Manila, The Gates of Hell (or something to that effect)

Until now, I find it hard to tune in to the brouhaha that is Manila getting called the “Gates of Hell” in Dan Brown’s latest book “Inferno”. The responses have been varied, from utter shock and disappointment to total amusement. But for me, no matter how much I care, I’m playing the straight face card for this topic.

For those who have been living under a rock (or a pile of sweets from Candy Crush), the “Gates of Hell” remark came from a scene from “Inferno,” where the character Sienna Brooks joins a humanitarian mission in Manila.

Here, Sienna took note of Manila’s widespread poverty, the traffic jams, the garbage, and the rampant crime and sex trade. To put it simply, the whole ordeal traumatized her. (Follow the link above to read the excerpt of the novel.)

While it makes for a gripping yet nauseating example of human drama, many Filipinos found it offensive.

The Metro Manila, Development Authority, for example, took exception to Brown’s statement. “We are greatly disappointed by your inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis,” MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino said in an open letter. (Note, however, that Tolentino once made an article lambasting Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and lobbied to have its movie version banned.)

Malacanang insisted that foreign tourists who have seen Manila know better, and that the Philippines remains to be a prime tourist destination. Meanwhile, cultural activist Carlos Celdran urged Filipinos to remain calm and do something about the bad parts of Manila instead of protesting.

The comments from netizens were more polarizing: Brown’s Facebook page was swamped with comments and wall posts from Filipinos. Some defended Brown’s work and criticized the narrow-mindedness of his critics. Others took to lambasting Brown himself, wishing him and his family misfortune.

While comments against Brown’s depiction of Manila fly around, Adobo Connection had something else in mind. Not only did they offer the author a round-trip to Manila, but they are also developing an adobo recipe just for him. Incidentally, they called it “Adobo Diablo.”

Even popular author Paulo Coelho has joined in the discussion, though he sided with the Filipinos.

To his credit, Brown had something redeeming to say about Manila, as depicted in “Inferno.”

So why am I keeping a straight face with this issue?

Crazy as it may sound, I say Manila does qualify as the “Gates of Hell.” The fiery Bicol Express recipe was invented in Malate, for crying out loud. Some of the hottest night spots and party venues are there (YMMV). It was once the place to be for the artists, politicians, and the other members of society’s elite. The view of the sunset from Manila Bay and Roxas Boulevard is marvelous. Malacanang is located in Manila. (Wait.) Not to mention we have our own Hell’s Kitchen, but not the likes of the stuff from the pages of “Daredevil.”

On the other hand, we cannot deny that there’s a darker, more blatantly obvious meaning to Manila’s “Gates of Hell” tag. Mention Manila and the first to pop in a person’s mind would either be the trash-ridden slums of Tondo, the red light districts of Ermita, or the sleazy nightspots of Malate.

Also, take into account Quiapo, a melting pot of religion and superstition; Roxas Boulevard and its trash (ironic, isn’t it?), and Avenida, Manila’s old central business district, now a piece of a Batman-less Gotham City. Not to mention the traffic, the clogged esteros, the air pollution, the prostitutes, beggars, conmen, and corrupt cops. What other faults of Manila should I find and count?

The local elections just ended in Manila, so I’m pretty sure mayor-elect Joseph Estrada know what just got himself into. He did promise to improve and clean up Manila, even the poor parts of it, and damn well he should. As Celdran would say, “The world will always judge us by the old Manila, not the newer parts of Manila.”

But let’s go back to Dan Brown. “Inferno” is a work of fiction and all, but his description of Manila hit a really raw nerve on every one of us. Still, I’ve yet to read the book so I’d like to experience for myself how bad it is, if it is that bad in the first place.

Which reminds me, how often have we violently reacted against Manila’s critics? We can defend the city – and the Philippines, by extension – all we want, but we have to be reminded that we’re supposed to show the world how beautiful Manila is, and keep it that way. A balance of interests is in order. Instead of extolling Manila’s beauty and virtues, or engaging in fault-finding and vilifying, we should make use of what the city has and make it a great city, “Gates of Hell” or not.

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Episode 51: The Heartwarming Story of Suspended Coffee

Food is meant to be shared, so people say. Offering someone your food is known as a part of Filipino hospitality. It’s also a way of showing charity for the hungry, and an act of welcoming for those who aren’t.

