Manila: Feeding the New President : Aquino Prefers the Simple Fare of Philippine People

Times Staff Writer

The caviar tastes of Malacanang Palace have no place in President Corazon Aquino’s busy life. In the palace guest house where the new president of the Philippines has set up her office, the atmosphere is bright and fresh. And the food prepared there for Aquino, her family and staff might be served in any middle-class Filipino home.

“She just likes simple food, mostly fish and vegetables,” said caterer Luz Bardos. Bardos and her partner, Digna Charni, plan the menus, shop for and personally cook the lunches that are served in a room adjacent to Aquino’s office.

“It’s no joke, giving food to the president,” Bardos said. The guest house has been in use for only one month, and security policy has not yet been established for the kitchen. Two or three security guards stand outside, but the safety of the food is left to the two women. “They trust me,” said Bardos, who tastes each dish before it is served.

Tribute to Presidential Color

The caterers shop for ingredients in a variety of markets and change their paths to make their visits unpredictable. Assisting them with food service are two waiters and three maids. The maids have four sets of yellow and white uniforms designed by Charni. In further tribute to the presidential color, the women are changing the name of their catering firm to Yellow Bell.

At first, Aquino ate informally with her staff. But the staff decided that that was inappropriate. Now they gather for lunch and the afternoon snack called merienda at a long table at one end of the reception area that stretches across the front of the guest house. The food is served on Noritake china in a pattern that features the sampaguita, which is the national flower of the Philippines. The white sampaguita and its leaves form a border on a gray band around the rim of the white plates.

The floral pattern reflects the airy, garden-like atmosphere of the guest house. White furniture, light green carpeting and sheer curtains that reveal the sunshine and shrubbery outside make it a cheerful place in contrast to the dark, windowless rooms of the ornate palace across the way. Colorful Yugoslavian naif paintings add to the bright effect.

The spotless, stainless steel and white tile kitchen is simply designed and not overly large. On the day we were invited to see it, bulky sacks of rice, the staple of the Philippines, were stacked against a wall. Air freshener in the sampaguita fragrance stood on the counter.

Cooking starts at 10 a.m., and lunch is served at noon. That day, the menu was to feature pork and beef meat loaves that Bardos had prepared at home. The loaves were to be sliced and served with buttered vegetables and gravy. Other dishes were chicken asparagus soup, made with canned white asparagus, and Chinese-style shrimp with pea pods. For dessert there were individual cups of chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream and bits of chocolate. Bardos had also baked a sour cream chocolate cake.

The bottle of red Bordeaux, a 1980 Chateau Lezin, that Bardos was readying for service was not intended for Aquino but for her executive secretary, Joker Arroyo. The president prefers iced tea mixed with sugar and the juice of the small Philippine lime called calamansi. She also drinks juice, water and cola.

Prepare Lunch Only

The day before, lunch started with tinolang manok, a chicken soup that includes leaves of the chile plant and green papaya. Then came grilled tanguingue with garlic (tanguingue is a Philippine fish) and a salad of salted duck eggs, sliced tomatoes, onions and eggplant with vinaigrette dressing. The dessert was a mixture of papaya, mango, watermelon and pineapple with calamansi juice and syrup.

The menu on a day the president entertained Japanese guests consisted of Caesar salad, which Charni said is one of Aquino’s favorite dishes; prawns thermidor, tenderloin steak and baked potatoes. The dessert was French vanilla ice cream topped with fresh mango.

Last week, the president had Caesar salad again. Other dishes were sauteed chayote with shrimp and pork; deep-fried squid rings and kilawin, a pork and liver stew made in the style of Pampanga province, which is renowned for its cooking. Gulaman and sago, a sweet drink that includes tapioca pearls and gelatin, accompanied the lunch. There were also chocolate cupcakes topped with a circle of frosting that was sprinkled with chopped cashews.

The caterers plan menus a week at a time and present them for approval. Aquino is a light eater, seldom taking more than an orange, which Filipinos call a “Sunkist,” or an apple for merienda. “It’s not very hard to feed her,” Charni said. “She’s very simple. She likes home cooking, something Filipino.” The caterers prepare lunch only and serve the same meal to the staff that they plan for the president. They market daily and purchase fish live to ensure freshness.

Bardos only recently took up catering. Before that, she worked as a purchasing assistant for Jose Cojuangco and Sons, a family corporation. (Aquino is a member of the Cojuangco family.) In addition to her work at the guest house, Bardos caters for other Cojuangco interests and runs a restaurant at the University of Santo Tomas Hospital. “I’m so proud, I’m so lucky I was chosen,” she said of her new assignment. A native of Tarlac in the province of Tarlac, she is married to an insurance consultant and has four children.

Charni, from Manila, regards cooking as a hobby. Her main business is designing and making uniforms for Philippine companies. Charni’s parents, Lilia and Benjamin Rosales, are American citizens living in Chicago. Her husband, Ridha, is an airline crew member.

