Not even homecooking can cure homesickness. Seeing all my favourite dishes laid out as they were at the Philippine Food Festival at the Shangri-La just reminded me to book an island holiday to the Philippines soon.
Walking into Cafe Mix at the Shangri-La last Friday was like walking into food heaven. It was like my birthday and Christmas party rolled into one. I didn't know where to look - on my right was the dessert station with leche flan, pichi-pichi, cuchinta, ginata-an, braso de mercedes, turon and palitaw, and further up was the meat carvery filled with slices of crispy lechon, and for those who love their soup - there was a big pot of tinolang manok alongside the sinigang sa miso na lapu-lapu. If I could live in the restaurant, I would!
According to recent statistics, there are more than 300,000 Filipinos in Australia, at least 20,000 of whom reside in Western Sydney. This meant that a) the community is big enough to support a handful of local Filipino restaurants and b) Asian food stores are now well-stocked with essential ingredients that you normally wouldn't find outside the Philippines.
In short, gone are the days when the only option for migrant Filipino-Australians to partake traditional dishes was to go to the Philippines. Sydney residents are now spoilt for choice.
But Shangri-La at the Rocks took Philippine fine dining to another level with its annual food fest this year, now in its fifth year running.
Filipinos are a tough crowd - we would have looked at the smorgasboard of dishes and instantly figured out what's missing. Instead I was scratching my head. From the authentic bipstek to chicharon bulaklak and even ginataang alimango, I was rediscovering dishes I haven't enjoyed for so long.
The highlight for me though was the unlimited fresh buko juice (hotel-branded of course), the halo-halo station (there's enough ube and langka for everyone) and the dish I went back twice for - the kare-kare.
There will be mixed reactions to the puto and the adobo, but that's more a function of the fact that different regions of the country prepare both differently.
Overall, this Food Fest wins top marks and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone, particularly those who haven't had Filipino food. The hotel has been busy taking bookings. They took more than 1,500 reservations even before the fest started.
I apologise that I can't translate the names of the dishes in English but I think that would take away the delight of discovery (The English translation usually bears the names of the key ingredients but that's only half the story).
For the first-timer, I would recommend trying a little bit of each of these: the chicken inasal, the kare-kare, the barbq chicken, the okra salad (or anything from the salad bar, really) and finish off with halo-halo. You can't go far wrong. The special treat is that everything was prepared by guest chefs specially flown in from the Philippines, namely Jovelyn Adra, Clayford Manuel and Charie Carmel Ferolin from Shangri-La at the Fort, Manila.
The Filipino community in Sydney may have matured to the point that we have enough food stores and restaurants at our fingertips, but perhaps I just have to accept that not even homecooking can cure homesickness. Seeing all my favourite dishes laid out as they were at the Food Fest made me want to fly back to the Philippines for an island holiday.
In the meantime, see you at the dessert station.
The Philippine Food Festival (Sept 8-Sept 16) is available from Monday to Thursday during the buffet lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m. at $55 per person and during the buffet dinner from 6 to 10:30 p.m. The seafood buffet dinner is available from Friday to Saturday from 6 to 10:30 p.m. at $85 per person. For bookings, call (02) 9250 6000 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. www.shangri-la.com/sydney
The writer was a media guest of the hotel at the Food Festival launch on Friday, September 8. Michelle Baltazar was the editor of a Filipino-Australian cookbook called "Marx Canoy's Food Feast" published in 2012.