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Why You Should Know Amy Besa of Purple Yam

Long before Filipino food was being touted as “the next big thing,” a hip restaurant in SoHo was already dishing out a remarkable chicken adobo (where the chicken was braised in soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, and Thai chili pepper, and then paired with coconut milk), among other things. Called Cendrillon, the restaurant owned by the husband and wife team of Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa would go on to captivate the palates of jaded New Yorker diners looking for a different kind of Asian cuisine.

Though Cendrillon closed its doors in 2009, its sister eatery, Purple Yam is still very much alive in Brooklyn. And just recently, Amy Besa came home to set up a Malate branch of the famed restaurant named after our beloved ube.

Below, Ms. Besa candidly (and passionately) talks about setting up shop in her family’s ancestral house on Bocobo St., her all-encompassing love for Filipino produce and cuisine, her advocacy for the small-time producers of the agricultural industry, and what she would like to have for Christmas dinner this year.

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You’ve opened Purple Yam in Malate this year, but you were operating Cendrillon (before it closed) and Purple Yam in Brooklyn prior to that. What led you to move back to the Philippines?

Well, I’m also getting older. (laughs) I turned 65, my husband and I [both turned 65]. And I really realized that time is short, and if I really wanted to leave a legacy, which is what I really want to do, it was time to go home. And besides, I really love the Philippines. I really love it here. I love the people, the culture, the food. It’s not like, you know, some people call it [a] “noble endeavor.” I’m not being noble. I’m not giving up anything. I’m just doing what I love. And it just happens to be this.

So, I can’t do anything that I don’t like or love. And I do it with a passion, and I give it my all. So, that’s why I’m back here. And this is my house, I grew up here and I still live here. This is still a living, dynamic organic house being used as a home. It’s not like a museum or showcase, and it’s not really a full-time restaurant. It’s still a private dining experience that we open up when we have bookings. We only open when we have reservations. We don’t have a full-time staff waiting for people to walk in.

This house is how old?

It’s as old as me: 65.

Were you born here?

No. Ah, well. When I was born, they built this house. And then, my parents and everybody else (because I’m the youngest) moved in here when I got baptized. So, the following, maybe the early 1950’s, they moved in here.

It’s a great thing because the original architect is Enrique Ruiz, and we really admired that architect. He was also an artist. I mean, he did Selecta, he did Jai-alai, you know, all these old buildings, and a lot of homes, I think, in Baguio. I have been trying to track down the family, just to see what his paintings look like, and I seem to have come up with a dead end because I asked a lot of architects if they knew him, and nobody did. And guess what? Last week, there was a woman who was celebrating her birthday here, and they asked me, “Who’s the architect?” And I said “Enrique Ruiz,” and one guest said, “That’s my father.” So, now she’s coming back with her family to show them a living, breathing example of her father’s work, because most of them have been torn down. This is a very small footprint, but it feels big because of the way he designed it. The ceilings are high, and he loved the rounded corners, like more like a bay window style of architecture, and not too many parallel walls. He was very sensitive about the lighting and the ventilation, cross ventilation.

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There are many people who say that Filipino food is poised to become the next global cuisine-
I think it is, it’s starting to.

Given your experience in running a couple of restaurants in New York, which is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, what sort of measures does the local food industry need to undertake to get to that level? Do they need to work on the presentation, etc.?

It’s really more of the ingredients. Presentation should just- I’m not into those squiggly things. I want food to look natural. Look beautiful, but still look natural, not overly-contrived. It’s got to look good to eat, because that’s what food is all about. You need to eat it.

But I really think the one main thing that we are lacking in, and this is what I’m trying to do here, is to develop ingredients, and to reawaken Filipinos to the need of patronizing our own ingredients. Because if we don’t, they will disappear.

And then, the small producers that are doing a good job, who have integrity in trying to produce a good product, they need to support it. When you’re starting, you’re small, it’s a very fragile state because most markets will require that you deliver on time, all the time, at huge quantities, at huge volumes.

Usually, that’s what kills a lot of small producers. Because there aren’t that many people who are willing to take a risk on them, or will want small volume, or can take the fact that sometimes, you run out of product. And I’m that kind of a market. That’s why we charge Php2,500 for dinner and Php1,500 for brunch, and some people think that may be expensive, but I think that’s still cheap, compared to what we give. We’re not making money, most of that goes back to the producers.

Your current menu at Purple Yam is known for integrating some of the most overlooked and underused produce in the country. Which ingredients were the most memorable for you, and why?

What I’m doing is also training my kitchen staff, that’s what they’re here for. They have a passion for Filipino food, that was one of the criteria. They’re all here because they want to learn, so, what I’m trying to communicate to people is that when you cook something, everything makes a difference. Many people don’t think so.