Like most people who know Aquino personally, Bardos and Charni praise her warmth and genuineness. “You can never imagine she’s the president because she doesn’t act like one,” Charni said.

The following recipes are dishes that Bardos and Charni have prepared for Aquino. Special ingredients such as the palm vinegar, which is used to marinate the meat for kilawin, and fish sauce are available at most Asian markets in Los Angeles. CALAMARES PRITO (Fried Squid)

2 pounds squid

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon MSG

2 eggs

1 cup flour

2/3 cup water

1 small onion, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

Oil for deep-frying

Parsley sprigs

Clean squid and cut into rings. Season with salt, pepper and MSG. Beat eggs, then add flour and water and beat until smooth. Stir in onion and garlic.

Heat oil for deep-frying to 425 degrees. Dip squid rings in batter. Add to oil and deep-fry 3 to 4 minutes, until light brown. Drain on paper towels. Place on serving platter and garnish with parsley. Serve hot. Makes 8 servings. PORK KILAWIN (Pork and Liver With Vinegar)

2 pounds boneless pork loin

2 pounds pork or beef liver

2 cups palm vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon MSG

1/4 cup oil

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

Fried Garlic

Cut pork and liver into strips. Place in large baking dish or other container. Add vinegar, salt, peppercorns and MSG. Marinate 30 minutes. Drain pork and liver, reserving marinade.

Heat oil in Dutch oven. Add pork and liver in batches and saute until lightly browned. Saute onion and garlic with last batch. Add reserved marinade. Bring to boil, cover and simmer until meat is tender, 15 to 25 minutes. Turn into serving container and garnish with Fried Garlic. Makes 8 servings. Fried Garlic

1 tablespoon oil

6 cloves garlic, chopped

Heat oil in small skillet. Add garlic and saute until browned. Drain on paper towel. GULAY NA SAYOTE (Chayote With Pork and Shrimp)

4 pounds chayotes

1 pound pork butt, cut into strips

1 cup water

2 tablespoons oil

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 onions, cut into thin wedges

4 tomatoes, cut into thin wedges

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon MSG

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

Peel chayotes and dice. Place pork in saucepan. Add water, bring to boil and boil, uncovered, until water cooks away and pork browns lightly in drippings that remain.

Heat oil in Dutch oven. Add garlic, onions, tomatoes and pork. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add chayotes, salt, pepper and MSG. Cover and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Add shrimp and cook 5 minutes or until pink. Makes 10 to 12 servings. LAPU LAPU WITH OYSTER SAUCE

2 pounds white fish fillets

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 sweet red peppers, diced

2 carrots, sliced

2 stalks celery, sliced

1 small onion, diced

1 teaspoon MSG

Place fish on rack in steamer, cover and steam until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Set aside. Heat vegetable oil in large skillet or Dutch oven. Add garlic and cook until brown. Add oyster sauce, sesame oil, red peppers, carrots, celery and onion and cook until tender-crisp. Add fish, broken into large chunks, and MSG and stir gently to combine and reheat fish. Turn out onto heated platter. Makes 8 servings.

Note: Lapu lapu is the name of a fish available in the Philippines. Rock cod or red snapper may be substituted. PEA PODS WITH CAULIFLOWER

2 pounds cauliflower

1 pound Chinese pea pods

1 pound pork butt or pork shoulder, cut into julienne strips

3 1/2 cups water

2 tablespoons oil

1 large clove garlic, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 stalks celery, sliced

1 carrot, sliced

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon MSG

Cut cauliflower into bite-size pieces and wash. Remove ends of pea pods and wash. Place pork in saucepan. Add water. Bring to boil, cover and simmer until meat is tender, about 30 minutes. Drain meat and reserve 3 cups broth.

Heat oil in Dutch oven. Add garlic and onion and cook until tender. Add pork, shrimp and reserved broth. Bring to boil. Add cauliflower, pea pods, celery, carrot, salt, fish sauce and MSG. Cook until vegetables are tender-crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Makes 8 to 10 servings. BEEF CALDERETA

2 pounds boneless beef shank meat, cut into medium chunks

1/4 cup oil

1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and diced

1/2 pound carrots, sliced

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 chorizo de Bilbao (Spanish sausage) or 1 (6-ounce) piece pepperoni, sliced

2 (4 3/4-ounce) cans liverwurst spread

1 small sweet red pepper, sliced

1 small green pepper, sliced

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 teaspoon MSG

12 Spanish olives

Place beef in saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to boil and boil until meat is tender, about 1 hour. Drain meat and reserve 1 cup broth.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in medium skillet. Add potatoes and carrots and cook, covered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 15 minutes. Set aside.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in large deep skillet. Add garlic and onion and cook until tender. Add tomato sauce, chorizo and liverwurst spread. Bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer gently, covered, 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add potatoes, carrots, red and green peppers, soy sauce, hot pepper sauce and MSG. Stir in beef and reserved 1 cup broth. Cook, uncovered, 3 to 5 minutes, until pepper strips are tender-crisp. Turn into serving dish and garnish with olives. Makes 6 servings.