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Filipino fare & flair


From left, Amor Canaday, Mila Villa and Josie de Guzman are three sisters who operate the Artist Cafe in Cheney. They specialize in Filipino cuisine. 
 (Photos by Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
From left, Amor Canaday, Mila Villa and Josie de Guzman are three sisters who operate the Artist Cafe in Cheney. They specialize in Filipino cuisine. (Photos by Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

In many metropolitan areas, people already know about lumpia – a crisp, savory spring roll that’s one the hallmarks of Filipino cuisine.

In the Inland Northwest, it’s a delicacy on the verge of being discovered.

Three sisters who grew up in the Philippines have made lumpia one of the signature dishes at the Artist Cafe, a restaurant in Cheney that specializes in international cuisine and “Manila’s best,” referring to dishes from the capital of their homeland.

Through food, the sisters not only want to make dishes like lumpia as popular as other Asian cuisine such as sushi, pad thai and kung pao chicken. They also want to share their culture and traditions with others in the region.

“We’re very proud of our Filipino heritage,” said Amor Canaday, the youngest of the three sisters. “We want people to eat our food and learn more about our culture.”

In many ways, contemporary Filipino fare reflects the history and diversity of the Philippines, an Asian country made up of more than 7,000 islands and 120 different ethnic groups.

The food is therefore a mix of both East and West, explained sister Josie de Guzman, a nutritionist who came up with the recipes for the restaurant’s menu. “It’s a culinary melting pot,” she said.

Some delicacies such as lumpia and pancit, a noodle dish, point to Chinese influences. Others with names like arroz caldo or chicken and ginger rice porridge and leche flan, a type of custard, trace their origins to the Spanish, who colonized the Philippines for more than 300 years. Since the Philippines were governed through the vice-royalty of Mexico, the Spaniards also brought a Mexican influence to the food and culture of the Philippines. And since the United States colonized the Philippines for roughly the first half of the 20th century, hamburgers, steaks and fried chicken also made their mark on Filipino cuisine, according to Reynaldo G. Alejandro, author of “The Food of the Philippines: Authentic Recipes from the Pearl of the Orient.”

According to de Guzman, most Filipino dishes begin with the same base: garlic, onions and tomatoes. Filipino fare also is distinguished by a number of other ingredients, including white rice, patis or fish sauce, sili or hot pepper leaves and a reddish-colored spice called achuete.

The Artist Cafe is one of only a few restaurants in the Inland Northwest that offer Filipino food on its menu. (The Nipa Hut, 918 E. Francis Ave., opened earlier this year.) While the sisters are not the first Filipinos in the area to share the foods of their native country, they are perhaps the only ones with a track record. When the restaurant first opened in January 2004, most of their customers were other Filipinos who live on Fairchild Air Force Base. Since then, their clientele has grown to include people of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds — some who travel from as far as the Tri-Cities just for the lumpia.

The sisters – Canaday, de Guzman and Mila Villa – grew up in the province of Bulacan, located just north of Metro Manila. From the time they were young, the sisters learned how the make traditional meals from their parents, grandparents and other relatives. In fact, many of the entrees they offer at Artist Cafe are variations on original family recipes, according to de Guzman, who studied under Nora Daza, the Martha Stewart of the Philippines.

The sisters immigrated to the United States in 1976 when they were in their late teens. Their father, Fernando de Guzman, was chief of immigration in the Philippines and was offered a consulting job in Washington D.C. So he moved to the United States with his entire family. Although his daughters pursued their own careers – de Guzman in nutrition, Villa in medical technology and Canaday in business – the women always dreamed of working together and owning a family business.

After pooling their resources together in 1987, de Guzman and Canaday established a restaurant in Los Angeles called “Hungry Eyes.” Like their current endeavor in Cheney, the women also served traditional Filipino foods as part of the menu. Villa eventually joined them and turned the restaurant into a catering business when the entire clan moved to Federal Way, Wash., in 1989. In 1994, they relocated to Vancouver, Wash.

Ten years later, the sisters decided to move again and open a restaurant on the west side of Cheney, where they owned property. “This is our love and passion,” said Canaday. “This is the best way for us to lift up our culture.”

They chose to name their restaurant “Artist Cafe” because of their many and diverse offerings, explained Canaday. The sisters focus not only the presentation of their food by serving plates decorated with banana leaves, flowers and other garnishes; the restaurant also provides space for local artists to display their work at no cost and a small area for musicians to entertain diners.

Inside the small, cozy cafe, the décor is a mix of modern art, American icons such as the life-size Elvis cut-out and traditional Filipino handicrafts such as woven placemats and wooden bowls made out of acacia. Outside, a large sign spells out their motto: “Where Dining is a Work of Art.”

Aware of the fact that most people in the area have never tried Filipino food, the sisters at Artist Cafe have included other dishes to entice newcomers – grilled wild salmon and rib-eye steak for dinner and even quiche at lunch. These entrees obviously don’t trace their origins to the Philippines, Canaday acknowledged, but they’re cooked in a Filipino fashion, often with methods and spices that they use for their traditional fare.

That’s also what happened throughout the history of the Philippines, according to Alejandro’s “Food of the Philippines.” Inevitably, the dishes brought to the islands by the Chinese, Spanish and others were “Filipinized” – indigenized by local ingredients and tastes.

