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Chinoy comfort food

In drawing up its menu, chef Decker Gokioco dug deep into his Chinese heritage and Chinoy food experience — recipes from his childhood as well as from his younger chef days.

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I am a Chinoy — of Chinese descent, born in the Philippines, raised by a Chinese family steeped in Chinese culture and traditions but in the Philippine context; neither just Chinese nor Filipino but both though not necessarily in equal proportions; speaking Fukien and Mandarin Chinese but equally fluent in Filipino and English. I am part of a huge Chinoy community in the Philippines whose members belong to different generations but sharing one common life experience. Through the years, we have managed to integrate ourselves into Philippine society, which has likewise come to accept us as their own.

As different regions and provinces in the country have developed their own local cuisines, we Chinoys are proud of the unique cuisine we grew up with. As a child, I remember walking the streets of Chinatown in Binondo with my mom and dad and some of my sisters and stopping by a panciteria to eat a bowl of maki (pork tenderloin nuggets coated with tapioca starch and cooked in a thick brown broth) or maki mi (with fresh egg noodles). We would also stop by a small neighborhood roasting shop, order half a kilo of char siu (roast barbecued pork) for takeout, and have it chopped.

Sometimes, it is a quick stop at the popular chicken specialty restaurant at the foot of Jones Bridge to take home one whole Chinese-style fried chicken for family dinner later in the day. Merienda — of asado siopao, shark’s fin siomai or wanton or chicken noodle soup — would be easier to either buy or prepare at home.

I wax nostalgic and memories of my childhood come to mind whenever I encounter my Chinoy comfort food as an adult. Some old heritage Chinese restaurants which still have a few existing stores never fail to bring back such heartwarming childhood memories, and new restaurants that serve such comfort food are always a welcome development.

Just recently, White Flower Tea House soft-opened at The Grid Food Market.

Its menu is made up of probably all the Chinoy comfort food items that a true-blooded Chinoy could ever think of. These include ngo hiong, asado and bola-bola siopao, chicken feet tausi, hakaw (shrimp dumplings), sweet and sour fish and chicken, lechon macau, char siu, pork maki and maki mi, cha misua, and kiampeng.

The name of the tea house itself is so Chinese. It will make you think of White Flower, the menthol or eucalyptus oil brand that Chinese families would apply to the body for relief from muscle pains and backaches.

Truth to tell: The restaurant is really named after this eucalyptus oil brand. Why?

“It’s because everybody knows it or has probably used it at least once in their lifetime,” explains chef Decker Gokioco, himself a Chinoy who carries with him a lot of fond memories of Chinoy comfort food from his childhood.

Chef Decker is the brains behind White Flower Tea House, with The Grid owner Charles Paw as his business partner.

“With this restaurant, we are sharing our childhood comfort food, having grown up in a Chinoy household. It is about Chinoy comfort food that you can enjoy at The Grid and that is at the same time ready to be delivered to your own home,” he says.

So, in drawing up its menu, chef Decker dug deep into his Chinese heritage and Chinoy food experience — recipes from his childhood as well as from his younger chef days. He took some recipes that have been handed down to him by his father, including the braised beef preparation for his beef and wanton noodles and the char siu. From his mother, chef Decker worked his take on sate mi, White Flower’s signature noodle dish of dry noodles with chicken, bokchoy and crispy sunny side up egg.

He worked around some dishes he used to enjoy during his family’s frequent food trips to Binondo, Manila, and he also made his own versions of dishes he used to prepare when he was still working for Tin Hau at Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Lili at Hyatt Hotel and Casino. He kitchen-tested these with sous chef Mark Nepomuceno. They particularly spent time perfecting the recipe for the lechon macau, testing four recipes until he found the version that he really liked and gave his go signal to launch it.

Chef Decker Gokioco with wife Sabrina.

Apparently, chef Decker’s decision to use his own taste — perfected by 10 years of experience in the hotel industry after graduation from culinary school — was a splendid idea, because White Flower Tea House’s lechon macau turned out to be its best-seller. Lechon macau and the other roasting option, char siu, over rice or dry noodles have become early favorites among restaurant guests. Pork maki and sate mi have also made a strong showing, along with cha misua, which is a dry, stir-fried noodle dish that Chinoys love. Pinoys are more familiar with the misua soup versions.

“We get a lot of party tray orders of cha misua,” says chef Decker, to whom cha misua is a personal favorite along with lechon macau and the Golden Mushroom with Spice Dust.

Another must-try: Kiampeng. It’s the Chinese version of Spanish paella and Pinoy bringhe. It is a one-dish rice meal using glutinous rice cooked with pork, chicken, carrots, chayote, mushrooms, sausage and taro in soy sauce, vinegar and topped with peanuts, chopped spring onion, toasted shallots and strips of egg omelette.

And, oh, yes, White Flower Tea House delivers. Find it in thegridfoodmarket.com. It is also on Grab Food and foodpanda.

Sweet and sour chicken.

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