Every time Jennifer Aranas thinks about changing the menu at Rambutan, her restaurant in Chicago, she phones her mother. Aranas explains, "I'll call and say 'Ma, I know how you made pancit for the family in America, but how did you make it in the Philippines? Did you use celery?'"
For Aranas, staying true to her sources is essential as she tweaks the traditional Filipino dishes she grew up with into modern form. She was raised in a Chicago suburb, learning at her mother's side the complicated fusion of Latin and Asian flavors that defines Filipino cuisine. (Aranas's mother, in turn, learned to cook from her mother and grandmother on the island of Cebu, in the Philippines.) Aranas started out working as an accountant but quickly found she wanted a more creative career and enrolled in cooking school. After two years at California restaurants, including Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, immersing herself in the region's ingredient-based cuisine, Aranas returned home to Chicago to open Rambutan with her husband, Cesar. The restaurant, in the rapidly evolving Wicker Park area, is colorful and warm, with a menu of small dishes priced affordably, to encourage experimentation.
The Philippine Islands were a Spanish colony for nearly 400 years, and Chinese traders passed through for centuries; both civilizations left their stamp on the cuisine. Reflecting these varied influences, Rambutan's menu features an array of braised meats and vegetables like pinakbet, a rich stew of okra, sweet potatoes, squash and Asian long beans, and humba, pork braised with Chinese fermented black beans.
Along with phone calls to her mother, Aranas relies on her Filipino cookbook collection; her duck adobo is adapted from an unconventional version of the dish she found in a 1932 cookbook and asked her mother to translate. "Most Filipinos don't make adobo with dates and pineapple," Aranas says, but finding a precedent set her free to try it. She pairs the duck leg adobo with a contemporary treatment--a seared duck breast--for a lush combination of fruity sauce, crisp skin and tender meat.
Another dish she's modified to suit her purposes is beef tapa. In the Philippines, this refers to a kind of beef jerky made by coating the meat with sugar and drying it in the sun. Aranas's version, though, calls for pan-searing thin slices of beef that have been tenderized in a bright marinade of lime juice, chiles, and sugar. Aranas matched the tangy meat with a rich eggplant curry for contrast, and a sellout dish was born.
In the current jumble of pan-Asian and Nuevo-Latino fusion, Aranas's sensible, solid home cooking stands out. Rambutan gives Americans a chance to sample a complex and comforting cuisine that has been missing from even the most cosmopolitan cities. Better still, Mom's approval comes gratis with every meal.