Starting From Scratch: Pesto alla Pilipinas

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 29 comments
Pesto alla Pilipinas

So here's the deal: I've just spent three weeks - THREE WEEKS - writing The Post From Hell and it's a mess.

What began as a piece about a pasta dish turned into a contorted, convoluted composition about smoke detectors, roller coasters and the psychology of culture shock, to which no amount of torturous allegories could bring coherence. Yet, I seriously considered finishing and posting anyway, thanks to my ongoing susceptibility to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. With so much time already spent, why not try to salvage what I could from this wreck? Well, there's salvaging treasure and then there's salvaging (s)crap...

No, I'll leave this Titanic at the bottom of the ocean and start from scratch instead.

Transitions and Transformations

The theme of 'starting from scratch' had been my original inspiration: I wanted to express how I've had to reassess much of what I'm accustomed to doing, especially with regard to food, since moving to the Philippines. In many ways, I feel as if I'm starting all over: where I shop for groceries, what I choose to buy, how I cook our meals. These and so many other considerations have been undergoing fundamental change as I adapt to my new environment. For the most part, I've enjoyed the process of transformation brought about by new discoveries, but just as often, I find myself longing for things as they were "back at home".

I could certainly cling to my old ways, which would be so easy to do as we've chosen to live in an enclave where the familiar trappings and staples of our American lifestyle are readily accessible. But that would be illusory and unfair - to me, who has expounded at length about connecting with my heritage; to Mr. Noodle, who left behind his own family and all things familiar to pursue new opportunities on foreign shores for our benefit and happiness; and to this beautiful, colorful, vibrant country and culture that we are happy to now call home.

I am still in the process of settling in, of finding my footing and establishing new routines, and of learning and adapting to the nuances of everyday Filipino life. But learning and adapting doesn't mean discarding what I know from before; instead, I will draw upon the old to enrich all the new experiences as they come come my way.

Well, how about that? It seems I managed to salvage some treasure from a wreck after all...

When in Rome . . . 

What better way to express the best strategy for adapting to a new environment than that old gem of a proverb, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do"? So, I did. For the second meal that I cooked in my new Philippine kitchen, I made pesto. (The first meal involved lamb chops, a borrowed stock pot and the aforementioned smoke alarm. Let's just leave it at that.)

At the time, our boxes of belongings had yet to arrive from Minnesota, which meant that I had to do without my favorite kitchen tools, including the mini-food processor with which I have always made my pestos. But when in Rome... I went out and bought a beautiful stone mortar and pestle, and prepared this classic Italian sauce in the manner for which it was named (Italian: pestare - to pound or crush).

Finally, since I am in Manila rather than in Rome, it seemed right and natural to use Filipino ingredients in place of the basil, pignoli and Parmigiano-Reggiano of traditional pesto alla genovese, for a harmonious blend of East and West:

Malunggay - [Mah-loong-GUY] (Moringa oleifera) Also known as sajina, horseradish tree and a host of other names, malunggay is native to the Indian Subcontinent, but is widely grown and used in the Philippines. While nearly all parts of the tree have culinary and/or medicinal use, malunggay leaves in particular are gaining attention and prominence in Filipino cuisine as something of a wonder food, purportedly containing more vitamins C and A, calcium, protein and potassium than oranges, carrots, milk and bananas, respectively. Comparable in taste and texture to spinach, the dark green thumbnail-sized leaves are often added to tinola, a traditional, delicately-flavored soup of chicken, ginger and green papaya. In this pesto, malunggay imparts a fresh yet distinctly grassy flavor, so I would suggest substituting a portion of the leaves with some cilantro to draw in a more herbaceous taste, if preferred.

Pili Nuts - [Pee-lee] (Canarium ovatum) Looking like elongated pumpkin seeds, pili nuts are indigenous to the Philippines, particularly in the Bicol Region on the southeastern portion of Luzon, the largest island in the archipelago. Mostly unknown beyond the Philippines, pili is popular as a snack, flavored with salt and garlic or covered in a sweet sugar coating. Its mild flavor and almost airy crispness are belied by its fat content - approximately 68.5 grams per 100 grams of nut, nearly 50% more than that of cashews (45g/100g) and comparable to macadamias (69g/100g). Furthermore, the quality of its oil composition is similar to that of olive oil. As such, I decided to reduce the amount of olive oil normally used in making pesto to compensate for the richness of pili nut.