It’s nice to share food and all, but have you thought of offering some to someone you don’t know? Somewhere, there’s a poor, hungry fellow who can’t have a bite or drink because he doesn’t have the means. Ever thought of buying food from a place you’re dining, and then having someone less fortunate partake of it?

The people of Naples, Italy were the first to work on that idea. We now call that “suspended coffee.

“Wikipedia defines suspended coffee (caffè sospeso in Italian) as “a cup of coffee paid for in advance as an anonymous act of charity.” It is said that in Naples, someone would order suspended coffee by paying for two coffees but consuming only one. When a poor person later on asks for a suspended coffee, the extra cup would be served to him.

The suspended coffee tradition died down a bit until around 2008, during the so-called Great Recession and the European debt crisis. It became a symbol of solidarity, kindness, and generosity, which is now being practiced around Europe and other countries.

The Philippines became one of the latest to practice the suspended coffee tradition. Blacksoup Cafe + Artspace, a restaurant in Quezon City co-owned by Bodjie Pascua (“Kuya Bodjie” from “Batibot”) started its version of suspended coffee on Easter Sunday (March 31).

Customers may order any food or drink as “suspended”, which the restaurant will keep as food stubs. These stubs are then given to beggars, the homeless, or anyone who is in need of something to eat or drink. Sometimes, Blacksoup staff would go around and distribute the “suspended” food items.

Blacksoup has become popular because of this initiative, though long before that, it has been one of the most frequented places in Metro Manila. Kuya Bodjie said Blacksoup started out as a film collective, but soon it became known for its film and book collections, poetry reading and art sessions, and their take on “Filipino and Asian fusion” cuisine.

A good meal at Blacksoup may start with appetizers, soups and salads, such as Hot Balut and the Crab & Mango Rolls. One cannot also miss their specialty pastas such as the Blacksoup Pasta (squid, fish egg, nori and Japanese mayo – my favorite), Aligue (crab fat with capers and basil) and You Won’t Be Single For Long (tomatoes and onions with vodka cream).

They also have special dishes for more discriminating (and extravagant) tastes, such as lamb inasal, marinated porkchop with herb salsa and rice, and baked salmon. (I haven’t tried them. Well, sorry for being poor.)

Blacksoup’s sandwiches are worth trying too, especially for those who want light but satisfying meals. The cheese pimiento and tofu burgers would be on the top of my list. What a tasty way to avoid meat (seriously)! To end the meal, one can avail of their selection of ice cream desserts, hot and cold teas, shakes, and even red wine or beer.

The restaurant serves special menus weekly, so there’s always something new to dine on. What I’ve tried so far (actually way back) were the mushroom and onion soup, the spicy barbecued shrimp with baby potatoes and the guyabano ice cream.

Like I mentioned, one can buy any item from Blacksoup’s menu, and have them classified as “suspended.” It doesn’t matter what you buy, be it a luxurious steak or a simple salad. What matters is you are able to transmit your good intentions and prayers for a well-nourished tummy to those who need them.

Blacksoup’s suspended coffee initiative is still ongoing, and it has reached out to dozens of needy people. It has also inspired hundreds of patrons to share their food – and by extension, their blessings – to others, not only by buying suspended items, but also to reach out to others on their own.

The suspended coffee movement is a definite example of the greatness of the human spirit. I say it is when a person opens his heart willingly to others, when he shows compassion and practices charity whole-heartedly, when a person shares a part of himself, then the world becomes a better place, one suspended cup after another.

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Blacksoup Cafe + Artspace
154 Maginhawa St., Sikatuna Village, QC
Tel. Nos. 435 2549 / 0915.3055480

Episode 50: Bono’s Rogue Gelato Sundae – Of Gelatos and Sweethearts

I don’t eat ice cream so much, but when I do, I get sundaes. I like big cups of ice cream with toppings and syrups. Not only do sundaes cool me off, their sweet stuff also keep the happy vibes flowing. It’s like having that giddy feeling when you’re gushing over a crush or sweetheart. What was I saying? Eating sundaes makes for a full ice cream experience.

Speaking of sundaes, here’s an interesting treat I picked up on the way home: It’s called the “Rogue,” the latest sundae variety from Bono Artisanal Gelato.

The “Rogue” is served with a scoop (or two) of buttery gelato with roasted pecans and homemade toffee,

topped with a butterscotch sauce spiked with Elijah Craig Bourbon. Bono describes this sundae as “a sundae that bites like a sweetheart you just can’t quit.” Well I don’t have a sweetheart, but I understand how any ice cream lover can get hooked with “Rogue”.

