I have a friend who’s currently spending a few months volunteering at a women’s shelter in the Philippines. A lot of her time is obviously spent doing essential, life-saving work with the local women who go to the shelter. But when she’s not there, she’s experiencing life in the Philippines, eating street food, swimming on pristine beaches, and other activities that make me green with envy when I see her photos on Facebook. I want to do what she’s doing, see what she’s seeing, and eat what she’s eating!
Filipino cuisine isn’t something I’ve tried before, which is why I was really pleased to be able to attend the Philippine Food Week buffet for Saturday lunch at the Shangri-La Hotel Sydney as part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival. I did do some research beforehand to try and get a sense of what I would be eating as my only presumption was that Filipino food would make good use of a wide variety of spices, reflecting its position on the historical Spice Route.
When K and I arrived at the Cafe Mix at the Shangri-La, we were greeted personally by the hostess who took us straight to a table by the window. Within minutes of sitting down, our waiter came over to take our drink orders and to invite us to help ourselves to the buffet. I needed no second invitation!
I started off with the cold bar. There was a really interesting mix of ‘make your own’ meal options here (salad bar above, with four different types of dressings) and pre-made options. I tried a cold vegetarian spring roll which was actually made out of crepes rather than traditional fried spring roll wrapping. Delicious, especially with the variety of sauces that sat next to each dish. The fried eggplant was also a revelation – I was expecting a traditional oily fried eggplant taste and texture, but the flavour was very smokey, like it had been barbecued. It was so good that K went back for second helpings!
Other cold options included two seafood ceviches (scallop ceviche and mackerel ceviche), various pickled vegetables, a cold pork and bean puff dish, and a prawn and mango salad. I found the flavours of the pickled vegetables and pork dish very Chinese, while the ceviche was very European, and the mango salad more Malaysian. I think this variety really highlights the variety of food that the Philippines can offer, as their cuisine has been influenced by so many other countries over the years. I personally recommend the scallop ceviche and the prawn and mango salad.
If you’re the type of diner who prefers not to know where their food came from, you’ll be in for a nasty shock when you approach the hot buffet! Pork appears to be a Filipino staple, and the chefs stand at the buffet carving roast pork from a whole pig (head and all!) for you on request. It could be a bit confronting for those of us who are used to buying our meat from the butcher in a form that looks nothing like the original animal – but if you can stomach the sight of the pig carcass, then I can assure you that actually eating the roast pork more than makes up for it. It’s roasted beautifully and is a real treat when coupled with the various accompanying sauces.
When I first saw the steamed barramundi on offer, I highly doubted that it would taste any good. It was absolutely huge – easily the length of my arm, if not longer. From experience, I know that there’s a real art to cooking the perfect Chinese-style steamed fish, an art that is individual to the person (stovetop) and their tools (steamer). The space of a minute can turn a steamed fish from a perfect work of food artistry to a fish with overcooked crumbly flesh – and this becomes harder to judge the larger the fish.
I was proven wrong! Despite its size, the barramundi was actually cooked perfectly. K and I tried flesh from different parts of the fish and the texture and flavours of the fish were consistent throughout. The flesh was firm, yet melted in your mouth at the same time. The sauce brought out the flavour of the sea, without overpowering the dish. Delicious!
This was the one vegetarian dish on the hot buffet when we were there – sauteed mixed vegetables. It was a pretty standard and simple dish when compared to the excellence of some of the meat dishes on offer – grilled lamb chops (heaven!), different varieties of pork, and a delicious oxtail in peanut sauce dish. I wanted to try the mussels, however there were none left on the buffet in the time I was there! Those of you who know what a seafood fiend I am will understand my disappointment.
Onto the desserts, and I was astounded by how many of them seemed to be dairy-based! I think many Asian cultures tend to shy away from using dairy products in their cooking, largely because we are more genetically prone to being lactose intolerant. Filipinos clearly don’t have any qualms about this – aside from a handful of lactose-free desserts (e.g. sago), most of them included cream, or custard, or otherwise. This one in particular was really nice – rolled egg whites with custard cream. It was really deliciously light and fluffy, and melted as soon as it touched your tongue.
This was my last dish of the buffet – a do-it-yourself halo-halo dessert topped with purple yam ice-cream.While I’ve had similar desserts before (e.g. Malaysian ais kacang and Vietnamese three colour drink), it was the first time that I tried halo-halo and purple yam ice-cream. Beautiful. When I try ice-creams with unique flavours like this, I often find that it tastes more like plain vanilla than anything else – but this ice-cream really captured that yam flavour well.
I loaded my halo-halo up with some of my favourite sweet things – mango chunks, lychee strips, different jellies, and bananas soaked in a sweet rose syrup as well. Topped with shaved ice, then evaporated milk and the ice-cream, it really struck the balance between being crisp and refreshing, and sweet and tasty.
To accompany our meal, K ordered a fresh coconut juice, and I ordered a San Miguel beer. Both were personally-adventurous choices – his last order of coconut juice didn’t end well, and I don’t normally enjoy beer. Luckily, our gamble paid off – his coconut juice was young, sweet and fresh, and my beer wasn’t as bitter as some local beers can be, and had some sweet undertones that went well with most of my buffet choices.
The service at the Shangri-La was really incredible – throughout the meal – they regularly checked in on us, topped up our ice waters, took away completed plates and were generally just very attentive throughout without being overbearing. At no point were we ever left waiting for service.
Overall I rate the buffet an 8.5 out of 10.
The service was really excellent at the Shangri-La – more attentive than I’ve had anywhere else in recent months. I also really enjoyed the cold dishes and the desserts. If I was more of a heavy meat-eater, I’d probably rate the buffet higher as there was a great variety of meats. However, the smaller selection of hot seafood or vegetable dishes somewhat curtailed my eating frenzy!
Philippine Food Week is on at Cafe Mix at the Shangri-La Hotel in Sydney from October 20 to October 28 as part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival. For reservations and more information, visit the website or call 02 9250 6206.
Note: I attended the Philippine Food Week buffet as a guest of the Shangri-La for review purposes. My attendance was free of charge, but all words and opinions are my own.