So, we’re looking at salts, sugars, oils, fats that you put in. Fruits, vinegars, fish sauce. Even black peppercorns, I love black peppercorn. So, I never use anything unless I know the source. Our black peppercorn is from an organic farm in Rosario, Batangas, and I know the people who grow them. Most of the commercial stuff, you will find, is already diluted with fake things. There’s a lot of fake stuff going on. Like even a lot of the commercial fish sauce that you will find, especially in the local markets. What they do is they find someone who makes fish sauce (what they call the “puro,” which means it’s all fish sauce), then they dilute it. They add salt water, then they put caramel coloring.

Then, vinegars. I really want people to experience real fruit vinegars. So, we have sap vinegars, from palms and we have fruit vinegars. Here in the restaurant, we use mango and tamarind vinegars from Abra.
The salt that we use for cooking comes from our ancestral land in Zambales, it’s their natural salts, and I think they’re naturally iodized. So I know they’re not fake salts.

Also, in this country, there’s a lot of honey. And they all taste different. So, right now, I sell Abra honey. It’s very floral, almost like lavender. I was very surprised, it’s beautiful. And I really support the people in Abra [who are harvesting the honey] because they also respect the bees. They harvest the honey in a way that they don’t kill the bees.

So, that’s what I’m trying to do. From the most basic ingredient, you need to have a look at, because they all contribute to the flavor.

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What sort of dishes can we expect from Purple Yam Malate?

We have a dish called the caramel-smoked chicken, and we use organic chicken. Free-range. For that, we make it into a ssam. We use lollo rosso lettuce, and then we have the sliced caramel chicken and then we put all kinds of pickled roots in it, like the yaccon, carrots, singkamas. Then we wrap it up and then we put the soy vinegar and the mirin sauce.

We also do a tinapang rellenong bangus. We smoke it in apple wood chips. It’s so sarap (delicious).
I really disagree when people say that Filipino food is brown, oily, and unhealthy, because they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

What exactly is caramel smoking?

Caramel smoking is a, I think it’s a Chinese method. I learned that decades ago. I haven’t seen anyone doing it. We smoke the chicken in burnt sugar, that’s it.

Given that you have a passion for local ingredients and that you’re known for being an advocate of the farmers and the small-time producers, what sort of criteria do you employ when you’re looking at a potential supplier?

They have to have integrity, and they have to have the same passion, that they really strive for producing a good product. And I think what’s nice about dealing with small producers is that you can get to know each other personally. I think that’s one problem with mass production, when the producers and the end users have no idea who the other is. Because if I know you and you’re going to eat it, I’m not going to poison you. Because I know you, right? I’ve met you face-to-face. I’m not going to give you something that has chemicals in it, or something that’s not good, or contaminated, or fake.

Let’s talk about the original Purple Yam in Brooklyn. How does this branch in Malate differ from that one? Are there some key distinctions between your vision for NY and your vision for Malate?

Well, the set of values and the basic philosophy are the same. But then, the vision here is a little bit different. It’s really to develop culinary graduates, and this is a lab. One of the primary goals I have here is to get this group of young talent, and they are talented. They’re really good. They can produce good food at such a young age, with so few years of experience. We discuss a lot about cooking methods, and they’re not perfect all the time, [neither] am I, and we thrive on that.

And we get immediate feedback here. The moment someone says, “Oh, I don’t think this works,” that’s fine. Everybody’s off trying to figure out how to fix it.

That’s [one of the goals we have for Purple Yam Malate], and there’s also developing a cottage industry among the small producers here. Those are the two [key differences in vision between Purple Yam Brooklyn and Purple Yam Malate].

Also, what I have here is the luxury of local ingredients. I have fresh coconut, fresh fish, and shellfish, which you’re not going to get there (Brooklyn). Because they all taste of chlorine. Here, you can go there (local market), and they’re all jumping and alive.

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Who’s currently in charge of Purple Yam in New York?

My husband (Chef Remy Dorotan). I will be going back there on Christmas. He was here for two months to open up the restaurant, [sometime] in June and July.

So, what are your plans for the original Purple Yam restaurant?

Eventually, we’ll have to make a decision about New York. We’ll have to wind it down. We’re hoping somebody would take it over, but it’s kind of hard since it’s in Brooklyn. It’s in a small neighborhood, so if somebody were to take it over, it would probably have to be in a more accessible place, like maybe Williamsburg or in Manhattan. Higher rents, though. Yes, that’s why we left Manhattan.

Unlike most of the restaurants in the city, dining at Purple Yam Malate is by reservation only. Why is that so?

We are an archipelago, I tell everyone, but do you guys get fresh fish and seafood in the restaurant? Hardly. You usually get frozen, because it’s not economical. And I can understand why, because in this temperature, things will go bad fast. It’s very difficult to expect most restaurants to do that (stock fresh fish), because they will lose money. That’s why we only open for bookings. Because if you book here, then we get the best, the freshest ingredients for you that day.

Because if you’re just waiting all day for people to walk in, it’s not going to work. Even if I opened a full-time restaurant out there, I don’t even know if- we’ll probably just offer [dishes with fresh fish] as specials, probably.

