan namin at tumutubo lang sa pagkain namin. Kabilinbilinan ng kaninuninuan namin, lalo na yung huli kong lola, na ‘wag kaming manloloko sa aming trabaho at huwag mandaya kumita lang ng pera. Isa pa, dapat maging tapat sa customer. At dahil sa pakikisama namin sa customer makikita mo ang pag-galang nila sa ‘min kahit sila matataas na tao. At dahil nga wala kaming gaanong puhunan, pinagdasal lang namin na sana ay may taong lumapit sa atin na kukuha ng empanada [for a shop in Manila]. Sa kakadalangin, siya ang dumating. Malaki ang pasasalamat namin sa Panginoon.”  
(We are ordinary people, we only have a small capital and we make a profit that’s just enough for the food we eat. Our ancestors have enjoined us, especially my late grandmother, that we don’t cheat in our work just to earn money. Also, we have to be truthful to our customer. And because of how we relate to our customer, you can tell that they respect us even if they occupy high positions in society. [The empanadas are a favorite of many of the past Philippine presidents.] And because we don’t have a lot of capital, we were praying that somebody [with a shop in Manila] would get empanadas from us. Because of our prayers, [Giney] came along. We are very grateful to God.” In a way, they were each other’s answered prayer.

As part of Giney’s advocacy to promote traditional Filipino food and for more people to know more about the empanadas outside Bulacan, they are also sold in Adarna, where she finishes cooking them in the restaurant. Try it if ever you’re in the Diliman, QC area. The restaurant is also a charming sight to behold, designed and furnished like an old Filipino home.

(Also included in the story are Baba Ibazeta-Benedicto, Him Uy de Baron, and siblings Poch and Namee Jorolan and their moms, and good friend Mira Angeles and their long-time family cook, Lola Waps, all of whom were a joy to interview.)

Adarna Food & Culture 119 Kalayaan Avenue, Diliman, Quezon City; tel. no. (632) 926-8712; email: adarnafoodandculture@yahoo.com

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2 thoughts on “Meeting good people (and tasting the best empanada along the way)

  1. Haha! Good thing the team and I stayed the night–it’s a 10-hour drive pala. Har. (And one of these days I’ll end up writing ‘blessing in the skies’ instead of blessing in disguise. Haha!)

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