The moment you take a spoonful of this gelato, you can first taste the sharp sweetness of the butterscotch sauce. Milliseconds later, the strong, fiery taste of the bourbon blends with the sauce and teases your lips and tongue. But right behind is the smoothly flowing gelato, cooling down the bourbon and the sauce as it melts into your throat. With it follows the taste of toffee, and the chunks of pecan, completing what would feel like a swordplay of flavors. It probably feels like engaging in a fiery, passionate French kiss and then getting rudely interrupted… until the next spoonful, at least.

Bono launched the “Rogue” just recently, but it’s getting a lot of good reviews. Some even call this sundae “badass”, which already says a lot given the flavor overload you can get from even just a spoonful. Not sure about the unquittable sweetheart tag though, so I’ll go with the “badass” remark. In any case, it’s a treat worth having every now and then to cool down on the outside and feel tingly and warmly lovesick in the inside.

The “Rogue” sundae is available in single scoop, double scoop, pints and tubs for a limited time only.

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Bono Artisanal Gelato
2/F SM Makati
Open 10am- 9pm daily
Follow Bono on Twitter & Instagram: @BONOgelato

Episode 49: The Return of The Amazing Aloha

Taken from Jollibee’s Facebook page

The Amazing Aloha is back! Jollibee has relaunched this special, nostalgia-inducing burger variety once enjoyed by patrons many years ago.

…is how I wanted to start talking about the Amazing Aloha. Seriously, it’s been a long time – ten, fifteen years ago? – when I last ate this burger. It’s a part of my childhood, to say the least, which is why I became excited when the Amazing Aloha became available in stores again.

First, a little history: the Amazing Aloha’ is a sandwich of two beef patties, pineapple, cheese, bacon, and lettuce, a unique combination back in the day. BusinessWeek once named Jollibee’s Amazing Aloha one of “The World’s Most Original Burgers”. Sadly, it got phased out and faded into obscurity as a ’90s legend of sorts.

Filipino netizens went abuzz weeks ago after Anthony Bourdain had some of Jollibee’s products during his visit to Los Angeles’ Koreatown in an episode of his show on CNN, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”

Tony tried out Jollibee’s halo-halo (we never had that here, as far as I remember), which had red and white beans, Jell-O, chick peas, coconut, shaved ice and leche flan. “It makes no goddamn sense at all but I love it,” he said. He also described the Amazing Aloha as “a very tasty burger.”

It’s one thing to see Tony enjoy a bit of Filipino fastfood culture, but the Amazing Aloha, a legend from our childhood, was different. Soon enough, netizens clamored for Jollibee to bring the burger back. Today (May 15), Jollibee announced that it is selling the burger “for a limited time,” and came up with the Twitter hashtag #AmazingAlohaisBack for those who want to proclaim the good news.

So once again, I forsake my oath to avoid fastfood to try out the Amazing Aloha all over again.

The Amazing Aloha looked just as I remember it: bun, cheese sauce-thing, patty, cheese patty, lettuce, sauce, pineapple ring, bacon bits, bun. It’s just as big as the usual Jollibee premium burger (that, or I’ve become a big eater).

The first thing I noticed in the current Amazing Aloha is the thick, juicy patty. The cheesy sauce had that tangy hint in it. The pineapple was a bit smaller from what I remember (again, must be my biggie-sized appetite talking). I almost didn’t notice the cheese slice and the thin sheet of lettuce. Overall, it has the meaty goodness of a classic Jollibee burger, with the blending of pineapple-sweet-and-sour and cheesy-meaty-rich hitting your taste buds all at the same time.

What else can I say? I found this burger to be so good I bought two and had one for breakfast the next day.

It’s definitely a good move for Jollibee to revive the Amazing Aloha even for a short time. Not only is it as tasty as it was when it first came hot off the grill years ago, but it also makes for a good, nostalgia-laden conversation piece.

In hindsight, I guess the hype over Tony eating an Amazing Aloha also helped propel its popularity, so his Filipino fans will surely want to taste it and talk about this too. It’s nice to see someone like him help shape the Filipino food culture.

Which makes me think, how would Tony react if he comes back to the Philippines and spots the Filipino Amazing Aloha? Also, I wonder which of the dozens of halo-halo varieties here will he like. Chowking’s, maybe?