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The Spanish on our table

By Norma Olizon-Chikiamco, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 09, 2023 5:00 am

More than a hundred years after the Spaniards abandoned the Philippines, their presence remains palpable in ways both trivial and profound. One can hardly speak Pilipino without uttering words with Spanish roots: sapatos, oras, la mesa, silya, etc.

Then there’s the Catholic religion. Introduced to the islands in the 16th century, it has become so deeply ingrained that Filipinos have outdone their Spanish mentors in observing Catholic rituals. While churches in Spain are almost empty on Sundays, in the Philippines, Catholic churches are filled to capacity, sometimes even on weekdays.

But perhaps Spain’s most insidious influence lies in the food we eat. Numerous Filipino dishes have their origins in Spanish cuisine—from adobo to leche flan, from morcon to cocido to relleno. With that comes the proliferation of restaurants serving dishes that hark back to the Spanish era.

Chef Xandra Cacho: Cacho is the executive chef of Origine, which serves authentic Spanish cuisine with a contemporary look

One recently opened Spanish restaurant that deserves commendation is Origine. True to its name, the restaurant serves dishes that bring Spanish cuisine back to where it started—authentic, vibrant and full of Mediterranean flavors.

Origine’s extensive menu includes a wondrous world of pintxos, small bites with assorted toppings over a slice of bread. On a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, executive chef Xandra Cacho entranced us with several plates of this Basque specialty: the Gilda Cosmo, skewers of anchovies, pickled peppers and cherry tomatoes; the Ordanza, Brie cheese with caramelized onions and homemade tomato jam; and the pintxo chistorra, a log of chorizo layered on a slab of Manchego cheese. 

Along with that we had the Plato Ibericos, the star of which was the exquisite Jamon Iberico. This cured ham comes from the black-footed pigs (pata negra) that roam freely in the verdant pastures of Spain and are fed mostly acorns, herbs and grass. The Iberian ham had a sweet, nutty taste and marbled fat that melts oh-so-tenderly on the taste buds. Also on the platter were other premium cured Spanish meats such as salchichon and chorizo, large briny olives on cocktail skewers, as well as a variety of cheeses and breads.

Plato Ibericos: A tempting tableaux of Iberico ham, chorizo, salchichon, cheeses and bread

We would have been content to dine on those alone, but then there was the paella, the crowning glory of any Spanish meal. At Origine, Cacho elevates paella to a sensational level: it’s paella cooked not just with passion but also with integrity. The paella marisco, for instance, is lavished only with seafood (shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams and fish), giving the rice the singular harmonious flavors of the sea. The mere idea of adding any meat to such a mixture is, for Cacho, equivalent to a mortal sin, because that would negate the robust flavors that she has so patiently built.

“You should not mix chorizo or chicken with seafood,” she emphasizes, or else there would be a confusion of flavors. If there’s a place for chorizo, it would be in a paella of its own, which is how Origine serves its paella chorizo—rice imbued with the bold, smoky flavors of this Spanish sausage.

Paella Negra: Black paella at Origine, simmered with squid ink and served with tender bites of octopus

Likewise with the paella negra, one can savor the dark, mysterious flavors of squid ink, because the rice is integrally married to the squid, and to the tender morsels of octopus that are playfully twirled on top. 

For each type of paella she cooks, Cacho prepares the appropriate broth from scratch. For the paella marisco, she makes seafood broth using fish bones and shrimp heads. To make the paella Iberico she coaxes flavor from the cut called Iberico Secreto. That may be labor intensive but for Cacho, it’s a matter of working tirelessly to ensure that “every dish captures the authenticity and essence of Spanish cuisine.”

Paella Marisco: Seafood paella at Origine teems with the robust flavors of the sea.

“Origine Restaurant is not just a dining establishment, it’s a journey through the rich and diverse culinary tapestry of Spain,” she adds. She eschews the latest culinary avant-garde tricks and techniques, because she would rather create cuisine that’s authentic and traditional while also being imaginative, and possessing a contemporary look and feel.

Most of the ingredients at Origine such as the olive oil, the boquerones and the chorizo, come from Spain. But surprise, surprise! The rice she uses for the paella is Japanese rice. “It’s the closest to everyday Spanish rice,” she explains. Like the more expensive bomba rice from Valencia, Japanese rice can absorb the flavors of the broth in which it was simmered—hence a paella bursting with robust flavors.

For the meat eaters, there’s chuleton, grilled juicy Angus prime rib, served with patatas a la pobre and caramelized sweet red peppers.

Chuleton: Angus prime rib served with caramelized peppers and patatas a la pobre

Desserts at Origine (which is owned by Manny Villar’s group of companies) are just as captivating. A sure favorite is the Crema Catalana, Spain’s delectable answer to crème brulee. The tocino del cielo, which translates to bacon from heaven, is a celestial experience: creamy, delicate and satiny. A few strawberries and blueberries tucked on the side balance its sweetness. Cacho is especially proud of her concoction called Chocolate X, pillowy smooth melted chocolate with a sprinkling of sea salt on top.

One would expect such uncompromising quality to come at a cost. Surprisingly the dishes are reasonably priced. The paella, which can serve three to four, ranges from P1,250 (for the paella negra and paella de cordero) to P1,950 (for the paella Iberico) . The gambas al ajillo (shrimps sautéed in olive oil and garlic) is P395, while the croquetas range from P255 to P495 (for the croquetas Jamon Serrano). For those who really want to indulge, there’s cuchinillo at P2,350, which serves one to four, and the aforementioned chuleton at P4,200, which is good for four to six, as each order is 500 grams.

Origine's dessert platter: Arroz con leche, crema Catalana, tocino del cielo and Chocolate X

A native of San Sebastian, Spain’s northern region known for its excellent cuisine, Cacho has a master’s degree in culinary arts and has studied with some of San Sebastian’s legendary chefs. Her passion for food started at age 13, when she first learned to cook. Hence being a chef was the natural choice when it came time for a career. “There was no other,” she says.

At present she divides her time between her beloved Spain and the Philippines, where she spent her early years. But wherever she is, with her dedication and knowhow, there’s sure to be delicious, authentic Spanish food on the table. 

Chef Xandra Cacho’s Cooking Tips:
  • Extra virgin olive oil is the secret to good Spanish food. You can tell if an olive oil is of excellent quality by its aroma. It should smell of olives.
  • For making paella, you can use Japanese rice. Its small grains can absorb the flavors of the broth.
  • Don’t mix in too many ingredients when making paella. If you’re making seafood paella, use only seafood. Do not add chorizo.
  • Use a good broth when cooking paella. For seafood, simmer some fish bones and shrimp heads. For chicken or beef paella, make a good fumet (concentrated stock).
  • To make sofrito (the base for many Spanish dishes) use good extra virgin olive oil to sauté peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic.