Cover Food from Jeepney in Miami

From pancit pusit in Cavite to the lesser-known Muslim cuisines in Quiapo, Nicole Ponseca’s favourite Philippine eats are choc-full of hidden gems to add to your bucket list

Homesick Filipinos and curious foodies alike are well-acquainted with New York City’s Jeepney and Maharlika. The brainchild of the proud Pinay and resolute restaurateur Nicole Ponseca, Maharlika started out as a humble pop-up in 2011, introducing unsuspecting passersby to our rich cuisine, one balut and adobo at a time. Emboldened from the rousing success of her first-ever restaurant, she opened Jeepney a few blocks down the following year, venturing into the realm of fusion Filipino food. The closure of both establishments in 2019 and 2021 stirred sorrow through the community, as the gastronomic institutions were monumental to the international Filipino Food Movement. However, as those who know the headstrong personality can attest, Ponseca is not one to throw in the towel.

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From her cookbook, I Am a Filipino: and This is How We Cook, a James Beard Award finalist, the reincarnation of Jeepney in Miami, and her many global appearances on and off-screen, Ponseca is one of Filipino cuisine’s staunchest advocates.

Her anthropologist sensibilities are palpable in the aforementioned title, an essential resource for home cooks, food geeks, and anyone in between. A spokeswoman for our diverse regional cuisines and the storied roots of our heritage dishes, Ponseca nearly bounced off the walls when asked about her favourite Philippine eats, never once running out of steam. Hear from the fervent foodie herself, below:

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What do you miss most on the food/drink front when you are away from the Philippines or haven’t been back for a while?

You know what I really like? I like going to UP Diliman. They have a great ihawan cart, and there’s a fantastic kakanin stand, but her okoy—that’s why I go. I paid her and I scheduled half the day for her to teach me how to cook it.

I also really miss Bicol. Everyone talks about laing, but for me it’s pinangat. You take a taro leaf—fresh, not the dried one—and you make a kind of satchel. I learned how to make this out of a place called Zeny’s. They manufacture [the satchel] for what I call Pinangat Alley, and it’s just pinangat stores one after the other. You take a leaf, which is huge, and you put shredded taro leaves inside, coconut milk that’s been seasoned with garlic, onions, ginger, and bagoong, and then you put a piece of liempo (or shrimp if you want), then you tie it up. I gotta tell you, it took me three hours to learn, and they were laughing at me. You steam it, and it is so delicious. But what I found even more delicious is, after you steam it, all the remnants from the bagoong and the coconut milk drip to the bottom and season the water, and I just ate that like porridge. They looked at me like “that is basically basura, you normally throw it away,” but it was perfect. I wish they would even serve that as a sabaw to accompany the [dish].

What is the first dish you want to eat when you return, and where do you go for it?

I’m going to get pancit cabagan in Isabela! I really loved Isabela, which is east of the Cordilleras. Even the way they speak Ilocano is different—it’s softer, more romantic, and more flowery versus the Ilocano spoken on the northwest side which is harder-hitting. And the food [east of the Cordilleras] I found rounder in some ways, too.  [I had] beautiful pancit that I haven’t had anywhere else… pancit cabagan. [It’s like] the sister to batchoy, and it’s so dope. There’s one place where I like it the most, it’s off the side of the highway—I wish I could tell you its name, but that’s what it’s known for: just pancit cabagan. When I go back to the Philippines, I will make a trip to isabella just for that dish.

See also: Filipino Delicacy: What Do Chefs Like To Eat Bagoong With?

Do you have a favourite restaurant in the Philippines? For fine dining and for more casual experiences?

Well, I love Mesa, and Antonio’s in Tagaytay… and Toyo [Eatery]; Toyo was great!

