Filipino-Australian actress and ‘The Unusual Suspects’ star Michelle Vergara Moore talks about her brand-new series, the importance of food and family and chicken adobo.
By
Mark Mariano

26 May 2021 - 4:26 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2021 - 10:20 AM

 --- The Unusual Suspects premieres Thursday, June 3 at 8:30 pm on SBS, with the full series also available then at SBS On Demand (full-series drop) ---

 

I always get goosebumps whenever I meet another Filipino person.

Of all places and times to meet, we aren't back in our homeland at my Lolo’s rice paddock, or at their Tita’s lolly stall. Instead, I am sitting across from Michelle Vergara Moore at Sydney's SBS studios ahead of her new series, The Unusual Suspects coming to SBS and SBS On Demand on Thursday, June 3.

Filipina actress from Sale, Victoria, Vergara Moore opens up about her upbringing, her culture, and her favourite homeland dishes. She plays Roxanne Waters, a formidable Filipino-born Australian businesswoman whose AU$16 million necklace is stolen in a formulated heist. 

While the show’s thrill and edge comes from its high-stakes drama and 'Ocean’s Eight' vibes, The Unusual Suspects biggest driver is - unsurprisingly - family. ‘It’s about the sacrifices we make for our loved ones.’ the actress says humbly.

Being Filipino, it’s not unusual being privy to the joys of the corny chip packets and the sweet bread, so handing Michelle an array of Filipino snacks, Skyflakes and Polvoron, immediately broke the ice. The series, which has complete scenes in Tagalog, heroes Filipino culture in all its complex glory. "I knew what [the role] would mean for the zeitgeist; for the representation and diversity. It is so important for this story to be told and for the Filipino community to see themselves mirrored on screen, and for Westerners to see what we’re about - past the karaoke and the entertainment." Vergara Moore expresses her delight in just how important it is to her to be a part of something like this. "I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for such a long time… [the crew] didn’t shy away from how colourful and vibrant and big Filipino culture can be. There’s no lens."

The actress adores how the four-parter presents the Filipino-Australian community as it truly is: loving, flamboyant, and hard-working. 

Vergara Moore recalls auditioning for her character Roxanne, and despite her immense desire to get the gig. " I wanted to make sure it was definitely a Filipino. Whoever they choose, that was fine, it just had to be authentic. This is so important for representation - just to have this story told with the food and the balikbayan boxes." 

When workshopping Roxanne, Vergara Moore listened to tapes, watched many a teleserye (Filipino television drama series), and checked in with her parents, who came to Australia in the '70s. "I spoke to them a lot about their experiences migrating. We still have heaps of relatives back home, and my parents continue to send money back - it’s always been a thing," she laments, giving insight to The Unusual Suspects intricate plot. "I really drew inspiration from how hard they worked - the menial labour and the sacrifice of leaving their family behind."

Michelle Vergara Moore with her mum

Food, family and THE fight scene *spoiler alert*

Food is undeniably one of the largest pillars of Filipino culture, and it plays an intentional role in The Unusual Suspects. It’s integral to who we are as people; we’re really passionate about our food - territorial almost. Filipino favourites are sprinkled throughout the show - Boy Bawang, a garlic snack, kutsinta, a soft coconut dessert, and in this outward food fight scene - palabok. 

"We did that all in one take", she happily explains. "Food fights are fun, and you never really get to do it in real life. I remember that first throw of the noodles - there was actual real surprise and shock on Lena’s (Ami’s) face. It was amazing… and then she started whipping me with the green onion stalks and it was like I was getting hit by sapatos (shoes) or tsinelas (slippers) or the walis ting ting (sweep)."

Fast Round: Plate or Pass

Would you eat it? Or would you pass?

  1. Balut (boiled duck egg embryo) - Pass

  2. Durian (tropical fruit) - Plate 

  3. Dinuguan (pig’s blood stew) - Pass 

  4. Sisig (pig offal stirfry) - Plate, but only if it’s barbecued and crispy!

Filipino mums in the kitchen

Vergara Moore talks about Jeepney, a Filipino restaurant in New York she had frequented with her husband and fellow actor, Toby Leonard Moore (Billions, John Wick) pre-COVID. "They had these Spam fries. I had it with a beer and it was so nice!" Her mum didn’t have any Spam at home, so, unable to trial it, she decided to give us something closer to home. 

"It’s probably the first thing I remember eating in terms of Filipino food. That and pancit." She had certainly struck a chord with this pancit-lover. "It was always at every party and my Mum would still bring some even when there were already so many other dishes."

Pancit at home
Passing down love-filled Filipino noodles through the generations
Pancit bihon reminds me that I can access the love of my grandma anytime, just by making a bowl of Filipino rice noodles.

There are two types of Filipino mums in the kitchen; the one who teaches through patience and kindness, and the one who teaches with guilt and shame. "She was more the former,' says Vergara Moore with great fondness.

"It’s [adobo] real comfort food - my Mum would cook with such love and she’s very proud of the way she cooks. Every Filipino mum thinks their dishes are the best." With her Mum’s adobo, however, Vergara Moore explains, "she does this very cool thing where she fries some extra garlic separately, so that it retains its crisp, and adds it to the dish."

Traditional recipes have it just in the marinade and in Vergara Moore’s eyes, "There’s no such thing as too much garlic" and we can’t argue with that.


 

Mum's chicken adobo recipe

Serves 4

This is my darling mum’s Adobong Manok (Chicken Adobo) recipe. Growing up, I have visceral memories of either Chicken Adobo or Pancit Canton being served for dinner at home or on special occasions. Every Filipina Mum thinks her Adobo is the best, so of course, my mum’s recipe IS the best! The simple combination of vinegar, soy sauce, black pepper, and garlic is unlike any dish I’ve ever had. My mum’s secret tip (not anymore!) is frying off some crushed garlic until brown and crispy, then adding it to the chicken right at the end. The end result is pure comfort food and I’m so pleased and proud to share it with you.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup of soy sauce (not dark soy sauce)
  • 4 cloves of crushed garlic
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 kg of skinless, bone-in chicken ‘Maryland’ pieces (drumsticks & thighs)
  • 3 tbsp of canola or vegetable oil
  • 2 dry bay leaves
  • 4 extra cloves of crushed garlic
  • sliced spring onion for garnish
  • steamed white rice to serve

Instructions

  1. For the marinade, combine the apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, 4 cloves of crushed garlic and pepper in a bowl. Add the chicken pieces and coat well in the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight, to get those flavours right into the chicken.
  2. Remove chicken from the fridge, at least 15 minutes before cooking.
  3. In a hot frypan, add 1 tbsp of oil and fry the remaining 4 crushed cloves of garlic until brown and crispy (but not burnt!). Remove garlic from frypan, drain on a paper towel, and set aside for later.
  4. Add 2 tbsp of the oil to the same frypan, ensuring it’s heated very hot! Remove chicken from the marinade (reserve it!) and sear the chicken in the frypan until the pieces are lightly browned all over.
  5. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the reserved marinade and the bay leaves into the pan. Cover and simmer the chicken for 25-30 minutes until cooked through, stirring 3 or 4 times throughout.
  6. After the chicken is cooked, remove it from the sauce and keep warm. Reduce the sauce on medium to high heat for around 5 minutes, until it’s quite thick and syrupy.
  7. Return chicken and the reserved fried garlic from Step 3 to the pan. Mix well to combine everything in the saucy glaze. Serve hot over steamed white rice with plenty of sauce and garnish with the sliced spring onion.

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