Maharlika, in contemporary Tagalog, means nobility or aristocracy, though in pre-colonial Philippines, it referred to a lower class that served the datu or chieftain during times of war. The term gained its current connotation during the Marcos era when patriotism was promoted. Student of Philippine history and culture Paul Morrow writes
“Maharlika culture” was his (Marcos) propaganda tool for promoting nationalism during the days of the “New Society.” The word became very fashionable and was used in naming streets, buildings, banquet halls, villages and cultural groups. Marcos named a highway, a broadcast company and the reception area of Malacañang Palace, Maharlika. He even toyed with the idea of renaming the whole country as Maharlika.
However one would like to consider the word, it is with apparent pride that Nicole Ponseca, Enzo Lim and Miguel Trinidad named their pop-up restaurant in New York City‘s East Village Maharlika . They wanted to make Filipino cuisine available once more to Manhattanites and in a form worthy of the trendy and finicky. After all, Filipino food as offered by most places in the United States is not exactly the most attractive and distinctive.
As my childhood pal, George Gozum, gushed after our brunch
Possibly the best Filipino brunch I’ve had in NYC, because they really ‘got’ the concept of an American brunch, but with Filipino dishes that had a level of authenticity that few other pinoy restos in Manhattan achieved. And it was packed! Maharlika mastermind Nicole Ponseca’s done it right.
The food is excellent. I had the Eggs Imelda, chef Trinidad’s take on Eggs Florentine, with laing instead of spinach, underneath two poached eggs, on pan de sal, with grilled prawns and a sweet potato hash and side salad. The presentation is worthy of the woman of a thousand shoes.
Trinidad masterfully balances authenticity with creativity. The laing tasted as it should but rather than a gloppy green mess (think saag paneer), I got delicately julienned tarot leaves peeking underneath perfectly poached eggs. It was a brilliant combination – the creamy yolk tempered the heat of the laing.
George had sisig – pork ears and jowl, boiled, chopped then marinated – better known in Philippine beer gardens and ordinarily served sizzling and spattering on platters. He got his portion in a cast iron skillet topped with an egg.
Maharlika opened less than two week ago and has become the latest thing. It is packed not mainly by Filipinos seeking comfort in familiar tastes and smells, but by New Yorkers of various races and ethnicities. A Malaysian friend who has been a number of times since its opening had to settle for a seat at the bar since he had no reservations. Two gorgeous Carribean young women asked about the calamansi mimosa. A few tables over a mixed group of fashionistas tasted each other’s plate.
I always believed that Filipino cuisine has its place in the food scene. Maharlika confirms my faith and pride. I hope that it’s here to stay.
Photo by Yvette Santos Cuenco.