Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lola Illang's Sikulati (Hot Cocoa) de Cacao: Worth Melting For

One of my fondest memories of Lola Illang is of her pretending to trip over some blooms at the Botanical Gardens in Baguio where we were spending the summer of my 10th year. A whistle went off because visitors were not allowed to touch the flowers. We helped her to her feet as she discreetly slipped a clenched fist into her pocket, hiding what I can only guess to be sprigs or seeds.

She had plenty of room for her spoils. Our family compound included an expansive orchard, where she’d often be found tucking something under the soil. The yield, in time, found their way onto our plate.

She was a retired Home Economics teacher. It was my belief that she could make anything by hand—from straw doormats to fruit preserves.

Back when I had yet to discover the pleasures of coffee, my drink of choice was lola’s sikulati (hot cocoa). Not only was it made my hand, the main ingredient was grown in our backyard. Lola would gather the pods from our cacao trees and prepared the seeds following the process detailed below.

Erming gathering cacao pods

Erming and Victor

The cacao tree grows tall. Dummo climbs up to pick more pods.
Eru's turn to climb.
Lola Illang left the seeds to dry under the sun in a bilao (woven winnowing tray), after which they were roasted, peeled and ground, and formed into balls. I would stand by to watch and she would put her chocolate-stained hand to my face so that I could inhale the warm, earthy smell.

Gathering the seeds

Washing off the pulp

The seeds are then spread on a bilao to dry
The trays are left on the roof of the outhouse to dry under the sun

The sun-dried seeds

The seeds are transferred into a claypot for roasting

The traditional wood-fed clay stove

Roasting the seeds

The seeds after roasting

Winnowing the roasted seeds

After which, the shells are peeled off

To reveal the cacao beans

The seeds go into the heavy-duty stone mortar, owned by my great-grandmother's family

Pound away

Until the seeds turn into powder

The powder is spread onto the flat grindstone, another heirloom piece from my great-lola's family
Roll away until the powder turns into a fine paste and the oil comes out

The paste is shaped into balls by hand

When the surface is slick with oil, set them aside for melting.

The beans, the paste, the balls

Bring out the lomonilla (commonly called batirol)

She cooked her sikulati in a clay pot, over a clay stove fed with firewood. Let the water boil, drop the balls, whisk, add sugar, whisk, pour milk, whisk. Using a lomonilla, she would stir the mixture until it thickened and the flavors melded.

Away from fire, she whisked some more by briskly rubbing the handle of the lomonilla between her palms. She was a spare woman but she could work every single froth out of chocolate. She served this brown liquid in tiny cups called escudilla reserved solely for this purpose and I would enjoy every drop.

Until now, when this luscious beverage coats my tongue, I see her face. It transports me to better days.

See Lola Illang's recipe.

Lola Illang's Sikulati de Cacao: The Recipe


1-cup water
2 100%-pure cacao balls
1/2-cup sugar
1 cup full cream milk
1/3 to ½ cup condensed milk (to taste)

How to prepare this recipe

So much depends on the quality of the tableas or cacao balls so we often make our own.

Pick ripe cacao pods and slice them open to get the seeds. Soak the seeds in a basin full of water and rub them until most of the pulp is removed. Don’t worry about getting the pulp off completely. Spread the seeds onto a tray and leave them under the sun to dry.

In a clay pot under low to medium fire, roast the seeds for 20 to 30 minutes until the shell starts to become brittle. Control the fire to make sure the seeds don't burn. Allow them to cool then peel off the thick shell to gather the cocoa beans. Store in an a container.

To make cacao balls, crush the seeds into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. To make it finer and draw out the oil, we further press the powder using our flat stone mill. A modern cacao bean grinder will work as well. Just make sure to use repeatedly until the oil comes out and powder turns to paste. When done, grab a palmful of the cacao paste, press until sufficiently compact, and roll between your palms until the ball is smooth and starts to glisten with oil. Store in a cool dry place until ready to use.

The tableas, ready to be melted in the claypot using a lomonilla

To prepare a pot of sikulati: Heat 1 cup of water in a clay pot over low to medium fire.

