A World of Influences Helps Make Filipino Fare Sublime

Purple Yam’s food is kind of like your mother’s cooking, but only if she once worked the line in a four-star restaurant.

The first thing to know about Purple Yam— the pretty little place chef Romy Dorotan and his wife, Amy Besa, opened on Cortelyou Avenue not too far from their home in 2009—is that it is not your ordinary Mom and Pop Filipino restaurant.

It’s not one of those steam-table greasy spoons Filipinos call a turo turo, which means “point-point” in Tagalog, their native tongue. Purple Yam will likely not transport you to a kitchen off the South China Sea, where the all-important slow-braised vinegar, chile and garlic stew called adobo simmers away, nor will it remind expats of the pancit lug lug—that savory breakfast stir-fry of rice noodles, shrimp, fish sauce, hard-boiled eggs, bean sprouts and ground pork—they grew up eating on Sunday mornings in Manila.

Besa and Dorotan may have both grown up in the Philippines, but their restaurant is to Filipino food what Pies ’n’ Thighs is to chicken and biscuits, what Franny’s and the Frankies are to Italian food: kind of like your mother’s cooking, but only if she once worked the line in a four-star restaurant. Take Purple Yam’s wok-fried pork belly—a Filipino standard called lechon kawali. This isn’t the ragged hunks of fried dry flesh found on most Filipino tables, but thick, juicy rectangles of bred-for-flavor pigs ordered through Brooklyn-based Heritage Foods USA, the meat juicy, the skin rendered crackly-crisp. It’s served with jasmine rice, thin shreds of tangy-sweet pickled papaya and carrot, and a bracing bowl of chile rice vinegar—one of many spicy housemade vinegars Dorotan has brewing in the second kitchen in the basement. There, in mismatched jars, float tiny unripe grapes and Thai chiles, or whole tiny plums from the Sunday Greenmarket across the street, perhaps some skinny sweet frying peppers from Bill Maxwell at Grand Army Plaza. (Fruit and coconut-based vinegars, by the way, are a key component of traditional Philippine cuisine.)

That bite also plays a role in the power of Purple Yam’s pancit luglug, a deep, luscious bowl of early morning noodles, slicked satiny smooth with a sauce that’s earthy, tangy, bright, utterly addictive and served only at the traditional Filipino brunch on weekends. Besa says to be sure to use the wedges of lemon served alongside. (“Filipinos love acid,” she says, giving her own plate yet another squeeze.)

Purple Yam’s most-ordered entrée may be their chicken adobo, practically the national dish of the Phillipines and first made famous at Cendrillon, the slightly finer dining restaurant the couple ran in SoHo for 13 years before deciding to open a more casual place right in their own gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood two years ago. Besa, the front-of-the-house manager and historian of the pair, writes in their wonderful 2006 cookbook Memories of Philippine Kitchens, that she believes the dish was christened “adobo” by colonizing Spaniards who thought it resembled their own similar creation. Purple Yam eschews plain white vinegar, shrink-wrapped commodity chicken thighs and Sazon-brand seasoning packets, opting instead for pastured birds, soy sauce, coconut milk and Filipino coconut sap vinegar, now found at Whole Foods. The recipe was featured in the Sunday Times Magazine just this last January: “The combination is ridiculous,” gushed Sam Sifton, “a dark and creamy flavor that covers the chicken in silk.”

Yet even the silkiest farm-to-table adobo was not the couple’s lifelong dream. Dorotan and Besa, who had both left the country before martial law was declared in 1972, met in Philadelphia in the mid-’70s; Dorotan was studying for his PhD in economics, and paying the bills, like so many foreign students, by working as a dishwasher.

But when the staff of the respected nouvelle French restaurant walked out, Dorotan was put to work. He was given the task of staff meals, relying on cookbooks he’d collected while a student in England—a prescient collection that included Alan Davidson, Elizabeth David and Sophie Grigson. “I started learning the vocabulary of cooking,” he says. He turned out to speak it well, and soon graduated not from Penn State but to the line and a job at another fine French kitchen where he “made a million quiches” and coaxed flavors from ever-simmering stockpots.

Still, both Besa and Dorotan—who got married in 1981—were also hoping to help end martial law back in their home country, and to someday go home. So in 1979 they moved to New York City—first to Queens and then to Ditmas Park—to be part of a bigger, better-organized Filipino community. Besa got a job at a progressive church, while Dorotan scored work at Huberts on Park Avenue. (There he learned about new american foodways alongside not just owners Karen Hubert and Len allison, but Savoy’s Peter Hoffman, the Food Network’s Katherine alford and Best Cellars’s Josh Wesson). The pair still dreamed of organizing for Filipino peace but over time added another goal: opening their own restaurant. That they finally did a decade later, opening Cendrillon on Mercer Street a few blocks north of Canal.

The menu was pan–Southeast asian, a little Filipino, some Thai, a bit of Malaysian, all filtered through French techniques and Dorotan’s creativity and paired with fine wines and heady discussion. (To this day, the couple host guest chefs and writers to their restaurant from all over asia for talks and demos.) Some people called their food Asian fusion, but most just termed it Filipino, taking their cue from the pancit, adobo and other dishes they’d never before tasted—served on wooden tables featuring line drawings of Filipino flora and plates bought at Fishs Eddy, both of which made the move to Brooklyn. Dorotan made fat fried wedges of the shrimp and vegetable fritters Filipinos called ukoy, served with one of his spicy, fruity vinegars. There was bibingka, a sweet-and-salty funky coconut-milk cake baked in a banana leaf and topped with gouda and crumbles of feta. And of course there was halo halo, the quirky, multicolored Philippine dessert served in a tall fluted soda shop sundae glass layered with shaved ice, sweet red beans, palm seeds, dayglow jel- lies, candied jackfruit, a dollop of flan and purple yam ice cream. “Halo” is Tagalog for “mix”: To eat this dessert, you pour the whole delicious mess into a bowl and stir.