Queso de Bola - [KAY-so day BOH-lah] Essentially Dutch edam cheese, queso de bola is a staple of the Philippine Christmas table, but its sharp, cheesy deliciousness is enjoyed year round with fruits, pandesal and jamon (soft bread roll and ham), and on sweet bibingka (broiled rice cake). Its flavor and texture, though just a bit softer than the Italian hard cheeses used in pesto, add just the right amount of saltiness to this fusion sauce.

Pesto alla Pilipinas

'Starting from scratch...' 'Drawing upon the old to enrich the new...' 'A pasta dish...' 

If this post were a riddle (and believe me, the original iteration was an indecipherable enigma), you might have noted these clues as to the identity of my edible accompaniment. I referred to David Leibovitz's Pesto Recipe as a guide for this simple meal made simply. The resulting dish had just the right flavor for this blog post.


2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp salt
2-3 cups malunggay leaves, washed & stripped from stems
1/2 cup finely grated queso de bola, plus extra for garnish
50 grams roasted plain pili nuts
2-3 Tbsps olive oil
8 oz/205 g linguine, cooked according to package directions
1 cup reserved pasta water

In a mortar, sprinkle garlic cloves with salt and pound with a pestle until smooth. Add malunggay leaves, a large handful at a time, and mash into the garlic, until all leaves are used and a thick paste is formed. Add olive oil and half of the cheese, then mash; add half of the nuts and mash again. Repeat with remaining cheese and nuts, pounding all the ingredients together until well-mixed into a paste. At this point, the pesto may be quite thick and clumpy - just set aside until pasta is cooked.

Cook linguine according to package directions. Before draining the noodles, reserve a cup of pasta water. Add the cooking water, one tablespoon at a time, to the pesto and stir to incorporate into the paste. Continue to add pasta water until desired consistency is reached.

Place cooked linguine into a large bowl, add the pesto and mix until the noodles are coated with sauce. Add grated queso de bola and serve immediately.


  • Christo Gonzales said...

    well now you live just too far away....I guess I am going to have to make this for myself..I love the color of this dish and it probably looks greener inside the green of your blog :)

  • SKIP TO MALOU said...

    hi tracey!

    It's about 1 am your time, and I would imagine that you are deep in slumber at this time... or maybe not as I know you just posted this new post of yours But truth to tell ever since you moved to Manila, I always wish that I was there to help you with your transition. Not that I would still be familiar with the locale (mind you while I was there in Sept there were so many new things around) since I left my home country for 10 years now. But I still call Manila my home, so I still feel that I'm still a local. I always wished that you will feel at home there and you will learn to accept the unfamiliar "filipino ways" that we have.

    Now, going back to your dish, you sound more local than i do now. I only know the use of Malungay paired with mongo and nothing else.. but a pesto? hmm sounds interesting. I'm even ashamed to admit that I am not too familiar with the taste of Malungay since shhh I don't eat veggies much when i was growing up.

    I hope to see you in Manila, hopefully in a few months. For now, I'm eager to read your posts and hey have fun in Bora!


  • Unknown said...

    Wow - it looks like you did an amazing job incorporating your new world into your old world. I'm embarking on a big move soon too - though not as big as yours! - just across the country. Still, I wonder about all the things that will change - and how it will be living in temporary housing for 2 months until we find a permanent place. You give me great hope that it will all work out. If you can do Manila, I can do California!

  • Anonymous said...

    I love your makeover of pesto using these local ingredients which are fascinating to learn about. This is excellent!

  • Lo said...

    I absolutely love variations on traditional dishes. And you've done a lovely job on this one. Bravo -- looks delicious!

  • Jun Belen said...

    Brilliant! I love how you made pesto your own, very Filipino. I can truly empathize with starting over. On one end it's exciting because everything is new but on the other it's difficult. You're finding your bearings once again and missing everything that you used to have. Take it easy and I'm sure everything will be fine.

