It is very hard to modernise Filipino cuisine. Almost everything about Filipino cuisine is contrast to what is generally acceptable to be “modern” or what food critics call “restaurant quality.” See we always pair dishes with rice – white rice to be exact. Not the sexiest side dish, I know. But for us Filipinos no meal is complete without rice. And it’s not just us. Rice is a common accompaniment to most South East Asian dishes. If you go to a KFC in the Philippines, expect to be served a cup of rice with your chicken. Want chips? You have to pay extra for it.
Second, the dish has to be generous and hearty. Dining is not just a means to feed yourself but is also an activity done with the family. “Shared platters” is common even with upscale restaurants. The protein is always the hero of the dish with presentation taking a backseat. It doesn’t matter how your food looks as long as it’s presentable enough. What matters to a typical Filipino diner is that the food tastes good and that he is fed well, i.e. leaves with a (very) full stomach.
And lastly but most importantly it should have grandma’s stamp of approval.
Nanam’s competitors (i.e. other Filipino restaurants in Auckland) may argue that what they are serving is not truly Filipino. Take Nanam’s Roast Chicken Sinigang; it wasn’t served with rice, it isn’t hearty to a typical Filipino’s standards, and it wasn’t served with soup hence won’t probably get the nod from grandma.
So Nanam started describing itself as an Asian fusion restaurant, as what our lovely server explained to us almost apologetically. But Filipino food is fusion in nature and our history attests to that.
We decided to get two AYO (assemble your own) dishes to start.
The TacoPao (Taco + Siopao) is an ode to Chinese and Mexican influences brought about by the Galleon Trade. Soft and fluffy steamed bao buns are used instead of taco shells, the red colour coming from beet juice. Pulled pork instead of sweet barbecued pork (or asado as we normally have in the Philippines) is used as the filling to represent the Mexican taco.
It came with pickles, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and chicharron (crispy fried pork rind) which you will want to assemble the dish with as it doesn’t only add texture and crunch to the dish but added flavour as well. The bao was soft and light and the protein had a good balance of sweet and savoury. Feel free to top-up on peanuts, sesame seeds, and chicharon after every bite, as I did.
I was genuinely surprised with how the AYO Beef Caldereta tasted like the actual Caldereta cooked by my grandma back home. Caldereta is the Filipino version of a beef stew where potatoes, carrots, beef, etc. are simmered in a tomato based sauce until tender. Nanam modernised the Caldereta by using a pulled beef brisket, slow cooked instead of simmered, but definitely had the distinct Caldereta flavour albeit without the sauce and the veggies. I was more than happy to part with rice for this dish. As part of the Assemble-Your-Own range, you will be served homemade soft tortilla, lettuce, and a pepper salsa. All you need is to chuck the beef and the lettuce in, top it with a bit of the pepper salsa for a tinge of sourness then roll it as you would a wrap.
The mains came out within minutes of each other. My favourite of the lot and the dish of the night, for me, is the Relyenong Squid. “Relyeno” means stuffed in Filipino, the word is derived from the Spanish “relleno” which means the same thing. Of every thing we tried, this was the dish that stayed true the most to the original. But instead of minced pork, Nanam stuffed the squid with Vigan Longganisa – a specialty of Vigan, which is a small town in the north of the Philippines. It is a garlicky and tangy version of the Spanish chorizo.
The three perfectly cooked pieces of squid were served with cashew and horseradish leaf pesto, fresh cherry tomatoes, and baby onions. The sweetness of the onions and tomatoes nicely counteracted the bitterness of the horseradish leaf pesto. The taste of cashew is a bit lost in the flavour of every thing but I wouldn’t ask more of it as the dish is already very well balanced with the squid and the Vigan Longganisa inside it clearly the hero.
We ordered the Palayan Rice more out of necessity than of curiosity, I know a Filipino meal wouldn’t be complete to my fiancé if it doesn’t have rice. Nanam’s describes it as an Asian style seafood rice with seasonal asian vegetables. To put it simply, to me it was an Asian style paella, again a clear influence of our Spanish conquistadores. I’d say Asian and not distinctly Filipino because of the flavours incorporated. There was an overpowering herby taste that didn’t quite sit well with me which made this my least favourite dish of the night.
Now this is what got me curious about Nanam. Somebody reinvented the Sinigang and had the guts to serve it without the soup?! I’ll be curious to hear what other Filipino diners thought about this dish. I never had sinigang without the soup.
Protein (normally pork) swimming in a sour broth with vegetables, that is what sinigang is. Nanam replaced the vegetables with a watercress patis (fish sauce) puree and added an eggplant salsa. Instead of a sour broth, the chicken was covered in a tamarind spiced rub then sous-vided before it was roasted to give it that particular sour taste.
Although the eggplant salsa didn’t add any more to the sinigang-ness of the dish, at least for me, it made the dish interesting and provided a welcome break from the sourness of the chicken and the acidity of the watercress patis puree. The chicken was moist and soft and the portions generous. It indeed tasted like a piece of chicken that was taken out from a pot of boiling tamarind soup.
The debate on whether this is sinigang or roast-chicken-that-wanted-to-be-sinigang is out of the question. We can all agree that it is a beautiful interpretation of the humble and hearty Sinigang that is eaten in a typical Filipino’s dinner table. It can also be that this dish is the chefs’ tribute to the Kiwi roast, who knows, Filipino food is inheretly fusion after all.
Address: 126 Symonds Street, Royal Oak, Auckland 1061
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday dinner : 4:30pm – 10pm; Sunday lunch : 11:30am – 3:30 pm
*** Take your friends and dine together as Nanam only takes reservations for groups of 6 or more. As of recent, I heard wait times can take up to 90 minutes due to the popularity of the place. It is WORTH THE WAIT, though. ***