Food from the Philippines is relatively unknown in the UK and there are just a handful of restaurants in London.
It’s a shame as it’s a distinct culinary experience, standing out from its other Asian neighbours as it makes little use of chillies. That’s strange as Manila was the gateway for Spanish Galleons bringing hot peppers from Mexico. It’s suggested that the Spanish rulers of the Philippines at that time were happy to sell them to other countries but had no interest in putting them in their own mouths.
But Filipino cuisine is no stranger to strong flavours and makes extensive use of vinegar, soy sauce and garlic to create food that is salty, sweet and acid all at the same time. Rowena Romulo’s restaurant in South Kensington serves up a refined version based on the cooking of her grandmother, a former beauty queen, Doña Virginia Llamas Romulo. Her husband, General Carlos P. Romulo was a prominent politician, the longest serving Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, and their family photographs adorn the walls of the restaurant.
There’s an extensive menu but they suggest ordering platitos, tasting plates to share, and it allows us to sample some of their key dishes. First up is a tuna ceviche, cured with Kalamansi, Filipino lime with ginger, red onion, beetroot and radish slices served on a bed of lettuce. A sweetish yellow dressing tops the salad and creates a riot of colour on the plate. Flavours are fresh and clean and there’s plenty for the two of us.
Now for the hot dishes – sizzling chicken Sisig contains diced thigh meat marinated in annatto, ginger, garlic and lemongrass. Traditionally Sisig is made from parts of pig head, brains and chicken liver but this a Western take on the dish and more acceptable for that. It really does sizzle on the plate and the taste is a umami mix of sour and savoury.
Next is something more familiar – pork belly slow cooked in soy, garlic and rice vinegar on a bed of sweet potato. Cooking with vinegar in this way is known as “adobo” and is probably the most distinctive technique in Filipino cuisine. The pork melts in the mouth, there are crunchy pearl onions and the sweet potato works as a foil for this explosion of flavour.
Alongside the meat, we choose young jackfruit stewed in coconut cream with ginger then drizzled with annatto oil, and a bowl of Pandan rice. Then there’s the star of the show – chargrilled squid, stuffed with tomato, cheese, onion, garlic and annatto oil, served on a bed of rice coloured black by the squid ink. Artfully arranged on the plate, surrounded by diced mango and tomato, it’s almost criminal to cut into it. But we do and it tastes as good as it looks.
We’re now almost full but there’s still a portion of oxtail, falling off on the bone, in a peanut butter sauce with aubergine, bok choy and greens. They call this nutty beef stew “Kare-Kare” and it’s served with a sautéed shrimp paste. Finally, I make room for a dessert of Suman Latik, a sticky rice cake, dipped into dark coconut sauce with coconut mousse and ice cream.
Compared with dining in the Philippines, the Romulo Café dishes retain the flavours that I remember but are not quite as much in-your-face. That’s confirmed by a Filipino friend living in London who says she prefers the food served here to the strong salty, acid, fatty version back home. That’s praise indeed so if you want a gentle introduction to an unfamiliar cuisine, then this is the place to come. Oh, and the presentation is pretty good too.
Tell Me More About The Romulo Café
343 Kensington High Street
London, W8 6NW
020 3141 6390