Thrillers from Manila: Where to find your Filipino food fix in Sydney

Myffy Rigby
Clockwise from left: Cebu lechon (charcoal roast pork); longanisa fried rice; crisp bicol xpress (spicy fried pork belly ...
Clockwise from left: Cebu lechon (charcoal roast pork); longanisa fried rice; crisp bicol xpress (spicy fried pork belly in coconut curry); and humba na manok (braised soy chicken) from Sydney Cebu Lechon in Enmore. Photo: Cole Bennetts

You might know about lechon – the glassy-skinned suckling pig that's one of the Philippines' signature dishes – and you might be familiar with inihaw na liempo (sticky charcoal pork belly skewers). But there's so much more to Filipino food in Australia.

Despite having so many of the flavour elements many of us have come to know and crave (heat, smoke, ferments, vinegars, crisp skins, tender meats, broths full of savour), Filipino food is still not fully appreciated by the wider Australian community.

Mama Lor's hot and sour soup, sinigang na hipon.
Mama Lor's hot and sour soup, sinigang na hipon. Photo: James Brickwood

There's the side of Filipino food that seems at first to be Spanish influenced, the Spaniards having occupied the Philippines for almost 500 years. But actually, many of the ingredients attributed to the Spanish are Mexican, thanks to hundreds of years of galleon trading between Acapulco and Manila.

"Tomatoes, avocados, corn ... a lot of those ingredients that are deeply Filipino actually came from Mexico by way of Spain," says Australian-Filipino food writer Yasmin Newman.

"The reason that chocolate is so popular and grows in the Philippines is we were one of the first countries to get cacao from Latin America."

Why is there a Thai restaurant on every street corner? Where are the Filipino restaurants?

Anna Manlulo

You might see this influence reflected in the brightly coloured desserts, grilled meats and dishes such as bulalo – a deeply savoury bone broth reminiscent of the consomme you get alongside meat at the street-side barbacoa stands in Mexico City.

There's even a Filipino version of tamales, using a rice base instead of corn. And then there's the Malaysian influence, which results in the southern Filipino take on rendang and satay. "I think if you can understand the Philippines' past, you can understand how it plays out quite differently to, say, Thai or Vietnamese food," says Newman.

"There are synergies with Malaysian food as a result of the Arab missionaries that came up through the Malay Peninsula.

Advertisement

"Down south, the food is very, very spicy. Whereas up north it can be richer and more vinegar-based, which is a pillar of Filipino cooking."

Filipinos are the fourth-largest migrant group in NSW after people from India, China and Britain. Globally, the Filipino community is made up of 12 million expats, with many settling in the United States and Australia.

"So why," says Anna Manlulo, president of the Australian chapter of Filipino Food Movement, "is there a Thai restaurant on every street corner? Where are the Filipino restaurants?"

Restaurateur Will Mahusay from Sydney Cebu Lechon in Enmore.
Restaurateur Will Mahusay from Sydney Cebu Lechon in Enmore. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Manlulo only started delving into her culinary heritage when she moved to Australia 15 years ago. She had grown up in and around the American naval bases in the Philippines and had consequently eaten mostly American food.

But living in Australia opened things up for her and she started to explore Filipino food with intent. Heading up the Filipino Food Movement then gave her further juice to spread the word and connect like-minded Filipino people.

The under-representation of Filipino food in Australia is a result of a few things, says Newman.

A-Team's Kitchen specialises in the classic Filipino dessert halo halo.
A-Team's Kitchen specialises in the classic Filipino dessert halo halo.  Photo: James Brickwood

"One of the theories is that a lot of the Filipinos who came to Australia were very well educated – a lot of doctors, nurses and lawyers – so the financial imperative to start a business just didn't exist in the way that might have for other migrant groups."

Another reason is that Filipinos, culturally, are incredibly broadminded – so when they move overseas they're very open to trying new things. "They're all about going to other places and being open and warm to the new experiences of it," she says. "And they see [Filipino food] very much as home cooking – they don't necessarily need to eat it out in restaurants." ​

Restaurateurs such as Will Mahusay of Enmore's Sydney Cebu Lechon, which opened last February specialising in Filipino-style suckling pig, are working to bring Filipino food to the broader Sydney community.

Chargrilled stuffed squid at Mama Lor, Rooty Hill.
Chargrilled stuffed squid at Mama Lor, Rooty Hill. Photo: James Brickwood

He deliberately chose the upwardly mobile inner west as the site for Cebu Lechon, intending to broaden the palate of the city. And it's worked. He says many of his customers are non-Filipino. When Mahusay's family moved to Australia in the 1980s, there were hardly any Filipino restaurants – in fact, he has trouble recalling any at all. And so, feeling homesick, the family did the only thing they could to help feel connected to the motherland – they started cooking.

It was a catering business that began in their garage in 1987 but soon expanded, becoming an entire commercial operation that's been running out of Blacktown for nearly three decades. "Food plays a part in reconnecting you back to your roots," he says. "It's memory and experience."

Food as an expression of an emotion is a very important part of Filipino culture, and it's something Newman experienced from an early age on her holidays to the Philippines.

Cookbook author Yasmin Newman.
Cookbook author Yasmin Newman. Photo: Anne Charlotte Compan

"Food is central, from when you wake up to when you go to sleep," she says.

"You could put that down to a healthy appetite, which Filipinos definitely have, but it's the way in which they express certain things that they can't say in words. A good example is what we call pasalubong, which is effectively a certain food gift from somewhere.

"Say I go travelling to another town, I will always bring back the specialty from that town. When I come back, my loved ones will know that I missed them and they are also able to share that experience with me, even though they weren't there.

"So food kind of says, 'I love you, I miss you, I want you to have my experiences' through that gesture of having food from somewhere else with me."