“The flavors are amazing,” said Melissa McCabe of Spokane, who eats at the Artist Cafe twice a week and often brings her entire family. “I go there because it’s healthy and they’re so personable. They’re like family, almost. It’s such a quaint little place.”

To satisfy McCabe and others who have acquired a taste for Filipino cuisine, the sisters last year opened a 1,500-square-foot addition called 1st Street International Market. It’s a grocery that offers not only ingredients and foods from the Philippines, but products from Japan, India, Thailand and other countries around the world. Its aisles also sell specialty items such as organic rice vinegar, wheat-free Korean soy sauce, wasabi mayonnaise and exotic beers such as Tsingtao from China, Singha Lager from Thailand and of course, San Miguel from the Philippines.

All the ingredients used to make the entrees at the restaurant are also available at the store, said Canaday, who gives cooking advice to shoppers.

“Try this,” she often tells visitors, offering free samples of food. But her most common advice is simple: “Eat,” she tells her guests. And even when they’re full, she says it again: “Eat more.”

Hospitality, after all, is part of the Filipino culture. “Food is love,” said Canaday. “We want you to feel at home. We want you to eat.”

Here are the recipes for three traditional Filipino dishes that have been served as “daily specials” at the Artist Cafe. They are the creations of Josie de Guzman, whose food ideas are based on her own experience as a nutritionist and cook coupled with the recipes that have been passed down through the years by her parents and grandparents.

Ingredients for these dishes can be found in most Asian or international grocery stores including 1st Street International Market, 24 W. First Street in Cheney.

All three recipes contain the same basic ingredients: chicken breast, garlic, gingerroot and fish sauce. The additional ingredients turn each into its own distinct dish.

Ginger Chicken

1/2 cup oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 to 2 inches gingerroot, cut in julienne strips

1 to 2 pounds chicken breast (or a whole chicken cut into pieces)

1 to 2 teaspoons achuete (or annatto) powder

1/3 cup fish sauce

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cups water

Sliced green onions

In a heavy saucepan, heat 1/2 cup of oil. Sauté garlic and ginger strips. Add chicken. Add achuete or annatto powder and fish sauce. Add two cups of water. Cover pan and cook slowly until most of the broth has evaporated and only 1/2 cup remains. Remove strips of ginger. Fry the ginger in two tablespoons of oil until crispy, to be used for garnish. Drain chicken from broth and place aside for later use. Fry chicken lightly in the pan previously used for frying the ginger garnish until brown. Return chicken to broth and immer for two minutes.

Serve with steamed rice and garnish with fried ginger strips and sliced green onions.

Yield: 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 501 calories, 32 grams fat (3 grams saturated, 59 percent fat calories), 47 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrate, 125 milligrams cholesterol, less than 1 gram dietary fiber, 1,980 milligrams sodium.

Manila Chicken Ginger Soup

In the Philippines, this is also known as “Tinolang Manok”

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium onion, sliced

1 to 2 inches gingerroot, cut in julienne strips

1 to 2 pounds chicken breast (or a whole chicken cut into pieces)

1/3 cup fish sauce

2 to 3 cups water

1 1/2 cups green papaya (or a vegetable known as “chayote”), peeled, seeded and cubed

1/2 cup fresh spinach or sili (tender hot pepper leaves)

1 tablespoon lemon juice or kalamansi juice

2 tablepoons fish sauce

Heat oil in a stew pot and sauté garlic, onion and ginger. Add chicken to the stew pot and brown on medium to medium-high heat. Add fish sauce and continue cooking for 3 to 5 minutes. Add 2 to 3 cups of water. Add green papaya and boil until color fades and fruit is almost translucent. Add pepper leaves or spinach. Serve with rice and a side of lemon juice mixed with fish sauce.

Yield: 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 341 calories, 12 grams fat (2 grams saturated, 34 percent fat calories), 47 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrate, 125 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 1,970 milligrams sodium.

Chicken and Ginger Rice Porridge

This dish is also known as “Arroz Caldo.”

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, chopped

1 to 2 inches gingerroot, cut in julienne strips

1 to 2 pounds chicken breast (or a whole chicken cut into pieces)

1/3 cup fish sauce

3 to 4 cups water

1 1/2 cups cooked white rice

2 tablespoons saffron flower (see note)

Black pepper, to taste

Fried garlic

2 green onions

Lemon or kalamansi juice

Fish sauce

Heat oil in a stew pot and sauté garlic, onion and ginger. Add chicken. Cook on medium to medium-high heat. Add fish sauce and continue cooking for 3 to 5 minutes. Add 3 to 4 cups of water. Add cooked rice and saffron flower. Stir occasionally until it looks like porridge. Add pepper to taste. Top with fried garlic and green onions. Serve with lemon or kalamansi juice and fish sauce.

Note: Saffron flower is also known as safflower. It is not the same thing as saffron threads which are more expensive and have a more distinct flavor. However, a pinch of saffron threads can be substituted if saffron flower is not available.

Yield: 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 405 calories, 12 grams fat (2 grams saturated, 28 percent fat calories), 49 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrate, 125 milligrams cholesterol, less than 1 gram dietary fiber, 1,970 milligrams sodium.