Old Food and Proud: Balay Cena Una’s take on Homegrown Bicol Food

Mavic Conde
Old Food and Proud: Balay Cena Una’s take on Homegrown Bicol Food
Balay Cena Una is one of Bicol's best-kept secrets – an ancestral home that serves up delicious comfort food

It’s a gloomy day and I am in an ancestral home turned restaurant, surrounded by antiques and collectibles. Though the items in the house fills me with nostalgia, it was the food that would complete my trip down memory lane.


What we call “potluck” today was called pabarasugan in our generation. At the farm, we would share a meal that we had cooked over a makeshift table. There we would lay layers of whole banana leaves and spread the food all over them.

The ingredients often came from our homes. Of course, we would have gata (coconut milk) and combined it with vegetables or fruits that were in season. During August we would have gulay na santol as it was in season. The oldest in the group would always do the cooking.

GULAY NA SANTOL. Spicy dish made with grated cotton fruit meat and coconut milk. Photo courtesy of Karen Bolaños.

Balay Cena Una has the same mantra: it can whip up dishes from what is available from four farms in Albay and sometimes from their backyard. 

LEAF-WRAPPED. Banana leaf serves as the cooking pot for inalog. Photo courtesy of Vynce Opeña

Tinutungan vs linandag

When the waiter served inalog (roast krill) and I learned that it was linandag (roasted), I couldn’t help but wonder how it was different from tinutungan. At home, we would landag (roast) an eggplant, sweet potato and other food either by putting them on hot charcoal or in ashes.

INALOG. Linandag na balaw (roast krill). Photo courtesy of Vynce Opeña

But how about tinutungan? Several restaurants in Bicol, including Balay Cena Una, have this on their menu. I found the answer from Aida Cirujales, a retired Bicolano school teacher and author who is fond of cooking both ways.

According to her, tinutungan used smoked coconut. For example, when cooking pakulaw (any gata-based vegetable dish), hot coconut shell charcoals are put on grated coconut. Then it is pressed for milk. It gave the tinutungan food that smoky smell and flavor.

CHICKEN TINUTUNGAN. This creamy chicken dish is cooked with smoked coconut milked. Photo courtesy of Vynce Opeña

Why heirloom recipes

The family who owns Balay Cena Una says that family and friends would often come to their home to visit the Shelmed office, which displayed the native home and fashion items that Shelmed created. They would serve homegrown food to their visitors, food which they would use later on in their restaurant.

A local, who was in his senior years, was so surprised that they had gulay na pili (pili meat cooked with coconut milk). In his 60 years, he had not come across this dish until he dined at Balay Cena Una.

PILI FRUIT. Bicolanos either boil it to eat the meat with sugar or cooked it with coconut milk. Photo courtesy of Adrian Ocampo

“It helps to have cooks with the palate of a Bicolano. It’s also our way of supporting Albay [cuisine],” said restaurant owner, Angel Villanueva. 

Gulay na Purupagulong

The restaurant has recently added yet another regional recipe to its menu: gulay na purupagulong (winged bean), as well as ogob (seeded breadfruit), gulay na santol, lubi-lubi (palm-like fig), and sitaw (yardlong beans) as vegetable side dishes. These will be on rotation depending on the season, in addition to pako (fiddlehead fern), iba (bilimbi fruit), tambis (macopa), biriran (starfruit) and pili fruit.

The gulay na purupagulong wasn’t supposed to be in their menu at all until chef Sandy Daza visited the restaurant. They noticed during the food preparation that they lacked a Bicol vegetable dish. So they came up with what was available at that time.

The celebrity chef pronounced, “this is what [the restaurant] should be serving.” He also recreated this dish for his restaurant and is now one of the bestsellers.

GULAY NA PURUPAGULONG. A vegetable dish cooked with winged beans, coconut milk and chili. Photo courtesy of Vynce Opeña

The latter is one of the reasons Albay is actively participating in gastronomic events like Madrid Fusion Manila. “When international chefs recreate our dishes, the world gets to know our food,” said Albay culinary ambassador Renato Jao during the event, where the restaurant was also a featured participant for this year. 

BANGGIRAHAN. ShelMed recreated this Bicol traditional kitchen cabinets during Madrid Fusion Manila. Photo courtesy of Adrian Ocampo

The restaurant is part business, part advocacy. It shares a portion of its profit with farmers and participates in food feeding programs through the Dios Mabalos Foundation. They also recycle kitchen waste through composting. A Japanese expert, albeit one who can speak Bikol fluently – taught them how to do it.

THE FAÇADE. Like with all ancestral homes, it has a nondescript look from the outside. Photo courtesy of Vynce Opeña

Balay Cena Una shows us how a restaurant can “link us back to our past and the treasure trove of flavors we had,” as food writer Oggie Ramos puts it. And if they also incidentally promote sustainability simply by taking pride in our local cuisines – isn’t it worth checking out? – Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.