Piggybacking on my previous post about the Pastelón, islander food makes no apologies. It is heavy, it is fattening and it makes no claims at being pretty. Traditional Filipino food is a type of islander cuisine that best suits hard day laborers. Like many island nations, modernisation completely changed life in the city centres. The Filipino people once spent long days in the fields cultivating rice or sugar cane and many others boated the oceans for fish or raised cattle and pig for consumption. In fact, many parts of the islands still practice this sort of day-laborer lifestyle.
This is why islander food is so heavy. Starting your day off with a hearty Filipino meal can last you from sunrise to sunset, but let’s face it… who really eats one meal a day? What Filipino is satisfied with one meal? We perfected the merienda brunch and linner (or dunch?) after all; and if I recall correctly, the last time I was in the Philippines, eating is the best pasttime.
Enter stage centre, this wonderful concoction. Kare-Kare (Kah-REH-Kah-REH) is a Filipino peanut stew that is traditionally made with Beef Ox tail. It is definitely not one of the first dishes most people new to Filipino cuisine try and rightfully so. It is quite simple in compilation, but quite complex in flavour.
For the sake of time, some families (such as my own) have opted for Pork Spareribs instead. Some mixed vegetables in the form of Bok Choy, Eggplant, Chinese Long Green Bean and Tomato are thrown in the mix along with some garlic, salt and pepper. The broth, of course is comprised of the pork broth from boiling and peanut butter.
That is right folks, I said P-E-A-N-U-T-B-U-T-T-E-R. Cringe and gag as you wish, this is stew is wonderful. If I recall correctly, some people regard this as the national dish of the Philippines… I thought that was Adobo?
Kare-Kare brings me home. Whenever I make it, I am reminded of the version my mother makes and the version my Tita Myrna (“Tita” means Aunt in Tagalog) in Canada makes. Both are equally as good, but different in its execution. For lack of a better way to describe the differences between the two versions, my mother’s version stems from the working mom of three kids that makes it quick, simple, tasty. Her Kare-Kare always brings out a smile from my face. It is my mother’s cooking, of course it would. My Tita Myrna’s is über traditional, country-style cooking and so delicately balanced that you dream of it whenever you think of Kare-Kare.
My version, it is a hybrid of both. I have yet to conquer cooking with Ox tail. I have the pressure cooker that is needed to make it tender, but I have not committed myself to it. Ox tail is quite tasty and and completes the joie de vivre of Kare-Kare, but without a pressure cooker, you are boiling that cow tail for hours upon hours and…
…and then you have to eat it. Let me start with that by saying is not date food, and boy-oh-boy is this the most messiest and unclassy of foods to eat, especially with Ox tail.
I can equate this with eating barbecued ribs. The noises, the hands-on-activity and the mess. It is all included at no extra cost.
But, there is a smell. The pièce de résistance of Kare-Kare to me is the Bagoong. Bagoong (Bug-Go-ONG) is Filipino shrimp paste. It is a condiment of sautéed, heavily salted and seasoned baby shrimp that is used to add another dimension of flavour to Filipino dishes.
By dimension, I do not just mean flavour. There is an acquired smell that comes with this condiment, but it is absolutely necessary to have this as a part of your Kare-Kare. Simply adding more table salt to the stew in the cooking stage does not suffice. By doing so is a cop out and unfoodie… (unholy?). You mustn’t be afraid of what makes a dish unique, I say.
And there you have it folks. Islander food is not pretty, but it is comfort food. It feeds your soul and warms you up inside. My mom’s version makes me feel loved to no end. My Aunt’s version is one that is love for all. A warm embrace that extended family brings you when you are there for a week long stay. So if you are near a Filipino food establishment, try the Kare-Kare, it will be unforgettable. Just bring some wet naps, please.
Kare-Kare – Filipino Peanut Stew
Makes 8-10 servings
2 Pork Sparerib Racks
1 lb Bok Choy
1 bushel of Chinese Long Green Bean (Regular Green Beans can be used)
3-4 Japanese Eggplants (Thai Eggplants used here)
3-4 chopped Garlic Cloves
Salt & Pepper (To Taste)
1 cup of Peanut Butter
Chop and wash pork as pictured above. Alternatively, spareribs do come already chopped in the meat section of the store. Oftentimes they are cheaper uncut. Once the meat begins to boil, use a slotted or mesh spoon to scoop out the scum (impurities) as this is fat and pluck that boils out of the meat. It is not needed in the broth.
Allow meat to boil for 30-45 minutes. During this process prepare vegetables as desired. Wash and set aside. Start by adding the green beans and eggplants as they take the longest to cook. At this point you can add in your sliced tomato and chopped garlic.
Cover and let cook for 5 minutes. In a small bowl throw in about 3/4 cup of peanut butter and mix with some of the stew broth to make it thinner and easier to incorporate into the stew. (Some recipes will ask you to add in Atsuete/Achiote powder that deepens the reddish hue from the peanut butter, it is not necessary, but adds visual appeal). Incorporate into stew and mix well to dissolve peanut butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. Once the peanut butter is well dissolved check for desired consistency, not too thin and not too thick. I usually add about 1 cup of peanut butter as I prefer a stronger taste. You can choose to add more… I have seen some versions add about 2 cups to 1 jar. (Preference…)
Now add your Bok Choy. Fear not, this will reduce to 1/4 of its volume once cooked. Cover for 5 minutes, mixed and check everything for doneness.
Serve with steamed rice and a heaping spoon of bagoong.