But like the rest of Cendrillon’s food—and the menu at Purple Yam today—even that classic Filipino concoction wasn’t ripped from old recipe books. Instead it was a collaboration (“we would fight,” corrects Dorotan) between Besa and her husband, who relied on his training. “I cook from memory,” says Besa. “Romy intellectualizes it.”

This resulted in really great food—regulars included food writer Peter Kaminsky and Raymond Solokov, the former restaurant critic of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—but it wasn’t always what her fellow natives were expecting. “The people who loved us,” says Besa, “were mainly non-Filipinos.” Filipinos, on the other hand, complained: “‘This is not the way my mother did it,’” Besa recalls hearing often—and she adds that they occasionally still hear the same refrain today at Purple Yam.

But authenticity is not their object. Instead their ingredient-driven approach—banning MSG, frozen fish and the overcooked vegetables that have become pantry staples in the Philippines— calls to mind the recent renaissance in traditional American cooking: “You keep the flavors, but you do everything from scratch,” says Besa. “Real Filipino food,” she insists of her country’s original culinary traditions, “is the food of nature.”

So when she and Dorotan were asked to write their first cookbook in 2003, they decided to make it not just their own riffs on food from the Philippines, but a researched tome on their country’s polyglot foodways and culture, a report on old techniques and methods and ingredients like a rustic rock of deeply flavored smoky salt made from seawater mixed with ash, or a jar of smoky, bright-green oil made from the pili nut the pair is now playing with in the kitchen. The book took three years, several trips home and is being reprinted next year, with a brand new chapter featuring some of the food now served at Purple Yam.

In fact, healthier and more traditional eating in her home country is a priority: Besa may have left her role organizing Filipino expats to work in restaurants, but these days she is working with the Filipino government to develop community kitchens that will produce healthier food and train workers at the same time. She’s working on a proposal to do a second book on regional cuisines. She even started her research—wildly traversing the countryside and being nosy along the way—on a trip home with Dorotan last fall.

As Besa will tell you, the food of the Philippine Islands—an archipelago made up of dozens of little land masses—is a patchwork of culinary influences. The original coastal diet of fish, yams, citrus, banana, mango, papaya and vinegars from fermented fruit juices has been blended with other cuisines many times over, due to colonizers and nearby countries who sent expats to its island shores.

There were the Chinese (they brought the spring rolls Filipinos call lumpia, that pancit, plus soy sauce and rice). From North and South America came chiles, tomatoes, corn and potatoes, now used in all manner of stews, and later the hot dogs, pizza and hamburgers. and of course there were the Spaniards, who donated both the sofrito-like sauté of garlic, onion and tomatoes that start so many Filipino dishes—they call it sankutsa—but also the pig. That’s now roasted whole, served as crispy fried pig’s foot, and griddled up as a chorizo-like sausage laced with black pepper and vinegar that Purple Yam serves at breakfast.

Filipinos used to mainly get their protein from the copious quantities of fish, says Besa, but pork is now king, as evidenced by the “Pinoy” section of Purple Yam’s menu, named after the slang term for Filipino. It includes sugar-cured pork sliders topped with green mango, jicama and cucumber and made on buns baked with flour from their namesake purple yam; there are pig cheeks, ears and snout doused in lime and chiles. Not to mention the fact that a goodly portion of Purple Yam’s flower-filled back patio is taken by a jerry-rigged spit a metalworking friend built them so they could roast a whole pig for the holidays.

But beyond pork, Purple Yam also holds a taste of their pan-Asian past, a kimchi of the week made with seasonal vegetables, a bibimbap made with an heirloom Filipino purple rice, and there’s a slew of Dorotan’s stellar desserts being made in the basement by a longstanding employee named Victor: Some are standards—a buko pie, made from the flesh of young green coconuts—and some are inventions like Kaffir lime leaf flan and kalamansi lime meringue pie with housemade guava sorbet.

The menu also includes nods to the years Dorotan spent cooking in French and American kitchens and showcases his culinary creativity outside of any Asian framework. If you’re lucky, the night’s specials might include a silky corn puree given an anisey sweet tang thanks to a bit of fresh hyssop leaf, the bowl loaded with root vegetables prettily trimmed in a very French fashion. Or maybe you’ll get a lemon-kissed salad made from thin shavings of white bitter melon, pink radishes, purple plums and pale green guava.

“That is not being Filipino,” says Besa with a big grin as we devour them both together. “This is Romy being Romy.” And so what? It may not be 100 percent Pinoy, but it’s totally Purple Yam.

Slow-braised standby. Dorotan perfected chicken adobo, practically the national dish of the Phillipines, at Cendrillon, the finer dining restaurant he and wife Besa ran in Soho for
13 years before deciding to open a more casual place near their Ditmas Park home.

Purple Yam’s menu isn’t ripped from Filipino cookbooks. Instead it was a collaboration (“we would fight,” corrects Dorotan) between Besa and her husband, who relied on his culinary training. “I cook from memory,” says Besa. “Romy intellectualizes it.”

Eponymous ending. Finish dinner at Purple Yam with halo halo, the Philippine dessert layered with shaved ice, sweet red beans, palm seeds, dayglow jellies, candied jackfruit, a dollop of flan and ice cream made from that lavender-hued tuber for which the restaurant is named.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.