The thick mixture of tablea and water
Add 2 chocolate balls and stir using a lomonilla until completely melted. Add sugar and whisk until the mixture thickens. Pour in evaporated or full milk and whisk until silky.

The mixture becomes silky with the addition of condensed milk
Add condensed milk to taste. Makes 8 servings in an escudilla.

Best paired with sticky rice.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Must-Try Filipino Food: Teresita Razon's Halo Halo and Pancit Palabok

This is the refined (and arguably the best) version of what is typically an over-the-top Filipino dessert, the halo-halo. Teresita Razon’s take stays true to the original recipe of Lola Viring, one of three sisters who put up the original Razon’s in Guagua, Pampanga. Unlike common variants that are piled with beans, gelatin, jackfruit, banana, rice crisps, purple yam ice cream and other treats, Razon’s shaved ice dessert keeps it simple. Just macapuno, sweetened bananas, milk and two generous slices of homemade leche flan on top. Rich, refreshing, delicious. To get the real deal, make sure to visit

Another Teresita Razon specialty you must try is the pancit palabok (technically, pancit luglug because it uses the thicker round rice noodles instead of bihon or beehun). The vivid annatto-colored sauce is so thick it coats every string. The blizzard of ground chicharrón (deep-fried pork rinds) on top makes its way through every bite.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Restaurant Recommendations in South Triangle, Quezon City (A Series): Lola Cafe

I consider QC, particularly the Timog-Morato-Scout area, my ‘hood. I work here so I have plenty of opportunities to try new restaurants nearby. When I do, I am conscientious enough to withhold judgment until the second visit (unless the service is so bad I vow never to go back).

I can name a few stalwarts in the area, places I visit so often I must have already sampled every item on the menu. I can tell you, for example, that A Taste of LA almost never misses. You should try the callos, osso buco, three-cheese pizza, morconitos, pritchon, bistek Tagalog, grilled pork chop and beef fondue. No wonder they’ve lasted this long and are still going strong. I’ve also heard praises for their sinigang na salmon sa miso (clear soup with a souring ingredient like tamarind or bilimbi, cooked with salmon and Japanese miso) but I’m not a sinigang person.

When it comes to Paella Valenciana and cochinillo, Alba’s is a no-fail option and the dinner buffet is well priced at P750+. I also have a thing for their coconut macaroons.

If you want Thai, drive without hesitation to Thaipan and order the soft-shell crab and cinnamon pork ribs. I go to Cerchio when I’m craving for the salty crunch of their Singaporean crispy squid, and to Relish just beside it for the roasted chicken. Recently, I went with family to Alfredo’s, a Tomas Morato institution. The steak is still good, especially if you like it old-fashioned, that is, served on a sizzling plate and ladled with deliciously greasy gravy.

There is not a better time to explore this neighborhood than now when a growing number of vacant ancestral homes are being given a second lease on life as restaurants. One such establishment is Lola Café-Bar, which I highly recommend. I’ve been there twice prior, and the food made a good impression, but I didn’t realize how consistently good their flavors are until I got to try a wider selection of dishes recently during my brother’s birthday dinner.

Here’s my Lola Café experience:

“I love this. It’s shabby chic,” quipped my nine-year-old niece Julia as we approached our table at the mezzanine while admiring the Mason jar droplights. The walls were adorned with framed quotes in Spanish, Italian and even French. On a wall, a chalkboard menu detailed some of the specials.

Lola Cafe was built in a nicely restored home on Scout Lozano. It maintained the main structure and played it up with vintage furniture and rustic details that added to its charm. Not too shabby, not too chic—a combined quality that also defines its food, which is at once homey and refined. It is real food done real good.

As a starter, we ordered the bone marrow sisig (P230), a new item on the menu. It seemed like a heavy way to start a meal but the serving was small. It came with three crackers and a side of what tasted like tamarind sauce so I allowed myself a small bite. It was certainly novel but I still prefer my marrow on bulalo, which we also ordered (P420).

The kids enjoyed the pesto fries with sunny side up egg so much I only managed to grab three strings.

