Filipino Islamic, Argentinean Jewish, London Spanish, and More on Day 2 of Madrid Fusión 2017

Astonishments both avant-garde and traditional and some fishy cocktails animate this mega-conference

Manila-based chef and author Myke "Tatung" Sarthou on stage at Madrid Fusión 2017.

Considering Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte's anti-American bluster and human rights violations, I don't imagine a lot of my fellow citizens will be signing up to attend the third edition of Madrid Fusión Manila (themed "Our Sustainable Gastronomic Planet") this April. This morning's kickoff sessions of Madrid Fusión Madrid, however, made a strong case for the event. There are some top chefs from around the world coming, for one thing — among them Simon Rogan of the Michelin-two-star L'Eclume in the English town of Cartmel, top Spanish chefs Jordi Roca and Pedro Subijana, New Nordic pioneer Magnus Ek from Oaxen Krog & Slip in Stockholm, and chefs Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari of the groundbreaking Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia. More to the point, though, ebullient Manila-based chef and cookbook author Myke "Tatung" Sarthou made a strong case for a rich vein of Filipino cuisine that is only just now being rediscovered.

His session was titled "Reencounter with Lost Flavors: Pre-Hispanic Filipino Cuisine" — but after some introductory remarks about the importance of salt in traditional Filipino condiments (and the unfortunate fact that 80 percent of the salt his country uses is industrial stuff imported from China and Australia), his concentration was on the little-known food traditions of the Philippines' Muslim population, based largely on the island of Mindanao. Islam indeed first reached this 7,107-island nation in the late thirteenth century, roughly 200 years before the Spanish, but outside the Muslim community, its culinary contributions are largely unknown. This is a shame, Sarthou said, "because they make Filipino cuisine more interesting than we think it is now."

One unique feature of this cooking is the use of coconut that has been charred black in an open fire, something Sarthou says is done in no other culture. The burnt coconut is ground into a powder and added to pastes and sauces, where it contributes a smoked flavor still redolent of the basic fruit. Two uses Sarthou demonstrated were a paste of the powder with chiles, garlic, and ginger juice as a marinade for beef to be cooked in a rich broth, and a marinade for chicken of burnt coconut, garlic, chiles, lemon grass, and coconut milk; the poultry pieces are braised in the liquid, then grilled.

Madrid Fusión

Madrid Fusión 

Sarthou's seafood rice in a sea urchin shell with marinated sea bass and green mango.

Sarthou's own modern use of this unusual ingredient involved rice cooked in coconut milk and ginger, then mixed with blackened coconut powder, palapa (a condiment made with black coconut, scallions, ginger, and birds' eye chiles), crab, shrimp, sea urchin, and chile salt, then stuffed into urchin shells, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed. While the rice is steaming, he rolls sea bass chunks in palapa, then fries them. The fish goes atop the finished rice in its shell, along with shredded green mango, salt, and vinegar. "These things are not very popular in mainstream Filipino cooking," Sarthou admits, "but they are really worth knowing."

This unusual presentation was followed by a curious session called "The Best Sushi in the World?" featuring Takayuki Otani of Ootaninosushi in Tokyo, with commentary by food writer Julia Pérez. Otani seemed agreeable, noting that after 25 years of cutting fish he still felt like a beginner, and proposing that the perfect nigiri contained exactly 100 grains of rice; but Pérez's contribution was to say things like, "He's just like a samurai," and "Like everything else in Japan, there is a ceremony with making sushi," and at one point to ask if one could use just any part of the tuna for sushi. Otani demonstrated his prowess by making his nigiri, start to finish, in 10 to 11 seconds (one was timed at 9.86), suggesting that he might have a future on some competition cooking show but not necessarily answering the session's title question.

Mohawked avant-garde Spanish darling Dabiz (formerly David) Muñoz, of the three-star DiverXO in Madrid, who has recently opened StreetXO (pronounced "Street Show") in London, made three dishes from his London menu, announcing that his new place was revolutionary in the staid English dining scene, since "we are loud music, energy, food for sharing — fine food to eat with your fingers." His constructions have many parts, but all the various garnishes aren't for aesthetic reasons, he says; each adds flavor, and his dishes are like puzzles in that there are many pieces but they all fit together into a whole.

The first dish Muñoz served to his guest onstage diners (including Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana, and Martín Berasategui) was hardly finger food — a take on chile crab, involving crab stock, chipotles, spiced spider crabs, egg threads, sherry beurre blanc, crab coral, fried onions, fried turmeric leaves, fennel sprouts, and slices of buttered croissant. Next came grilled baby squid in a strained mortar-and-pestle sauce involving shrimp heads, lemongrass, black garlic, lime segments, coconut vinegar, lemon juice, palm sugar, and dried hibiscus. This was spooned over the squid, then green papaya, crushed peanuts, halved cherry tomatoes, black garlic powder, and a scattering of miscellaneous herbs and flowers were added. Finally, pigeon breast marinated in annatto and miso, charred in the oven, then served over breadcrumbs seasoned with chorizo and pimentón and mixed with fermented brined duck egg, with pigeon leg confit on the side and a topping of Chinese chive flowers, bitter greens, and grated truffle. Whew!

A feature of many of the presentations this year has been a bartender at a bar off to one side of the stage, sort of like the set-up on Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens (sometimes nothing). Some chefs — like Sarthou — seem to forget about this addition (he had to be reminded to acknowledge Madrid mixologist Dennis Barela) while others, including Muñoz, engage constantly. He brought a bartender (unannounced) from StreetXO, who energetically whipped up both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, variously employing such ingredients as mango syrup, licorice, green miso, bottarga, truffles, olive oil, cuttlefish ink, and caramelized baby shrimp (the ones who had lent their heads to Muñoz's chile crab sauce).

Almost as revelatory as Sarthou's appreciation of Filipino Muslim food was Tomás Kalika's celebration of the Jewish culinary traditions of Buenos Aires. Argentina was the second-largest destination for Jewish emigration after the U.S. in the twentieth century, he said, and the "Cocina de Immigrantes" he serves at his restaurant, Mishiguene — and, yes, that's the Spanish rendering of the Yiddish meshuganah, meaning “crazy” or “eccentric” — pays tribute to the cooking of his generation's Jewish mothers and grandmothers, though with a modern vocabulary.

Kalika's dishes included herring with vinegared potatoes, caviar, and "gribenes" (usually chicken skin cooked in chicken fat) made with fish instead of poultry; sautéed chicken hearts and livers with pickled onions, chiles, fried garbanzos, tahini, toasted ground almonds, and liquefied hummus; and an irresistible-looking whole beef rib "pastrami," "mixing what being Argentinean and being Jewish means." On the basis of these creations, I suspect Kalika deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Michael Solomonov and Alon Shaya as purveyors of top-level tradition-based contemporary Jewish food.


Elsewhere at Madrid Fusión today, the usual profusion of riches — Joan and Josep Roca on "Human Relations as Keys to the Cooking of the Future"; workshops on cooking for diabetics, the use of "superfoods" (superalimentos), and dining room management; tutored tastings of Ribera del Duero, Spanish garnachas, and the wines of the big Catalan-based producer Torres; and, of course, more than 100 exhibitors offering samples and information around everything from farmed abalone to jamón ibérico to Schweppes tonic. A feast of food and drink, impossible to ingest fully but great fun to snack on.