What motivated four-year-old Will Mahusay to visit the Carbon wet markets in the Philippines' Cebu City with his paternal grandma, Amah? It wasn’t the colourful stalls selling fresh meat, seafood and greens, nor was it the chance to spend time one-on-one with Amah.
“I knew when I went she would buy me lollies. I’ve always had a sweet tooth,” says Mahusay, who currently runs Sydney Cebu Lechon in Sydney's Newtown.
But if lollies were the impetus, it didn’t stay that way. Soon, Mahusay began looking forward to the daily outings.
“I got really close to my grandma, and years of going to the markets with her helped developed my love for food. She would buy everything fresh from the markets every day, and then put out a huge spread at home.”
Mahusay’s Amah and Angkong (grandpa) arrived in Cebu during the Second Sino-Japanese War, having escaped the Japanese occupation of their province of Fujian in southern China. They came with two sons, and left behind two daughters.
“They fled their home town and a boat took them to the Philippines. When they were established, they had my dad. He was born in Cebu.”
Amah mastered Filipino cooking, but her repertoire still included ingredients and recipes from her native China. For example, humba, a slow-cooked pork or chicken adobo dish, has the hallmark Filipino flavours of garlic and vinegar alongside star anise and fermented black beans.
“I remember the aroma of five-spice [powder] all around the house. It was very strong because the humba was slow-cooked, so this punchy aroma would be channelled all through the house,” he says.
“Eating at our house it was like at yum cha: there was a lazy Susan in the middle of a round table and we would have multiple dishes like fried rice with lap cheong (Chinese sausage), and broths with herbal roots that had medicinal properties.”
For the first 10 years of his life, Mahusay didn’t have much exposure to his mum’s Filipino family as most of them had migrated to Australia. Then in 1987, Will joined them when he moved to Sydney with his siblings and parents. Ironically, it was the act of leaving the Philippines that connected him with his Filipino heritage and family.
“Eating at our house it was like at yum cha: there was a lazy Susan in the middle of a round table and we would have multiple dishes."
“My mum’s family is huge. Between my first cousins, aunties and uncles, there are 190 of us here in Sydney. I remember my Lola (maternal grandma) would cook up a storm for gatherings on Saturdays or Sundays. She was like a one-woman machine, cutting veggies and preparing meat. She would make her famous biko (caramelised sticky rice), adobo, dinuguan (offal stew), paksiw na baboy (pork stew with vinegar). I don’t know how she did it all.”
Although they lived surrounded by family in a Filipino community in Sydney’s west, Mahusay’s parents often missed the life they led in Cebu.
“My mum spent 30 years living in Cebu. She was bound to get homesick. And my dad was in a tougher situation – he had no family here,” he says.
“To ease their homesickness, they began cooking Cebu lechon, a Cebu-style whole roast suckling pig for family gatherings. The roast became so well known in the community, people began to request it for their events.”
The resulting business, Sydney Cebu Lechon, became a weekend project for Mahusay’s parents. As an adult, he took it on full time and opened an eatery. He could have opened Cebu Lechon in a “safe” suburb like Blacktown, where the Filipino community is large and the customer base would be familiar with the cuisine, but instead, he chose Newtown.
“If I opened in Blacktown, my restaurant could have been a dime a dozen. I thought why not take a risk? I knew I would stand out if I was the only Filipino eatery in Newtown, and that would help me promote Filipino cuisine in non-Filipino communities.”
The restaurant menu is deliberately limited to a handful of delicious dishes, among them Amah’s humba as a way to pay homage to his formative years growing up in Cebu. Amah passed away in 1990, but every time he goes back to Cebu, Mahusay visits the same market he and Amah frequented 40 years ago.
“When I walk through there, I have so many memories. The environment hasn’t changed. There are new stallholders, but the smell, the layout, it’s what I recall every time I cook humba. It sends me back to my childhood years and I think of my grandma bringing home the ingredients to cook the dish.”
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Will Mahusay’s chicken humba (braised soy chicken)
This is the restaurateur's interpretation of his grandma's recipe and omits the five-spice powder and fermented black beans.
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 1 red or brown onion, cut into wedges
- 150 g crushed garlic
- 5 star anise pieces
- 3 bay leaves
- 200 ml hot water
- 125 ml cane vinegar (you can substitute with white vinegar if not available)
- 80 ml dark soy sauce
- 10 chicken drumette pieces (free-range chicken is recommended)
- 5 tbsp brown sugar
- Boiled jasmine or basmati rice, to serve
1. Add oil to a 5-litre (or larger) stockpot on medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the onion, garlic, star anise and bay leaves and sauté until the garlic and onions are browned.
2. Add the hot water, vinegar and dark soy sauce to the pot and stir the ingredients to combine. Turn the heat to high and bring the pot to boil. Cover the pot with a lid and let the pot boil for 4 minutes.
3. Remove the lid and add the chicken drumettes and brown sugar and stir for 1 minute to combine all the ingredients. Return the lid to the stockpot and let it boil for 9 minutes on high heat (make sure to check the pot every few minutes and stir ingredients).
4. Bring the heat down to low-medium heat and let the chicken continue to slow cook for another 10 minutes.
5. Transfer meat and broth to a serving bowl. Served with boiled rice.
Unlike other chicken soup recipes, Filipino native chicken soup, or binakol, is made using coconut water instead of plain water or stock.
Sinigang is a popular Filipino soup with a trademark sour flavour. It can be made with meat or fish, like this recipe.