If you come to the Highland hamlet’s brand-new restaurant Hapag Kainan, you’ll find more than just excellent Filipino cuisine; you’ll find a welcoming attitude and a bit of philosophy as well. “My kitchen is deep,” says chef/owner Alvin Balabastro. And he means it on more levels than one.
Balabastro grew up in a village called Santa Rosa Laguna, in an area of rice farms about half an hour outside Manila on the island of Luzon. The dominant cuisine in the area surrounding the capital is known as Tagalog, same as the country’s primary language. But he and his wife Odette – who grew up in the northern province of La Unión, speaking another language called Ilocano – are quick to point out that the Philippines are a land of more than seven thousand islands, colonized and influenced by many foreign cultures over many centuries.
Favored ingredients and styles of cooking are different wherever you go in the islands as well. Areas more heavily influenced by Chinese culture tend to incorporate more soy sauce, for example, Balabastro says. His own parents died when he was in his teens, so it was mainly his grandparents who taught him to cook. As he had to care for a younger brother and sister from an early age, he had no choice but to learn quickly. Luckily, he had a natural gift for it. “If I eat something, I can cook it, because I find the taste,” he says.
This talent applies as Balabastro travels around the world as a perquisite of his “day job” as a mechanic for United Airlines, working out of Newark Airport. Wherever he goes, he says, he likes to immerse himself in the culture and try what the natives eat, rather than falling back on fast food or something generic. “My benefit of travel is eating local food and drinking local beer.” And always, he can figure out from the taste how a dish must be put together.
Thus, when Balabastro gets behind the stove, he can incorporate elements of many cuisines into the dishes he creates. Not every special offered at Hapag Kainan is the same thing that can be found at any Filipino restaurant. When Hudson Valley One paid a visit, with an intent to sample some of his specialties, he steered us away from the more commonly known Filipino dishes such as pork sisig and silog (although you can certainly get those classics there). Instead, he – along with head chef Edwin Maravilla and assistant Sam Santillan – produced a veritable feast of less-familiar dishes that exemplify Tagalog style.
A big hit was the bangus sisig, a cold dish that might be described as the Filipino equivalent of whitefish salad, but with more varied texture and flavor. It’s made with flaked milkfish (bangus), a bony-but-delicious fish that needs to be imported from the Philippines, where it’s so popular that it’s farmed. It’s mixed with chopped green onions and chilis, given a distinct tang by the addition of citrus juice. Like nearly every food in Filipino culture, it’s traditionally eaten with rice, but any leftovers you take home would make a refreshing substitute for tuna on a sandwich as well.
Another seafood entrée we sampled was palabok: shrimp, smoked fish, sliced eggs and crumbled chicharron served over rice noodles, which are tinted orange with annatto. Odette notes that they don’t use any artificial colorings or flavorings in their kitchen, and vegetarian and gluten-free diets are easily accommodated. Wheat flour is typically only used in breakfast pastries in the Philippines, she says.
A side salad mingles chopped tomatoes with spinach, the green substituted for a type of edible fern available only in the Philippines. It’s topped with thick slices of salty eggs, a specialty that involves fermenting duck eggs for a period of 19 to 21 days, packed in a “mud” of salt and clay or charcoal before cooking. Balabastro says that, while he had restaurant jobs while attending school, his first foray into commercial cooking on his own was starting a salted egg business at age 21. He recalls attending a Catholic school for underprivileged children and taking home the eggs that hadn’t been found during the annual Easter egg hunt as part of doing the cleanup.
That sense of nostalgia around eggs manifests in a number of dishes on the Hapag Kainan menu, but you won’t see the notorious balut: fertilized eggs in which the chicken embryo is allowed to develop substantially before being deep-fried. It’s a popular street-vendor food in the Philippines, and Balabastro says he enjoys balut. But its preparation violates the taboos of some religions and is simply unappealing to many foreigners. “Most other nationalities are scared to eat Filipino food because of that,” he says.
Pork is a staple ingredient in Filipino cooking, and we tried two styles of preparation: Crispy pata is deep-fried pork knuckle with a delicious crunchy skin, served with a soy/vinegar dipping sauce. Binalot can be made with either pork or chicken, so they brought it out both ways. Flavored with traditional adobo seasoning, it’s cooked and served on a bed of rice wrapped in banana leaf. Binalot is meant to be eaten with the fingers, as was generally true of Filipino food prior to the Spanish occupation.
The process of steaming food in banana leaves infuses it with a unique flavor, but the leaves were originally used in place of dinner plates for serving. Even today, a big family party in the Philippines will often feature a long buffet table covered with banana leaves where guests simply stand and eat with their fingers. Called kamayan in Tagalog, the tradition evolved during times of scarcity when people had to eat fast or go hungry, Balabastro says. Today it has evolved into what Millennial Filipinos call a Boodle Fight: competitive fast eating. “The faster you grab, the faster you eat; you win,” he explains. Participants will even cheat by surreptitiously throwing tiny super-hot peppers among the food to slow down their rivals. So popular is this phenomenon that Hapag Kainan is offering, by special order, a $140 Boodle Fight package featuring 11 different traditional foods in quantities to serve six to eight people.
All these customs point up the social nature of dining in Filipino tradition. Hospitality is an important cultural value; people will vie for the right to pick up the tab for a large group dining out. Hapag kainan translates as “dinner table,” and, Balabastro says, “We consider it sacred. Food is a grace of God.”
Find out for yourself at Hapag Kainan, which is located in the former Trolley Stop Café storefront at 58 Vineyard Avenue in Highland, at the corner of Main Street, between Bella Maria Pizzeria and Bushiden Karate. The First United Methodist Church is right across the street. There’s indoor seating for about 20, plus café tables on the sidewalk out front. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays, opens at 10 a.m. the rest of the week and normally stays open until 5 p.m. on Monday, 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays and 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Call (845) 834-2379 to place takeout orders. Visit www.facebook.com/hapagkainan58 for daily specials and other updates.