Pan de sal. Who can resist these sweet, pillow-soft buns? They were my first introduction to Filipino food back in 1988 when I found them at a bakery in a little mall in the San Diego community of Mira Mesa. It took me too many years to seek out more. It wasn’t until about 2010 that I started thinking about this lovely cuisine, which somehow still eludes the mainstream. And that’s so odd, given the popularity of fusion and global cuisine. After all, Filipino food is nothing if not a clear global melting pot, embracing Southeast Asia, Latin, Chinese, American (we’re to thank for their love of canned foods), and native traditions. With a tropical climate, multiple languages, diverse geographical zones—including 7,000 islands—and more than 120 ethnic groups, the Philippines is bursting with a multitude of delicious food traditions.

Where Candy, Dennis, and I live in San Diego is one of the largest expat Filipino communities in the U.S. So, there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy traditional Filipino food–and to shop for it. And now we’re seeing a new generation of Filipino-American chefs draw from their traditions to lend the ingredients and flavors to new dishes.

One of them is my friend Anthony Sinsay, who is currently the chef at a downtown restaurant called JSix (if you live in San Diego or come for a visit, I encourage you to go). I went to his kitchen one day to learn how to make a dish of his called Mussels Adobo. Now, as chefs you’ll probably appreciate one of his most important cooking techniques: conversing with his food. He says that this conversation helps you learn where your food is in the cooking process.

He had sautéed a sliced jalapeño, garlic, and onion–one of the best fragrances ever, of course. Then he added the ebony Prince Edward Island mussels to the pan. He stopped explaining what he was doing to me to listen.

“You’ll hear the mussels purge their water,” he said. “Then you know you need to add a little liquid to keep them moist.”

The dish, which would be divine for a dinner party for clients, is inspired by Sinsay’s mom. “She grew up in the southern part of the Luzon Island in the Philippines. She made this dish with chicken that would simmer in the adobo sauce. I like making it with mussels, but I had to add sugar to the adobo sauce recipe to compensate for the shortened cooking time. When you cook vinegar a long time it becomes sweet. This dish with mussels cooks so quickly I needed to add a sweetener.”

Sinsay’s Mussels Adobo is based on a traditional adobo sauce–soy sauce, vinegar, and water. Sinsay quickly whips up the sauce and sets it aside while he first sautés the vegetables, then adds the mussels. He mixes in the adobo sauce and covers the pan, cooking the mussels until they open. Then, in what takes the dish to a seductive level, Sinsay adds coconut cream and butter. That’s it. Oh, except for one more critical addition: grilled pan de sal, the addictive sweet white Filipino yeast bread. Just brush slices with olive oil and toast on a grill until crispy–then try not dunking them in the luscious mussels sauce. I dare you!

 

Mussels Adobo
From Anthony Sinsay
Serves 4

Adobe is the national dish of the Philippines and varies from region to region. This version is closest to the adobo I grew up with made by my mother from southern Luzon. The sauce is an acidic broth comprised of white distilled vinegar, soy sauce, and water. Cooked with onion, garlic, and jalapeño balancing sweet, umami, spicy, and salty. It’s finished with coconut cream and butter to enrich the flavor and texture. The Pan de Sal is a Filipino yeast-risen dough with a slight sweet flavor, contrary to what the name suggests. Garnish the mussels with chive spears and crispy garlic chips (slice the garlic thin, blanch, then fry).

Ingredients
3 ounces adobo sauce (see below for recipe)
1/2 ounce of olive and canola oil blend
1 jalapeño, sliced in rings (include seeds if you want more heat)
1 1/2 ounces yellow onion, sliced in rings
1 whole peeled garlic clove, minced
9 1/2 ounces mussels, cleaned
1 1/2 ounces coconut milk
1/2 ounces butter
.1 ounce fresh chives, sliced into 2-inch pieces
1 loaf pan de sal, sliced
Olive oil

For adobo sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup distilled vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup water

Directions
1. Make adobo sauce: Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly until all sugar is dissolved. Set aside.
2.  Sauté the jalapeño, onion, and garlic clove in oil. Brush pan de sal slices with olive oil and grill.
3. Add the mussels and stir together.
4. Add the adobo sauce, stir together, and cover, cooking until the mussels open.
5. Remove lid and remove mussels from the heat. Stir in coconut cream and butter. Taste the sauce and add salt if necessary to balance the flavor.
6. Garnish with chives and garlic chips (optional). Serve with grilled pan de sal.

Have you ever tried or cooked Filipino food? What dishes are your or your clients’ favorites?

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