There’s this place owned by an architect, it’s called Siama. This is more of the higher-end stuff, it’s not street food. This is a very special place to me. It’s in Bicol, in Sorsogon. And you know, I just love going through the roads to get there. The leaves, and the fauna, and the green…and the smell of palm oil and coconut oil that I used to smell when I landed in the Philippines before it became modernised, when it was just flatlands. When you landed at Manila airport, you could smell the oil. And [now] it’s not there, [but] I can smell it in certain parts of the provinces, and Siama has that. The architecture is—wait till you look it up, Lauren—it is gorgeous. The guy who owns it is a fantastic designer.

I also love the Henry Hotel in Manila, that’s where I stay. It’s a converted US military home, and it’s off the beaten path—closer to Mall of Asia than anything. It has really good food too.

If you have visitors/guests with you, where do you go to give them a real taste of the Philippines? 

UP Diliman, haha! I would take them [there], we would get kakanin, we would get barbecue, you know, we’d get tapsilog.

Or, [to show them] a side of the Philippines that is not so recognised but deeply Filipino, I would take them to Quiapo. I would take them to some of the Chinese restaurants there that are long, ancestral examples of Chinese immigration, and I would take them to the Muslim side of Quiapo, which has long been marketed as dangerous. But when I was writing the book, my team and I went and I got to taste sambusa. Imagine lumpia wrappers, wrapped in triangles, but the filling is of spiced ground beef, like a samosa. So you have the crunch and the visceral texture of eating lumpia, but the inside is Indian. And then they have palapa, which a lot of Filipinos don’t know how to eat. Palapa is a relish—it can be eaten raw, or it can be sauteed, or it can be dried in the oven. But it’s a heat that’s unlike anything else. 

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Where do you like to meet up with old friends for food/drinks (in the Philippines)?

I love Poblacion. There’s a great place near Z Hostel, the beer bar [Alamat]. I love love love Poblacion. And I’m a big fan of this restaurant group, headed by this chef named Kalel [Chan]... Raintree Group! In fact, Raintree Group, hook me up—we should bring Jeepney to the Philippines! They do a wonderful job; I’m a big fan of all of their concepts.

Do you have a favourite bar and/or café in the Philippines?

There is a great place in Salcedo, I think it’s called Apartment 1B. I like to go there for merienda, for coffee, and then I can get a manicure next door so we’re making use of bad traffic and multitasking. They have a great bakery too, which is in Makati I believe.

See also: Where Coffee Is Religion: Meet Manila's Newest Café, Omotesando Koffee

Any other must-visit food/drink spots when you are back?

Here are my real secret culinary destinations outside of UP Diliman: the Iloilo Public Market and the Cavite City Market.

In Iloilo, they have an interesting delicacy: eggs that have not fully formed from the hen’s womb, so it’s connected still to the womb. It hasn’t yet formed that outside shell. It’s an excellent market if you want to learn about the culture and regional cuisine. They also have a version of bagoong called guinamos, very similar to belacan which is Malaysian bagoong. You can begin to see how our natural Austronesian roots are shared amongst our sister cultures.

I love the Cavite City Market, man. There is one karinderia, when you enter the Cavite City Market it’s the first store to the left, and you cannot go wrong [there]. But what you want to eat when you’re there is pancit pusit, and she will sell out of it lickety-split. She serves it in a banana leaf and then wraps it in a newspaper, and you eat it while you walk. She puts celery leaves, she sautees pancit with squid ink, and it’s so bomb.

See also: Meet Mrs Saldo’s: The Eclectic Restaurant in Silang, Cavite That’s Fully Booked Until May

Do you take any food or treats back home with you from the Philippines?

I like to take back dilis, really good crispy dilis. I also like to take back polvoron—good polvoron, when it’s crumbly, but then a little moist so it melts in your mouth, but kind of also flakes. If it’s too dry, too brittle, you can’t even take a bite because by the time it gets to your mouth it’s already powder. I love going to markets like Market-Market and bringing back good atchara—things that are easily dismissed, but when it’s done well it’s remarkable. The Philippines is really good at that: when it’s done really well, it’s off the charts. 

Where do you go to find authentic flavours of home where you live?

Queens. I believe that in Queens (outside of the Philippine Heritage Town in LA) is the first officially-recognised Little Manila in the United States. 

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