Clearly, you’re very big on preserving Filipino food as a heritage. If there was one thing you would like future generations of chefs, restaurateurs, and food aficionados to preserve about their culinary heritage, what would it be?

Everything! From seafood to fruits! Nobody uses our fruits. Like the kamias. We actually use a kamias fruit pop in our drink. We put it in our tapuy cocktail, which is a rice wine. I also remember eating kamias prunes and kamias candy in Abra.

We have to preserve our heritage, our heirloom rice grain. That’s very key.

People should also start cooking with real fruit, instead of packaged mixes, because if nobody buys the kamias- it’s actually very difficult to find kamias nowadays. People used to grow kamias trees in their backyard all the time, as it’s a very giving tree.

So, you’d want them to focus on the ingredients?

Yeah, and if you want to emphasize something, rice. Because the varieties are disappearing. And there is a difference between heirloom and the rice that we eat normally. Most of the rice that we eat are hybrids, as opposed to the heirlooms. The heirlooms still contain the DNA as what our forefathers ate. Most heirlooms are still owned by families and communities, so they carry it with them. In each rice-growing family, they have a rice keeper, someone in the family who chooses the grains for planting at each harvest. So, they choose the best grains and keep that for the next harvest.

So, if a family gives up, for example, like in the Rice Terraces, if they give up and they become factory workers, the Rice Terraces deteriorate. They’re abandoned, and that’s what’s happened to most of them. The Rice Terraces exist all over the Cordilleras, but only a fraction exist to this day, so we have to keep that alive.

Apart from the veritable treasure trove of ingredients in Filipino cuisine, what else do you find inspiring about it?

I really think that we have the best food in the world. (chuckles). Because the Philippines is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. What nature does is when species disappear, nature creates new ones. A diverse ecosystem means you have a lot of food. So, it’s very inspiring to find undiscovered things, it’s like new territory, like new frontier. You’re like a prospector, you’re discovering new things that the rest of the world don’t know, even our own countrymen, even I don’t know. I am so amazed every time I travel [the Philippines], and I find something new, or even something that keeps growing that [people usually] ignore. That’s why I love it here.

Because the possibilities are endless?

Yes.

Apart from running restaurants and devoting time to your agricultural advocacies, you’ve also co-authored a book with your husband. I think it was called “Memories of Philippine Kitchens,” where you trace the origins of traditional Filipino dishes. However, I’d like to ask about the history of your love affair with Filipino food. Where exactly did it begin? Did you always have a thing for Filipino food?

You know, I’ve always loved kakanin. I love kakanin, all kinds! That’s another source of inspiration, you can go anywhere in the Philippines and you can always find someone making a different kind of kakanin.

Is that your childhood favorite?

Yes, I love suman sa lihiya from Batangas. My father was a doctor, and there were a lot of patients who would ask for discounts. He was very kind, so they would bring chickens or suman instead of payment, and he would accept them. He was a surgeon, so he would operate for free a lot. He would devote two or three days of the week for doing operations at the National Orthopedic Hospital, so I got to experience a lot of the kakanin because that’s the payment he would get.

Okay, one last question. Since the holidays are approaching and you’re flying back to New York soon, what would you like to have for Christmas dinner?

I love our hams. But I’m having a hard time finding hams here. But in New York, we cook the water cured hams. We simmer them in pineapple juice and rum and brown sugar. The recipe’s in the book. That’s one of my most favorites. The ham, because I like to get the leftovers for breakfast and fry them in butter and some orange slices, and it’s so good. And then with garlic fried rice. (chuckle) I can’t wait for Christmas morning.

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Have you been to Purple Yam? How do you feel about Amy Besa’s take on Filipino food? Sound off with a comment below!

7 Responses

  1. “Presentation should just- I’m not into those squiggly things. I want food to look natural. Look beautiful, but still look natural, not overly-contrived. It’s got to look good to eat, because that’s what food is all about. You need to eat it.” I think this will be the restaurant’s downfall… the thing is there’s too much comfort food out there and making a destination of a place that serves something that might have special ingredient but doesn’t appear special visually is not right. We don’t need rustic anymore in this country cause we don’t lack that in anyway. What we need is a fresh take. Making the plate look nice… looks like it was done by someone who cares and personally i feel uncomfortable eating there with the price of 2,000php per head and nothing just feels up above the rest other than ingredients that i haven’t seen before. Plating it nicely/intricately isn’t being squiggly it’s a chef’s way of giving more respect towards the ingredients rather than just making it seem natural, which i see nothing wrong with but you are being charged 2000php or more so there’s got to be more substance…

    1. Thank you, Noni. 🙂 Though credit for the photos should go to Krizia Cruz. She was the one who took the amazing shots of Ms. Besa and her beautiful house. 🙂

      1. I couldn’t have done it without your help, Ms. Serna. Great article as expected! 🙂

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