Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reconnect with Forgotten Flavors at Aurora Filipino Cuisine

Filipino food can never go out of style.  Call it passe, or archaic, or whatever, but for some it is undeniably "the" comfort food for all seasons.  Filipinos, even who are based and born in other countries still succumb to the rice and "ulam" combination.

In all honesty, when I learned to cook (it was Adobo that my father first taught me), I never really imagined myself going out of my way to raise the Filipino culinary flag (if there is such a thing) but I delve into the art of baking and learning the rudiments of American pastry, and since my parents are based in Italy, I got so engrossed with Italian cuisine.

But I find it hard not to be nostalgic whenever I taste something that used to be authentic yet not-so-ordinary to me, but extremely flavorful and inviting.  Whenever there's a chance for us to visit my father's hometown in Bohol, meals were always something to look forward to. My father being the eldest in the family, seemed to be the over-all boss next to my grandparents, and whenever we would visit, their huge dining table would be filled with customary soupy dishes filled with whatever leafy veggies that can be picked at their backyard, native chickens cooked the way my father would prefer, Visayan heirloom rice, tray filled with seasonal fruits (my favorite is cacao fruit) and just too many to recall.

Now that most of my aunts who used to cook for us when we visit Bohol are now in the US together with my grandmother, I couldn't help but miss them and specially the dishes they used to prepare for us.  We are now left with American franchise provisions and cafes serving pastas and what not. Plus the fear of buying Pinoy home-cooked food from carinderias.

Because of this what I used to love seemed to have been forgotten over the years of indulging from one kind of cuisine to another.  This left me most of the time, confused and uncertain of what to feed my family with, as they've been used to having pizzas, pastas, burgers, sandwiches, Japanese noodles and cakes.  Now, I realized that I have failed our own heroes who fought for our own freedom, to carry on what Filipino culture really is.

I could again hear my youngest daughter telling me off, "shame on you, Mommy..."

I can have the whole day, defending myself (as a food blogger) but the longing for those kind of dishes still lingers.

Manila is a host for a lot of them good Filipino restaurants.  They vary from region to region, but what so nice about being in Manila, is that you can get away and seek new places to rediscover one's own roots in terms of cooking.

Get to meet Cavite's culinary generals or go to Pampanga for a two-hour drive, also the festive Quezon culinary is another province for only 3 to 4 hours drive.  Aside from these culinary destinations, you'll be surprised that Sta-Cruz, Laguna also holds true to its culinary traditions.

This municipality in Laguna may not have famous tourist spots but one thing the townsmen of Santa Cruz are proud of are the local foods available in the tow, one is the infamous white cheese or kesong puti, freshly made from carabao’s milk.

But another gem seemed to have been wanting to be discovered - Sta. Cruz' authentic dishes which had been handed down from generations.  Sta. Cruz like any other towns in Laguna rode in the tides of trends as streets beckon with fast-food establishments, and the new generation have forgotten their own dishes, like the way grandmas' of old would cook it.

The recipes that used to guide the cooks and titas have been locked inside vintaged "bauls."

Thankfully, a group of chefs figured out something to reconnect this generation to the olden times through their lola's dishes, and which Sta. Cruz could again be proud of.

This gem is none other than Aurora Filipino Cuisine.

Aurora is the newest project of the Monday Chefs together with Gel Salonga.  Aurora is the namesake of the siblings Day and Gel Salonga's grandmother, who was largely known as Auring. What used to be an antiquated, dingy storage place for the Salonga's keepsakes is now a new dame ready to swoon you with Lola Auring's heirloom dishes.

If the Art Deco architectural structure doesn't win you over, I'm sure Aurora's menu will.  The place is a restored building where Chef Day's and Gel's father grew up.  Back in the days, in the mid-1900, part of the building used to be a Lola Auring's beauty parlor and outside was a gasoline station.  The upper levels were home to the Salonga's.  

Everything was left untouched except for some minor fix ups and coatings of paints.  The framed pictures that adorn every walls, somehow tell the house' own story and make it more homey.  

The huge armoire which used to divide the room was pushed against the wall to open up the space, making it a good conversational piece.

To make it adept to the restaurant standard, the wooden door was replaced with glass ones.  The huge doors and glass windows always draw me to the veranda scene. they too bring in glorious natural light from the outside.

A little something for that modern touch - metal skeletal lamps at the porch of the resto.

Streamlined arches and columns in ornate craftsmanship stand proud along the P. Guevarra St. of the busy Sta. Cruz.

Objects of design original to the house have also been re-used.  The second floor is still an ongoing project though as they plan to have the rooms transformed into intimate multi-function dining areas.

While our (my friends and my husband) eyes were filled with wonder to what Chef Mon Acosta and Chef Day Salonga did to this heritage building, our appetizers were laid on our table one after the other.

Aurora's menu is inspired from the owners'  cravings for traditional Southern Laguna dishes, the dishes which their Lola Auring and their mom would cook for them.  Dug up from their matriarch's piles of paper with hand-written, including lots of corrections, recipes of the dishes inherited and learned from others

Can you tell that I'm in love with this glass-topped table, fabricated out of a vintage sewing machine. Let me tell you this time how I was able to reconnect with my foodie past, that has long been forgotten.

