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.