Eating out: Thank heavens for fat hen

JOSEPHINE'S: 4 Charlotte Street, London W1P 1HE. Tel: 0171 580 6551. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch from 11.30am-3pm, and for dinner, 6-11pm. Average price per person, pounds 25 including wine. Major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
MY KNOWLEDGE of Filipino food is limited to a few choice snippets, picked up here and there over the years. Some time ago, Madhur Jaffrey (I think) presented a television series hurtling through the cooking of Asia. The only specific that I remember is the Filipino pig roast; as the pig turned on the spit it was basted with the most extraordinary mixture of, among other things, spices, garlic, tomato ketchup and Coca Cola. Within that basting mixture lodged a considerable lick of the history of the nation encompassing the Spanish colonists who occupied the islands for four centuries, and then later on the inescapable presence of American troops, based on the islands. What made the mixture work (and I have tried a small scale version which was surprisingly good) is the local touch, bringing harmony to what seems like a disparate and unpromising list of ingredients.

A few years later, at the Oxford Food symposium, an eminent Filipino Professor led a workshop dedicated to the much loved delicacy, fertilised duck eggs, complete with embryonic duck. My last little speck of information was more reassuring and approachable. Someone, sometime, once told me that they fry up the most delicious sweet potato and shrimp fritters, sold and consumed at street stalls on the pavements of Manila.

I was hoping that I might finally be about to get a taste of these fabled fritters when we sat down to eat at Josephine's restaurant hid-den among the cluster of small eateries at the bottom of Charlotte Street in central London. Josephine's is small and homely with paintings of country life in the Philippines along the walls. My disappointment at finding a marked absence of sweet potato fritters, was soon relieved by the wonderful language of the menu. Who could resist the allure of Tinolang Manok, "a fat hen simmered to thick tenderness and fured with green papaya"? Not me, that's for sure.

I was tempted too by the Bangus (fried milkfish) which comes with the glorious footnote that, "Everyone get almost anything fried in the Philippines. there is something special with the 'Prito of Josephine's' " Adobong Pusit, I've since learnt, is a typical dish of Spanish ancestry, but transformed into a Filipino speciality. Squid is marinated in vinegar, garlic and pepper (the sacred triumvirate of an adobo stew) and cooked long and slow. Other Spanish names crop up through the menu, as do familiar sounding dishes with more than a passing resemblance to Malaysian and Chinese recipes - the other two major influences on the cooking of the islands.

One taste of the thick tenderness of the fat hen, suitably "fured", dispelled any lingering regrets. The chicken broth was quite something, scented we thought with lemon grass and ginger or galangal, perhaps, and given substance with shreds of chicken and crisp yet soft chunks of green papaya. My friend Jess and I also ordered a bowl of Sinigang, an equally delicious and restorative soup soured with the fruity tartness of tamarind, bulked out with prawns, slices of white radish and green beans. Soups are obviously quite a tour de force in this restaurant. As usual, our eyes and curiosity were larger than our stomachs and we also asked to taste some Lumpiang Shanghai - spring rolls filled with beef and vegetables that come with a chillied sauce. A little greasy, but not bad at all.

After this mostly superlative start our main courses brought us back down to earth, and a minor dispute. The chicken Adobong, slowly cooked, it says, in an exotic South Seas sauce, seemed far from exotic, It tastes dull, frankly, and the exotic sauce was, while not actively unpleasant, at least reminiscent of wallpaper paste. Both Jess and I are more than passingly fond of noodles, and though we made considerable headway into, Josephine's Special Pancit Bihon (fine rice noodles), they were, again, distinctly dull, laden heavily with a non-descript brown sauce that seemed to have been thickened and glossed with cornflour, and coloured with too much soy sauce. Disagreement surfaced over the last of this trio, Pinakbet, a vegetable dish from the Northern Philippines, with chunks of squash and beans and other vegetables flavoured unmistakably with shrimp paste. I loved the slightly fetid, powerful presence of fermented shrimp, but Jess, who is not partial to Thai fish sauce either, was repelled. That was fine, as I was more than happy to pull the dish over to my side of the table and tuck in unhindered.

Halo-Halo is not a Filipino sit-com at all, but one of the most extraordinary puddings I've ever come across. On a hot steamy day in situ, it must be gloriously refreshing. In a warm little restaurant on a not-so-hot but not-so-cold early June evening it still refreshes, but more than that it is a voyage of discovery as you work your way from the scoop of not very good, but very pink strawberry ice-cream at the top of the knickerbocker glory glass, down through shreds of young, fresh coconut, shaved ice bathed in some kind of syrup to the increasingly bizarre selection of tropical fruits at the bottom. Excavation reveals small sweet beans, red and white, chunks of syrup cooked purple yam, jellied clear cubes, and other oddities that I couldn't even begin to identify. If only the one familiar thing, that ice-cream was better quality, then it could be the most engaging and curiously delectable of ways to end a meal.

One of the pleasing outcomes of this meal has been that, while doing a little bit of digestive research into Filipino food, I have tracked down a recipe for Ukoy, those fabled sweet potato and shrimp fritters which do not appear to be too difficult to concoct. Even if I don't get around to making them, there is a small chance that they might appear on the menu at Josephine's in the near future, for the owners are planning to revise it, ousting a fair number of the more Chinese dishes and replacing them with the food that they are more familiar with. It's a move that could reveal even more unexpected pleasures - but I do hope that they don't do away with the lovely expressive language of the fured fat hen.