Isn't this beautiful!

This bowl totally sums up what an appetizer means - small portion that stimulates a desire for more or that indicates more is to follow.  The Ensaladang Santa Cruz, may not be that small, as all the dishes are for sharing.  But I can definitely live with this for a meal.  It has all that I want in a local salad, sans the cucumber (which is my number one salad ingredient at home).

To break it down, it has pickled ubod (heart of palm), pako (fiddlehead fern or wild fern), carrot ribbons, kesong puti. all coated with salted egg vinaigrette.  I love how zesty the vinaigrette is, as you can really get the strong calamansi taste which goes so well with the salted egg and kesong puti.

After balmy hums of "sarap" while enjoying the salad, I then moved on the other vegetable dish.  I'm sure you'll definitely raise an eyebrow when you see this, but Santa Cruz-born people will just give you a grin.  The Minanok typically eaten with "maruya" or plantain banana fritters is another proof of Laguna's penchant for side dishes.

I've written about this Laguna's manner of mealtime and have strongly been educated with their "pantapik" during our CALABARZON "Kulinarya Tour."

As a Filipino, even the heart of banana (the banana blossom actually) or "puso ng saging" has a desirable place in the list of vegetable dishes.  We can debate all day whether it's a vegetable or not, but the taste is undebatably delish.

But what makes the these "ginataan" dishes so special is the passion that was put in making this. Tradition-wise this is tedious.  During our Kulinarya Tour last year, Casa San Pablo run us through on how to make Kulawo.  The smoky aroma and taste of their "gata" (coconut milk) is owed to the painstaking way of extracting the milk from the shredded coconut.  It is not a secret but not many know about the procedure.

Full story here
Minanok may look simple and probably an odd combination, a bite of the maruya dipped into the Minanok lends another dimension of flavor, the subtle sweetness of the banana worked so well with the creaminess of the gata and the cooked banana heart adds unusual texture.

If Bicol has Laing, Sta. Cruz has Tinuto.  Two rolled taro leaves filled with mini fresh-water shrimps known as "yapyap" melded with shredded coconut meat, makes up an order.  This very coconut dish is heightened in flavor with the rich coconut cream sauce.   Again, you can either eat this on its own but I'd rather have it with rice.

The livelihood of the town was traditionally dependent on the primary industries of fishing and agriculture, and remains until today.  With the abundance of fish from the nearby lakes and fisheries, they can never run short of fish on their tables.

At Aurora you can always go back to the comfort of eating a steamy rice with the clean taste of fish anchored with spices and creamy coconut cream as only their chefs can make.

Go back to the comfort of Sinugno.  Tita Auring's Sinugno is something that will educate the young ones, who only know fried Tilapia.  I guess, aside from the tedious process of preparing the food during the high time of Tita Auring, cooks have more time to spend in the kitchen.

This is whole tilapia clothed in banana leaf cooked in coconut sauce over charcoal heat.

For a more serious celebration I suggest you order the Pata Estofado. Prepare to re-introduce festive meat dishes to the youngsters and for sure they'll get hooked in an instant. The Pork knuckle was slow cooked for two hours with choiced spices, what you'll have is a a meat that falls off the bone and tender to the bite.  One order can be good for 4 to 5 diners.

Here is another one which will gladly make the grandparents, the titas and titos smile.  It's a dish that will make every balik-bayan teary-eyed on every bite, as this will surely bring back special memories.  Southerners' do really have a love-affair with "gata," but this one will give such a surprise as this isn't one of your ordinary gata.  With the infusion of guava into the gata, my old notion about pond-raised fish diminished, as the fish itself isn't muddy-tasting but has that mild fishy taste, thus, Ginataang Kanduli sa Bayabas.

Our meal didn't end at that, for we can not say no to their dessert and meryenda selection.  Coz how can you say no to Halo-halo, another item on the balikbayans' bucket-list.  What's nice about Luchie's Halo-halo is that you get both the regular halo-halo and my favorite childhood milky delicacy-pastillas.  Though I still would prefer having leche flan, I can also say that the addition of yema pastillas works.

If I just leave near Aurora's, I would have had this everyday for meryenda- Antonio's Palitaw.  Not only that I am one big fan of palitaw, this rendition gave me a whole new idea about palitaw.  A plate as heavenly as the above is your perfect meryenda that's light, not too sweet and of course to complete the whole mile of coconut experience, the finely ground sticky rice is made looking like a cloud with ube and glazed with rich coconut cream.  To make it more interesting, it is topped with toasted ground peanuts.

Bringing back a part of the glorious past in what we call the "millennial era" can be both a challenge and a profitable endeavour.  While Sta.Cruz continues to develop and welcome more franchised fast-foods, a part of that past continues to be forgotten, it is high-time not only to re-introduce traditional food, that are not only healthy but are filling, to this generation but also give older people a glimpse to that flavorful past.

Driving to this side of Laguna from Manila is indeed worth it!  Staff service is impeccable and ambiance is stellar.  And the menu...ah, you just have to come here and say that what I'm telling is the true!

Aurora Filipino Cuisine

Address: P. Guevarra St. Santa Cruz, Laguna
Contact Numbers:  (049) 523 901
Facebook: @Aurorafilipinocuisine


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