Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste… What?
Destination: Boracay and NYC
Mode of Transport: Kare Kare
My surname is Tolentino. It’s Italian, but I am of Philippine descent. My wife, daughter and I actually made a pilgrimage to see the town of Tolentino when we were visiting the Marche region of Italy. However, growing up, most of my European cultural influences stemmed mostly from Spain rather than Italy.
Spain colonized the Philippines…
That’s of course due to the fact that the Philippines were colonized by Spain for nearly 400 years. So when my friends humor me as to how I got my last name, I often joke (and by the way, also my theory) that there must have been an Italian on Magellan’s boat, sailing under the Spanish flag, when he discovered the Philippines.
I have an affinity for Spain. I think it may have been all the Hemingway novels I’ve read; but I think mostly because every time I visit that country, something about certain dishes in their cuisine draws familiarity with the food I grew up eating.
Please don’t read me wrong, I’m not one of those Filipinos who prides himself as a descendant of a conquering Western European culture because of his namesake; not at the very least. I simply see a food connection.
Spain is just one of the many cultures that influenced Filipino cuisine. The other obvious one is that of China. The one that is not referred to enough is that of the Malay.
The Malay Archipelago, also referred to as the East Indies, is made up of thousands of islands territorially owned mostly by Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea and the Philippines).
Parts, not all, of the Philippines belong to this group; but it’s the inclusion of this sub-culture that furthers the range and diversity of the country’s cuisine.
One stew dish in particular called Kare Kare is from that region. It’s a peanut based (in most cases peanut butter) curry-like oxtail stew, with vegetables (usually longbeans, eggplant and a cabbage or palm).
It’s usually eaten with rice and the condiment of choice is, the now popular, shrimp paste. Unlike most Filipino stews and soups, which have the same base ingredients and even look alike, Kare Kare is a departure.
It’s aesthetically different from other stews in texture and taste. Though on the thicker side, the broth is not heavily seasoned. The flavors are simply derived from the stock created by the boney oxtail and the fresh vegetables added later.
There’s a subtleness that sets it apart. Then there is the curve ball: peanut butter! I attribute my elevated level for exotic tastes to this dish. If there was one dish I would present to a Michelin Star Chef it would be this. For all I know, there may be a very cleaned up and expensive version of this dish somewhere in the Basque region.
There are many renditions and recipes for this stew, but I think the one found in Memories of Philippine Kitchens is probably most traditional and easiest to follow.
Filipino food is also having its’ moment (at least in New York) and there are some restaurants that are serving this dish up if you don’t have the patience to cook. My favorite places are Cafe 81 and Maharlika located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
I’m a sentimental guy, so whenever I have Kare Kare, I am forever that little boy standing over my Grandmother, mouth watering, as she prepared the dish.
I watched intently, as to how she cut the vegetables, how she butchered the oxtail, how she skimmed the fat from the top of the broth – everything.
My parents emigrated to the U.S from the Philippines.
I haven’t been back to the Philippines since my parents emigrated to the U.S. when I was four. But I do plan on being at crystal blue beaches in the island of Boracay, on the Malay Archipelago, in the near future; eating some oxtail stew originating from those parts.
And when I do, I’ll be thinking about my grandmother and the Lower East Side along with wondering about that first Tolentino from Italy, at that age of discovery that Spain bankrolled, and what he may have thought of the place when he arrived and if he had anything to do with this dish I consider to be a national treasure.
Did you like this dish? Please let us know your experience in the comments with Kare Kare, if any. We’d love to hear them. We’d love for you to share this with your friends! Thank you so much!