Where to get your Filipino fix in Sydney

Spend some time in suburbs such as Rooty Hill and Blacktown, and you'll see another side to Filipino food.

Asian Fresh Food Market in Rooty Hill is a one-stop shop for Filipino staples such as chokos, taro and ginger.

Asian Fresh Food Market in Rooty Hill is a one-stop shop for Filipino staples such as chokos, taro and ginger. Photo: James Brickwood

Asian Fresh Food Market

Pretty much a one-stop shop for Filipino staples such as milkfish (the national fish of the Philippines, often smoked and served shredded over rice), an encyclopaedic range of tinned sardines, fresh ingredients such as bitter melon, ginger and taro, as well as imported Filipino ice-cream. There's red bean, avocado and cheese (a classic hallmark of Filipino dessert is the combination of sweet and savoury). Not to mention an exhaustive range of American products including the holy grail of s'mores-making, the elusive Graham Cracker.

56 Rooty Hill Road North, Rooty Hill, 02 9625 6068

A-Team's Kitchen offers up sweet spring rolls stuffed with banana and taro.

A-Team's Kitchen offers up sweet spring rolls stuffed with banana and taro. Photo: James Brickwood

A-Team's Kitchen

​This is the place to try halo halo – an ice dessert reminiscent of the Indonesian ice kacang. Halo means "mix" in Filipino, so the combo of condensed milk-dressed shaved ice, sweet beans, dulce de leche, jelly and ice-cream is quite literally a "mix mix". It's a bright riot best shared with some sweet-loving pals. Word on the street is that the sisig – chopped-and-fried pig's ear and jowl, mixed with capsicum and onion – here is also a powerful offering and, good news for breakfast-for-supper fans, they offer all-day breakfast. They're busiest at weekends, so visit early in the week if you want a good run at the menu in peace.

Shop 4, 52 Rooty Hill Road North, Rooty Hill, 02 9832 3376

Filipino Food Movement Australia

An organisation that links the Filipino community with events and meet-ups. It's also a fantastic resource for Filipino businesses around the country, including food stores, restaurants, food trucks and more. 

filipinofoodmovementaustralia.org

Juicy pork skewers with sweet barbecue sauce at Mama Lor Restaurant & Bakery.

Juicy pork skewers with sweet barbecue sauce at Mama Lor. Photo: James Brickwood

Mama Lor

This old bakery-now-restaurant specialising in food from the island of Cebu gives you a pretty clear idea of what Filipino food looks like beyond suckling pig and fried chicken (though they have those, too). Out the front, pork skewers smoke and spit over charcoal. At the table, those juicy pork skewers arrive on a banana leaf, brushed with house-made barbecue sauce, sweet and glistening. Bulalo, a deeply savoury beef bone marrow broth, is a Filipino comfort dish that comes in a bowl bigger than your head, along with slender strands of cabbage and corn. It also provides a foil for the sisig, served sizzling at the table, drizzled with mayonnaise and topped with a raw egg yolk. It's a dish you'd traditionally eat with beer. Seafood plays a big part on the menu with the likes of whole char-grilled squid stuffed with onions and tomato. The flavour definer, though, is a sour soup called sinigang na hipon. The tamarind-based broth is dotted with poached Japanese eggplant, okra, snake beans and, here, prawns. If you were operating under the belief that Filipino food is generally brown and fatty, this is a very clear argument for the defence.

Shop 5, 39-45 Rooty Hill Road North, Rooty Hill, 02 8809 7778, mamalor.com

Breads and cakes from Melchrishel Bakery.

Breads and cakes from Melchrishel Bakery. Photo: James Brickwood

Melchrishel Bakery

It looks like every old-school bakery that's survived just about every major world event and still manages to churn out cream cakes. You'll find those decorative cakes in the window, but then dig deeper. There are brightly wrapped yema – a soft, custardy sweet made with egg yolks and condensed milk that tastes like a sort of lighter, less gummy dulce de leche. And brazo de Mercedes – like a swiss roll, only made from poached, rolled meringue and filled with custard like a reverse floating island.

23 Rooty Hill Road North, Rooty Hill, 02 9832 4555

Sydney Cebu Lechon in Enmore.

Carnivores will love Sydney Cebu Lechon in Enmore. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Sydney Cebu Lechon

​Searching for a life-changing suckling pig? (Who isn't?) Look to this brightly coloured inner-west celebration of pork. True to its name, Sydney Cebu Lechon specialises in perfectly tender, crisp-skinned, char-grilled Cebu-style pork, but there are plenty of other options, including soy-poached chicken and pinakbet – an (almost) vegetarian offering of eggplant, snake beans, garlic, squash, okra and shrimp paste. But really, this is one for the carnivores. You can also buy specialty vinegars and other Filipino products such as banana ketchup and canned jackfruit. The Cebu Lechon catering business has operated in Sydney for the past 29 years. This is the first bricks-and-mortar shop. 

Shop 4, 80-80A Enmore Road, Newtown, 0481 205 589, sydneycebulechon.com.au

Traditional woven goods and Filipino pantry essentials at Sydney Cebu Lechon in Enmore.

Traditional woven goods and Filipino pantry essentials at Sydney Cebu Lechon in Enmore. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Must-have ingredients in the Filipino pantry

Acids

Native vinegars (sugarcane, coconut, palm)

Kalamansi lime

Modifiers

Soy sauce

Fish sauce

Shrimp paste

Fats

Coconut milk

Fresh produce

Garlic

Onion

Tomato

Chilli

Pepper

Ginger

Turmeric

Annatto (a type of Mexican seasoning derived from the annatto seed)

Bay leaves

Sweet

Muscovado sugar