[FOOD PORN] Patriotic Tapa (naks!)

Robert Uy
I add a salute to the Patriotic Tapa – a dish that takes the essence of its history

Manila, Philippines – Tapa is the Filipino’s single-letter-short version of the term Tapas. Tapas are a variety of appetizers and snacks that hail from Spain. Methinks that’s where our Tapa fixation originates.  Folks say that Tapas are designed to encourage conversation since the small plates are really in-between fixes to the wine being consumed and the company being shared.

“Tapas” comes from the Spanish verb tapar meaning “to cover.”  Legend has it that the early travellers would use a slice of bread or some sliced meat (which they usually served as part of a round of drinks) to cover their glasses and keep the flies away.  A Wiki check shows that the origin of tapas was most likely with Felipe III.

He passed a law in an effort to curb drunken behaviour. The law stated that when one purchased a drink, the bartender was to place a cover or lid containing some small quantity of food over the mouth of the mug or goblet as part of the purchase of the beverage. They hoped that the food would slow the effects of the alcohol, and fill the stomach to prevent binge drinking. He meant well…but he failed.

Somewhere in time, Filipinos must have adopted and modified this to make it truly Filipino. And, as any person who plays power games knows, a significant step in establishing authority over someone else is to attempt to rename the subject of conquest. We probably decided to drop the “s” as a step in establishing a new pecking order over tapas – either that or we just thought it was too long a word.

Fast forward to the present where tapa is part of the DNA of Filipino cuisine. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, midnight snack, pulutan (drinking food) – tapa is omnipresent.

Multiple varieties line our 7,102 islands – dry, crunchy, wet, sweetish, fatty, thick, thin, bite-sized, full on breakfast steaks, spicy…you name it, it’s there. Mom’s version, Dad’s version, Lola’s version, Tita’s version…they’re there. The more famous ones have specific names to it – Central Market, O’s Kitchen, Tapa King and so on.

Tapa is usually served with garlic fried rice and egg (sunny-side up, scrambled, over-easy or fried with crispy/salty edges). Then sometime in my lifetime – probably in the mid-80s, a magical thing happened. Filipinos again decided to re-establish its authority over the dish – christening it tapsilog (tapa, sinangag at itlog aka tapa, fried rice and egg). The 24-hour establishment was reborn – and the 80s equivalent of a viral hit was born (together with all the other silogs).

With such a colorful past and a long line of already famous tapahans, tapsihans and tapsilugans, a boast that one has the “World Famous US Beef Tapa (naks)” must be validated by anyone who takes their tapa seriously – especially if it also goes by the moniker “Patriotic Tapa.”

And I did.

Gram’s Diner

Gram’s Diner has 4 outlets in Metro Manila – all fun, light attempts at re-creating a 50s feel diner/dive. The menu doesn’t take itself seriously…great visuals, nice copy with a tongue-in-cheek tone and self-deprecating humor.

A good sign – never taking yourself seriously means you’re serious about stuff that matters…in this case, food. The menu alone is worth reading cover to cover – not just because of the variety but because it is well written, funny and adorned with amazing food porn.

I order the meal version of Gram’s World Famous US Beef Tapa (naks), not the breakfast version….and yes, that’s the full name of the dish (including the “naks”).

Two fried eggs (sunny side up and runny), a decent portion of garlic fried rice, bite-size portions of the tapa spread across a big plate and an empty stomach. I see that this is on the dry-side of the tapa spectrum. Good. Doesn’t look overdone, some crispy portions at the edges on a few, singe marks on various sections and nice color…promising.

I scoop it up. I pile it on. I masticate with purpose. I scoop it up, I pile it on, and I masticate with purpose. I scoop it up, I pile it on and I masticate with abandon. I have become a tapa zombie. I have become a powerful vacuum hose sucking it all in. My mouth has become the Bermuda Triangle – everything in its vicinity disappears. This is good. No – this is great….no, this is outstanding!

The tapa looks deceptively thin and moist and yet it is crispy – a mix of tenderness and crispiness. You don’t feel that you’ve wasted the US Beef…it did it justice. The marinade is not overpowering – not designed to mask great beef but rather to enhance it. A tiny tinge of sweetness with the right saltiness and some sourness permeates the tapa.

No trace of oil or frying is seen (or tasted) on the plate. The fried rice is fluffy and sprinkled with deep fried garlic bits that stop itself from taking over the rice and the eggs are perfect. The slices are not too thin – allowing you to know that it is beef but they’re not too thick either (which turns it into bistek).

This is tapsilog taken to a new level – not pretentious, not fusion-esque just good. This is a dish so confident of itself that it doesn’t need to try to be anything else. It simply is.

As the Philippines celebrates another Independence Day this week, I have added a new memory to go with the flag raising that marks the day…as I see the Philippine flag taking its place on cars, on lamp posts and buildings, I add a salute to the Patriotic Tapa – a dish that takes the essence of its history, distils it and re-presents it for the here and now.

For isn’t that what heritage is all about: awareness of our past running through the sieve of today, in order to extract the heart of who we are? – Rappler.com

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