DISPATCHES FROM NEW YORK CITY: THE RICH TRADITION OF FILIPINO EMBUTIDO

Friday, January 09, 2015

Before she showed me how to make the egg-stuffed, raisin-speckled meatloaf of her Filipino youth, Emma Phojanakong took me to the curiously named Johnny Air Mart. It’s a Filipino store on the East Side of Manhattan near her home in Stuyvesant Town, its shelves crammed with instant Pinoy comforts: just-add-water noodle bowls with “artificial bone marrow flavor,” sugary breads folded around electric swaths of purple yam and, prominently, rows of canned meats: Pop the top, heat and eat. Nostalgia, I figured, is a hunger that wants to be fed now.


Photo courtesy of Johnny Miller for The New York Times.

Emma was looking for calamansi, a fruit that tastes as if an orange and a lime eloped to the tropics, and she was glad that she could still find its frozen juice nearby; most of the Filipino shops in the neighborhood have been priced out by rents. There used to be a lot of quick feeds for Filipinos around here, from snack shelves to turo-turos, Tagalog for “point-point,” a perfect name for a kind of restaurant where you order with a hungry look and some hand gestures, words optional.

Amid the Old New York air of Gramercy, it was easy to miss that, for a few decades, this was one of the main Filipino neighborhoods in the city. From the ’60s to the ’80s, the hospitals along First and Second Avenues recruited nurses from the Philippines: English-speaking, familiar with American culture and willing to work for cheap, because cheap here still meant real money for the family they left behind. Johnny Air Mart’s name, it turns out, comes from the fact that Johnny Air was never meant to be a grocery in the first place; for 20 years, it was a shipping service for those nurses to send clothes, gifts and cash to people back home.

Emma was one of those nurses, and she has exactly the kind of smile you want to see if you are feeling ill and anxious. An orphan in the Philippines, she came here when she was 21, eventually becoming the president of a nurses’ association and her children’s PTA. She also became famous among her friends for her cooking, not least because of her steady hand in making chicken relleno, for which she would meticulously cut out the bird’s bones from under its skin and then stuff it with embutido, a sweet-savory souped-up meatloaf that comes out for Christmas and other festive occasions. (Ever resourceful, she once practiced this high art of bird butchery with a scalpel liberated from the O.R.)

My knife skills not being quite up to surgery, we settled on cooking her embutido together, in its original meat-log form. There’s a certain homely elegance to the dish, a rustic fanciness in rolling ground pork around boiled eggs so that, when sliced, there’s sunny yellow in the middle. But I was fascinated by the stuff that joined the pork party: raisins, sweet relish, ketchup, cheese and, of course, canned meats like Vienna sausages and smoked ham.

A few younger Filipinos I spoke with confessed that they don’t love embutido, treating it with the kind of emotional distance typically reserved for, say, fruitcake. Looking at the ingredients, I wouldn’t have believed it could be delicious, either, but I tasted Emma’s, and I am a convert. The soft sausages help keep the meatloaf tender; there’s a distinct sweetness from the relish and raisins, an underlying smokiness from the ham and the rich magic of the mixed-in cheese. The more I ate, though, the more I thought about how strangely “normal” this dish is. Even though Emma learned to make it in the Philippines, it seemed a relic of American Atomic Age cooking, a time when can-ward was heavenward.

In the Philippines, embutido was originally an adaptation of Spanish sausages. But during the American occupation, from 1898 to 1946, it became suffused with American products: an adaptation of an adaptation. “The G.I.’s introduced us to the canned beef, the Spam,” Emma said. “But not everybody could afford it, so it was a little bit of a status thing.”

It was fascinating, then, to think of Emma and her colleagues coming to New York 40 or 50 years ago — how, in a strange place with strange people, at least some of the food they saw was familiar. And I imagined a young nurse going to a proto-Johnny Air, loaded with cans of corned beef to send back home with a note: “Everything’s good, sister, here there’s embutido as far as the eye can see.”

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Ingredients:

4 large eggs

¼ pound Edam cheese, grated

¾ cup finely diced smoked ham

¾ cup fresh or frozen peas

⅓ cup raisins

½ medium onion, finely minced

4 canned Vienna sausages, thoroughly mashed with a fork

⅓ cup sweet relish

3 tablespoons ketchup

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

Black pepper, to taste

1 ½ pounds ground pork

For sauce and serving:

4 ½ tablespoons calamansi juice (or combine equal parts lime and orange juice with a pinch of orange zest)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

3 cups best-quality low-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon cornstarch

3 tablespoons butter, cut in chunks

1 bunch watercress

PREPARATION

1) Preheat oven to 300. Put 2 eggs in a saucepan, and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, cover, turn off heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove eggs, and place in cold water to cool, then peel and cut in half lengthwise.

2) In a large mixing bowl, beat the remaining 2 eggs, and combine with the cheese, ham, peas, raisins, onion, sausages, relish, ketchup, salt and a few cracks of black pepper. Fold in the ground pork, then mix it with your hands until thoroughly combined and the mixture starts to stick together. Heat a dry frying pan over medium heat, and cook a spoonful of the mixture. Taste the mixture, and add more salt or pepper if needed.

3) Line a large baking pan with greased foil, leaving some overhang on all sides. Spread the embutido mixture into a rectangle about 12 by 17 inches. Place the boiled egg halves in a line down one of the long sides of the rectangle. Starting from that edge, lift the foil to roll the meat mixture — with the eggs — over itself, and roll all the way to the other side to form a cylinder (like a jelly roll). Pat the embutido to create a uniform shape, and wrap the foil tightly around it, crimping the ends to seal.

4) Place the foil-wrapped embutido in the center of the pan, and place in the oven. After 45 minutes, remove the embutido and turn on the broiler. Unwrap the foil and let embutido rest for 10 minutes, then broil until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Let rest 3 minutes, then slice.

5) While the embutido is roasting, set a small saucepan over medium-high heat and combine 3 tablespoons calamansi juice, soy sauce and broth. Simmer until reduced by half. Thoroughly combine the cornstarch with the remaining calamansi juice and whisk into the sauce. Bring to a boil, and when it is thickened, remove from heat. When embutido is cooked, reheat sauce over medium heat until steaming, then whisk in butter, one chunk at a time, to emulsify.

6) Serve embutido on a platter with watercress and sauce, with steamed white rice on the side.

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