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At Large

From ‘hacienda’ to ‘hapag’

Arroz Ecija is a newly opened restaurant (on the ground floor of Arya Residences at the Bonifacio Global City) that is both familiar and unusual. It showcases traditional Central Luzon cooking, with an emphasis on the various varieties of rice (arroz is Spanish for rice) grown here. But it is also both an ode to a bygone lifestyle and a celebration of Filipino cuisine today, as it has evolved from the “lutong bahay” (home cooked) most of us have grown familiar with, to more rarefied and exotic variants.

To the current culinary trend of “farm-to-table” dining, Andrew and Sandee Masigan, the couple behind Arroz Ecija, offer instead the “hacienda to hapag (dining table)” experience.

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To tell the story of the restaurant, the Masigans reach back to the late 1800s, when a young Spanish lawyer, Don Claro Verez, arrived on our shores and settled first in Isabela where he served as a regional judge. But Don Claro was just as equally fascinated with agriculture as he was with the law, and eventually settled in Jaen, Nueva Ecija, where he founded a rice plantation, the Albufuera de Verez.

In between Don Claro had met and married Patrocinio Alindada, a mestiza who ruled over the hacienda kitchen, feeding her family and farmhands, while her husband took charge of the rice fields and farm. Even as she saw to the meals of over 300 laborers and a growing cast of relatives and visitors, Doña Patrocinio likewise busied herself and her kitchen staff with refining beloved staples of Philippine and Spanish cooking.

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But this bucolic pastoral life was rudely interrupted in 1942, when World War II broke out and invading Japanese troops descended on the hacienda and pillaged it. Don Claro and his eldest son Alfredo were incarcerated and eventually forced to join the Death March, which they did not survive.

The Albufuera de Verez is long gone, but its memory lingers in the hearts of the Verez couple’s descendants. Perhaps taste memories of the feasts that Doña Patrocinio used to prepare still linger in the consciousness of their family members, and many of these are recreated at Arroz Ecija.

The Masigans are noted for establishing another fine-dining restaurant: XO46, which they put up “to showcase Filipino cuisine in a different environment”—that is, different from the usual down market  carinderia  and turo-turo  settings. Instead, XO46 offers elegant, refined interiors and impeccable service from staff who have taken to calling diners  “señorito”  and  “señorita.”

But while the setting and service at XO46 hark back to a more refined past, the dishes are contemporary, classic Filipino dishes that have been tweaked and modernized, deconstructed and reworked to satisfy younger, more sophisticated palates.

This is where Arroz Ecija deviates from its older sibling. Much of the menu centers on various ways of preparing rice, from “plain boiled white rice” to varieties like basmati, jasponica, jasmine, brown Sampaguita and the purple pururutong, which is becoming increasingly rare. It also offers different ways of serving fried rice (sinangag) as well as the native version of paella, called bringhe, which is cooked with coconut milk.

To this rich menu of rice varieties and ways of cooking, Arroz Ecija offers viands rooted in Doña Patrocinio’s hacienda cooking as well as staples of humbler Filipino homes. At a recent gathering, for the birthday of Sandee’s mother, the Bulletin’s Deedee Siytangco, guests raved over the varieties of longanisa or native sausages; the deceptively simple boiled monggo or mung beans enriched by slices of pork and smoked fish; deep-fried pata or pork hocks with incredibly crisp skin; and kuhol or field snails cooked in coconut milk or gata, the meat thoughtfully fished out of their shells for our convenience.

The walls of Arroz Ecija are given to huge murals of rural scenes, including a nipa hut and an expansive view of rice fields, transporting diners to a provincial idyll, recreating memories of childhood summers, and reacquainting our palates with tastes that dwell in our hearts as well as on our tongues.

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TAGS: Albufuera de Verez, Andrew Masigan, Arroz Ecija, At Large, Central Luzon cooking, Filipino home cooking, Inquirer column, Inquirer columnist, Inquirer Opinion, lutong bahay, Rina Jimenez-David, Sandee Masigan
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