This Open-Fire Filipino Feast Is Ideal for a Backyard BBQ or Campfire Gathering
Chef Charles Olalia is helping redefine modern Filipino-American cuisine. Here, the L.A. chef cooks an open-fire tropical feast perfect for an outdoor get-together
June 13, 2019
| Updated July 8, 2019
Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
The Griller from Manila
It’s a rare day off for Charles Olalia, the Philippine-born chef behind hit Los Angeles restaurants Ma’am Sir and the recently closed Ricebar. While Olalia’s background is in fine dining (he’s worked at The French Laundry, Guy Savoy in Las Vegas, and Patina in Walt Disney Concert Hall) it was the food at Ma’am Sir that brought him national recognition: traditional Filipino dishes like braised-chicken adobo served alongside lumpia spring rolls untraditionally enriched with lardo and draped with fat tongues of Santa Barbara uni.
Today Olalia applies the same high-wire levels of acidity and pronounced heat that he’s become known for at his restaurants to an open-fire modern Filipino feast. On the menu: whole-roasted fish stuffed with lemongrass and ginger and served with hot-tart lashings of chili vinegar, bright red pork longganisa sausage, and rib-eye steaks brushed with a soy-and-vinegar glaze. Sometimes the flavors lean toward home, sometimes not. The menu is as practical as it is beautiful, designed to work as easily at a campsite as it would in a backyard. The fish can be wrapped with banana leaves in advance and refrigerated until meal time, or, for that matter, packed at the bottom of an ice-filled cooler on the way to a campground.
Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Chile Garlic Vinegar
This beautiful make-ahead recipe is perfect for backyard parties. You can prepare and tie up these bundles in the morning and store them in the refrigerator until cook time while you tend to other party preparations. Not only do the banana leaves add flavor, but they also make for a stunning presentation. If you can’t source banana leaves, aluminum foil can be substituted—but it won’t add that intoxicating banana-leaf aroma.
In the heat of summer, you want a salad that won’t wilt. Sweet papaya and earthy kale pick up smoke on the grill. Smaller, tender bunches of kale work best. Olalia keeps the papaya slices and kale leaves whole to minimize prep work when camping, but you can cut them into smaller pieces after grilling if you are cooking at home. Leaving the skin on the papaya keeps it from falling apart on the grill.
Banana leaves make convenient packages for transporting single-serving sizes of rice, and when they are reheated on the grill or in a pan they smoke and steam the rice, perfuming it with an earthy, floral scent. The rice is perfect for soaking up the juices of the rib-eye steak, and the addition of purple sticky rice stains the final dish a deep violet hue.
Beef salpicao is a classic weeknight staple in many Filipino households. Typically, it’s made with cubed beef sirloin that’s been cooked in a skillet then enriched with a garlicky, slightly sweet, soy-based pan sauce. In this version, Olalia uses flavorful rib-eye steaks lacquered with a salpicao sauce brushed on the steaks as they char. Olalia compares it to yakitori, in that you’re building layers of flavor as you add sauce to the steaks as they cook: “It’s brush, burnish, turn. Brush, burnish, turn.” Olalia rounds out the meal with purchased longganisa sausage cooked alongside the steak.
Sour vinegars, spicy chiles, and aromatic tropical ingredients punch up this backyard barbecue. Stock up on these Filipino pantry items and incorporate them into your outdoor cooking this summer.
Banana Leaves: Grill once with these, and you’ll forever want to keep a package in your freezer. Frozen banana leaves should be sufficiently hydrated just after thawing. If using fresh leaves that are dry, soak in water until pliable and drain before using. Find banana leaves at Asian and Latino markets, as well as at select Walmart locations and at Amazon.
Sweet Rice: This short-grained rice requires less liquid than other varieties to cook up plump and tender, and it readily takes on the flavor of coconut milk. Chef Olalia sources his sweet rice from Koda Farms, California’s oldest family-owned and operated rice farm.
Purple Rice: Olalia combines sweet white rice with Filipino purple rice to add a nutty flavor and a violet color to his grilled coconut sticky rice. You could also substitute any other black or purple rice to achieve similar results. Ethical Trading Company’s Heirloom Rice has the added benefit of being direct fair-trade certified.
Longganisa: The Filipino version of the Spanish sausage longaniza. The hallmarks of longganisa are savory pork, a vivid red color imparted by paprika or annatto, and a marked sweetness. Olalia recommends longganisa from Tita’s Special Pampanga Meat Products, available at Filipino markets such as Seafood City, which has locations in California, Hawaii, Nevada, and Washington.
Calamansi Vinegar: The Filipino citrus calamansi is much more sour than a lemon or lime, with heightened tropical and floral notes. Olalia goes through gallons of fresh juice at his restaurant but recommends Lemon Calamansi Vinegar from the French company Huilerie Beaujolaise as a good substitute.