The Lunar New Year is, undoubtedly, the most important and festive traditional Chinese holiday.
The mere mention of the holiday itself brings to mind vivid images of flamboyant festivities and unmatched opulence. What better place to welcome the New Year than Mabuhay Palace? The Manila Hotel’s premier Chinese restaurant once again opened its beautiful, ornate doors to patrons and guests to mark this auspicious event.
The restaurant’s ‘Prosperity Lunch’ started off not with food, but with fanfare. The diners and restaurant staff ushered in the Year of the Rabbit with an electrifying dragon and lion dance. The drumbeats reverberated off the Palace’s jade-and-glass walls, taking both dancers and spectators into the moment: It is a new year! Live it. Love it!
To wind down, the parade of the whimsical dragon and lion was followed by a captivating fan dance, displaying both power and tranquility with each movement.
Settling back down at our table, we looked forward to the promise of a sumptuous Cantonese feast worthy of the occasion. The reopened Mabuhay Palace was decked in red and gold, its jade carvings pristine and captivating, surrounding us. It was truly a sight to behold, and our first dish of the afternoon kept up with the visual drama.
The Prosperity Salad came in springtime colors, soft yet bright. The fruit and vegetable combination paired with raspberry sauce was as refreshing to the tastebuds as it was to the eyes. Symbolizing prosperity and fortune, this salad is definitely a good dish to start the New Year with.
The next dish, Auntie Song’s Spicy Soup held the promise of richness concealed in simplicity. It didn’t look like anything special, just soup served with a bit of egg. But it had a robust flavor that burst in your mouth; tasty with just a hint of spiciness to tickle the palate, and make everyone at our table keep coming back for more.
We so loved the soup that we already felt a tad full by the time the next dish was served. The soup was based on a longtime Chinese favorite: a thick, spicy soup concocted by a woman known only as ‘Auntie Song.’
It was war time. Even then, Auntie Song wanted to serve something during the holidays that would satisfy her guests, even on a meager budget. She put a lot of chili into the soup (so people wouldn’t eat too much!) and made sure everyone had a portion. It was ingenious—and absolutely delicious.
Executive Chinese sous chef Josephine Yu Tanganco-Candelaria gave the soup a different spin to please the Pinoy palate. It was not too spicy, and chef added even more flavor by using seafood.
When the Beggar’s Chicken came around, its flaky, yellowed crust reminded us of the hopia we used to eat as children. And although the dish may have looked familiar, its taste was a whole new experience altogether.
The bread was soft and tasty, and the chicken was tender and flavorful. Each bite pretty much melted in the mouth. The origin of this dish is quite interesting, and proved that necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
In earlier times, only the rich Chinese could afford to eat chicken. A beggar, starved and desperate, stole some chicken and hid it in mud. He later cooked the chicken over fire, still with the then-hardened mud around it, and unknowingly produced this delicious dish. Chef Josephine refined the recipe by using phyllo dough instead of mud to ‘hide’ the chicken in, serving a one-of-a-kind concoction that has become a favorite at the Palace.
We approached the Braised Pork Leg (commonly known as patatim) with caution. Although we’d eat pretty much anything served at Manila Hotel, we had never really enjoyed any other patatim other than the one served at home.
Having no expectations of something can end in either regret or reward. After sampling the pork, we decided that, this time, it was the latter. Served with mantou, the braised meat was oh-so-tender that it literally fell off the bone. The sauce brought out the dish’s full flavor, just the right amount of sweet, salty, and spicy, which established the dish as the highlight of the lunch hour. Patatim is said to bring happiness and harmony to a married relationship. If the taste of this version is any indication, we’d say any married couple eating it would be way too happy to ever argue!
We were also served a very saucy rendition of the New Year staple Long Life Noodles, followed by Braised Dried Oyster With Bean Curd Sheet and Sea Moss. The oyster and bean curd together have a neutral flavor. The trick is to eat it with the seaweed to get that salty punch.
The dish is believed to bring good luck to business, and it actually does give off that practical, sensible nature of business people, but with a spunk that propels a business forward. The traditional Nian Gao kept to the colorful theme with white and orange. The pan-fried treats were served with almonds and Hawthorn berries.
It was the last dish, but chef Josephine and executive Chinese chef Sun Bing didn’t want us to leave the Palace without a surprise. We were each served a generous scoop of some Mabuhay Palace Homemade Ice Cream. It was creamy white and sprinkled with what looked like black sesame, then topped with a cherry.
Chef Josephine approached our table with a mischievous twinkle in her eye and asked us to guess what the ice cream flavor was. All the guests at the table were stumped. The taste was both familiar (it was sweet and creamy) and new (there was something about it we couldn’t exactly place, mingled with the interesting texture of black sesame).
The hint chef Josephine gave was rather general (“It is found in most Chinese and Filipino kitchens!”). Exclamations of pleasant surprise went around our table when chef announced that it was itlog na maalat (salted egg)!
True enough, I found a bit of the egg yolk nestled somewhere in the depths of my dessert glass, adding that unique texture to the ice cream. It was really well executed, as the salted-egg flavor was subtle and not at all as overpowering as it is when eaten in its original form. The egg merely lent its tastiness to the overall flavor of the dessert.
Mabuhay Palace’s Chinese New Year lunch brought diners much delight with its Cantonese offerings done in a sophisticated yet still very Pinoy twist. This marriage of Chinese and Filipino tastes made the menu unique and satisfying, making the Palace, despite its elegant grandeur, feel so much like home.
print ed: 03/11