Popular cuisine in the Philippines is heavily influenced by the vagaries of history more than geography; the colonized adopting the taste of the colonizers.
By fully embracing the tastes of Spain and the U.S.A as if they were beloved guests who have carved out their niche in our hearts and come to stay, Cagayan de Oro is living up to its hospitable reputation as the City of Golden Friendship.
In the eighties, Elpie and Rose Paras had an American style café in the downtown area called Sesame Sandwich Shop. The Italian themed Paolo’s Ristorante of brother Jess and Nena Paras soon followed.
The city has had her own favorites when it comes to indigenized Chinese food, the siopao from VIP Hotel and the pancit at Bagong Lipunan Restaurant in Velez Street. And as with every town, there are well-kept recipes from private kitchens of generations past, only seen at the tables of the old families.
Some of these can be classified as native Filipino cuisine, while others can be traced back to the Spanish influence: carabao milk ice cream, sikwate, binaki, pastillas de leche, banana candies, puto and yema, sans rival, brazo de mercedez, boat tarts, budin, guinamos, fresh water pigok, bihod, and keseo. A few of these local dishes are now available commercially if one knows where to look.
But the culinary landscape of Cagayan de Oro has expanded dramatically and is currently shaped by an array of established restaurants. The small town has transformed herself into a highly urbanized city in the first quarter of the 21st century. In a pre-pandemic government report, she is number 5 in a list of richest cities in the Visayas and Mindanao.
As befitting an urban center with vast culinary offerings, Cagayan de Oro is host to an organized group of restaurateurs and hoteliers called COHARA. One of its member restaurants is a Southeast Asian-themed one known by the catchy name of Thai Me Up. This makes it the perfect opportunity for Kagay-anons to reconnect with the cultures of our geographic neighbors through food.
The steaming plate of Thai bagoong rice before me… The scent of an elusive herb wafts from my stir fried morning glory… I am in awe of the spring rolls diagonally sliced… A delicious filling of mushroom, vegetable, and rice noodles peek out of a crisp roll… Beside it an intricate arrangement of cucumber thinly sliced and shaped into a rosette… I am in Thai Me Up restaurant in Uptown Pueblo, Cagayan de Oro, Philippines…
It was established in 2009 by restaurateur couple Jan Michael Uy and Maggie Uy, with Cathy Dano joining them as a business partner in 2012. In a conversation with Cathy, she shares the excitement of working together with her partners to enhance the bold flavors of Thai dishes while preserving the sense of the traditional.
“We see it as a blessing to be given the chance to share our passion for Thailand and its food. If the act of eating can transport a person to another place, then our goal as a restaurant is to transport you to the streets of Thailand with each dish,” says Cathy.
She mentions the delicate balance of keeping to the authenticity of the dish while being adventurous and modern. She says that this balance is achieved because only the freshest and purest ingredients are used for each dish. “Our restaurant will never compromise on quality,” she emphatically declares.
Thai food is known for the use of culinary herbs and spices, and for fresh and healthy vegetable ingredients. It is also known to be spicy, but Thai Me Up offers customers the option to choose any level of spiciness when making orders.
Behind the Scenes in Restaurant Management During a Worldwide Pandemic
With the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic now on its second year, Thai Me Up’s owners made the decision to close their Centrio Mall branch and reopen in Uptown Pueblo. This stand-alone restaurant at the new location in Pueblo de Oro’s Masterson Mile turned out to be more convenient for families, and for those people who do enjoy eating out, but are cautious about going to a mall these days.
Cathy is quick to reassure that the safety of customers and staff is of the highest priority. “The restaurant,” she says, “already has safety precautions installed at the new venue. And our team is fully vaccinated.”
There is an alfresco area for dine-in customers when health guidelines allow. There is the option for takeout, pick-up orders, and door-to-door deliveries. This can be done with a phone call or a few clicks of the keyboard.
“How is everyone doing?” I ask. “I see this restaurant as a blessing that we share with customers and our staff,” says Cathy. “And we are continuously improving our dishes to be able to serve the best Thai food in town.”
This positive outlook and the willingness to soldier on despite odds is what keeps humanity going. Indeed, Thai Me Up is busy cooking up more of the healthy vegetarian options to add to its menu, “and will be open for breakfast soon,” says Cathy as of this writing.
In anticipation, I look at the food before me and marvel at how similar it looks to Filipino food… The morning glory is locally known as kangkong… Thai spring rolls are fried lumpia, and yet they aren’t…The sweet-spicy sauce is exquisite… The play of sweet but not sugary… The ingredients are so familiar, and yet…The pairing of flavors, the use of certain herbs… The elusive herb is identified as cilantro, a staple of Thai dishes… The balance of taste makes all the difference… I ruminate on the delicate balance of taste…I can’t help but philosophize on the precarious balance of life under COVID…
(photos courtesy of Thai Me Up)