  • Anh said...

    interesting! pesto with such unique ingredients....!

    And I hope you settled in nicely as well. I know the pain of moving and everything, but there are more to discover, right? :)

  • Midge said...

    Malunggay pesto with pili nuts and quezo de bola is a great way to make a local take on a classic Italian sauce. (Though, yes, I also recommend the use of blanched kangkong leaves and cashews to make a similar paste with a milder flavor.)

    Thanks for coming to Chocolate Appreciation 101 last Saturday. We hope to see you again for the March workshop - where, yes, I will be serving lavender-infused chocolate petits-four and rose-infused truffles. ;D

  • chef_d said...

    Looks good! How was the taste? I've always wanted to make malunggay pesto but I'm not so sure if I'd like the flavor. Your version looks so delicious!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments. Mr. Noodle and I are currently enjoying a few days at Boracay Beach, but the Internet accessibility (or lack thereof) is driving me CRAZY! After several hours, I finally managed to log on but I'm not sure how long it will last. So, I'll have to come back later with proper replies, but I wanted to at least say that I'm so happy you've enjoyed this post. 8-D

  • Christine Ho said...

    I understand how life is not easy to settle in a different country. I took a few years to adapt myself to live in a western country since moving from HK.
    So fascinated by reading how you picked up the local ingredients and whipped up the pesto you accustomed to. Very clever.

  • ChichaJo said...

    Great post! Glad to hear you are settling in, and now enjoying at the beach :) I know what it's like to have to adjust to new places, including adjusting to home after I've been gone! This pesto sounds wonderful...I love malunggay and malunggay pesto (have never made it, but I've bought it in a nearby market) and my dad insists that pili is the best nut for pesto!

    If you need any information to help you settle in just let me know :)

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    My move to Europe wasn't too much of a culture shock - but there are lots of differences to how and what I cook because many of my tools I left at home and my freezer space went from giant to the size of a shoebox.

    But we learn to adapt and this pesto looks awesome and I would love to try some of that queso de bola.

    ps sorry about the post that was laid to rest...

  • emiglia said...

    It can be so frustrating to start a post, only to end up with it not living up to your expectations, but I hope that your experience in the Phillipines lives up to what you hope for!

    As for the pesto, what a cool mix of old and new, east and west. Looking forward to more recipes and discoveries like it in the future!

  • Daily Spud said...

    Three weeks? Oh how I feel your pain! There's one thing I'm supposed to be working on at the moment that refuses to be anything more than a barely blank sheet. No matter how many words I throw at it, they all seem to slide off!

    Still, I'm glad that you managed to draw upon the old drafts of your blog post to enrich this wonderful, final version. I now only wish I had access to some of the Filipino ingredients you mention so that I could taste the flavours of your new home. Methinks, however, that I will have to satisfy myself with an Irish version instead :)

  • Jenni said...

    I would have gladly read the first iteration of this post if you had wanted me to, TN! I must admit, I actually teared up a little at your being torn between familiar and your desire to get to assimilate into your new world. Must be difficult, but I also know you are having the time of your life exploring and getting comfortable in your Rome!

    Lovely dish, ma'am. :)

  • Hornsfan said...

    All I can say is wow - to be surrounded by such diverse (and relatively unfamiliar given the items available in places like Minnesota) ingredients you did justice to a true classic! Hope your boxes arrive soon and that your adjustment period gets easier!

  • The Duo Dishes said...

    Each one of those three ingredients is no doubt new to all of us, so you've educated us for sure. It has to be difficult in the beginning to get used to a new way of life, but each day definitely gets easier. Especially if you find a way to marry the old and new lives together! Through pesto perhaps....

  • Forager @ The Gourmet Forager said...

    Ah, I've have been there too. Stewing on a post for way too long. There are so many half written drafts that have just stagnated.. You've inspired me - despite having too many in the queue, I will definitely finish at least one of them! Sometime this year! This looks wonderful - have no idea what that herb tastes like but you still have me craving pesto right now!


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