Of the three appetizers, my favorite was the wagyu salpicao (P320). The meat was tender, arriving in a pool of rich, garlicky sauce.

One thing that Lola has perfected is the making of luscious meat. The kare-kare must have been warming in a bath of peanut-y goodness for hours because the meat was melting. Same can be said about the kimchi kaldereta, which earned the nod of everyone on the table, who loved spooning the sauce over their steamed rice. It’s also hard to find fault with the binagoongang baboy with grilled eggplant.

I also had a taste of my mom’s roasted pork belly and found its mild sweetness a good compliment to the plush belly meat.

The only disappointment was the adobo balsamic chicken, which was my pick. It sounded promising but I found the glaze a tad salty.

Like any other Filipino family, we make it a point to order a noodle dish during birthdays, to signify long life for the celebrant. We made a stellar choice with the tartufo pasta, which was creamy, perfectly seasoned and worth another visit.

Of the three desserts we ordered (they ran out of the pavlova), my vote goes to the banoffee pie, whose graham cracker crust went so well with the creamy custard filling with chunks of banana.

My niece Julia preparing to attack the cupcake

My foodie family

The Menu

Lola Café-Bar
99 Scout Lozano,
South Triangle, Quezon City
Phone 632-501-2620

Up Next: Saute restaurant

Following My Nose in France and Italy

Colette’s novels and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast lured me to Paris’s grand boulevards and cobbled lanes 21 years ago. The urge to pay another visit to France was resurrected by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence.

Movies were not much help either. How can any girl watch Katherine Hepburn’s Summertime and not dream about jumping onto a Venetian vaporetto in her pleated skirt and button-down? Or Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday and not be moony-eyed over Rome?

I imagined my second trip to Europe to be the extraordinary dovetailing of the real and the cinematic or literary. Around this reservoir of images and stories, my trip to France and Italy began to take form.


Starting the day at Rue de Lille. My petit dejeuner of baguette, brie, mimolette, chevre and espresso.
My first stop was Paris. Because I wanted to breathe the same hallowed air that Simone de Beauvoir and Hemingway breathed, I booked a perch at St. Germain de Pres. My building had no lift so I had to drag my luggage three floors up. My reward was a view of Karl Lagerfeld’s bookstore just down the street. At 20 sqm., the flat was tiny but well-planned, with closets discretely tucked into the walls, and a sofa bed that can turn into a double bed at night. A modern Boffi fan provided sufficient ventilation, assisted by tall windows on warm nights. The kitchenette had two induction hobs, which I never used, a toaster, where I warmed slices of baguette for breakfast, a coffee pod machine for my espresso and a personal refrigerator for my stash of cheeses.

These bouquinistes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and take up more than three kilometers of the Seine riverbank.
Our merry band of tower gazers. The path to the Eiffel Tower is well grooved but who can resist its charms, especially in good, well-fed company, and at night when it is all lit up. Even more special was catching the light show at the first 10 minutes of the hour, and seeing a million diamonds dancing all over the tower.
At The Louvre, one of the largest museums in the world. Being that, it is overwhelming for everyone, including me. I made the experience manageable with a cheat. I downloaded an audio guide by Rick Steves, which gave me an overview of the highlights, which, of course, included the Mona Lisa.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the most majestic sight inside the Louvre.
My personal favorite sculpture was out on the streets, glistening under the midday sun—the gilded bronze figure of Jeanne d’Arc on horseback.
But the real worship took place here, at Angelina's, temple of molten chocolate pleasure. Shown here is Chocolat L’ Africain, considered by many to be the best hot chocolate in the world. As it was poured into my cup, everything came into focus. And as I drank the last drop, my satisfaction was complete.
Not even the best hot chocolate can make me skip a third cup of my favorite beverage. Un café crème, s’il vout plait? Here at Café de Flore, where one of the best people-watching can be had. The latter is, evidently, an acceptable pastime in Paris, where people are less inclined to sit across each other at a table than beside each other with unobstructed views of the sidewalk, the street, and the people passing by.
Up Next: Paris: The Scooter Ride
Related:  My AirBNB Picks in France and Italy
               How to Choose an AirBNB Rental


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