Where: Chibog, 553 Barkly Street West Footscray
What: My favourite reason to visit West Footscray
Who: Proud Perthian, PooPal, Resident Photographer
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
In comparison to the food of its southeast Asian neighbours like Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, the Phillipines – an archipelago comprising over 7,000 (!!) islands – has remained woefully underrepresented in the Australian culinary imagination. Visiting Toronto in 2018 only further underlined this to me – Filipino restaurants were manifold, perhaps owing to the fact that the Canadian Filipino diaspora is the third largest Asian diaspora in the country after Indians and Chinese, and one of the fastest growing groups in Canada. (That the Australian Filipino diaspora is the third largest Asian diaspora in Australia too without the levels of culinary representation found in Canada is interesting to note.)
In this great deep dive piece for Serious Eats, Filipino-American food writer Kristina Razon says many Filipinos find it challenging to encapsulate the essence of their multifaceted cuisine, and attributes this to the mind-boggling array of influences that comprise Filipino cuisine.
‘In her book Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food, food writer and cultural historian Doreen Fernandez attributes the difficulty Filipinos have with describing their cuisine to the many cultural influences Filipinos have adopted as their own. After all, there are dishes with Spanish names like embutido and lechon and dishes with Chinese names like lumpia and pancit, all comfortably coexisting alongside dishes with Indigenous names like kinilaw and sinigang.
‘“The reason for this confusion,” Fernandez says, “is that Philippine cuisine, dynamic as any live and growing phase of culture, has changed through history, absorbing influences, indigenising, adjusting to new technology and tastes, and thus evolving.” Add that to a varied population that’s spread across an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands and it’s no surprise that Filipinos have a hard time distilling a diverse, complex and continually evolving cuisine into a few choice words.’
While in 2018, I would’ve been hard-pressed to name more than one Filipino restaurant in Melbourne, things have changed in the last few years. Serai, a Filipino fine diner, was crowned 2022 Restaurant of the Year by Time Out Melbourne. Filipino ice-creamery Kariton Sorbetes made such a splash when it first opened in Footscray that it has since expanded with a second store in the CBD. The Basement Café, Barkada Pinoy, GJ’s Grill and Inasal Express are expanding the lunchtime dining options of salary workers in the CBD, and in the west, Chibog is doing the same.
Chibog’s menu is a constantly changing one and for the purposes of this review, I’ll be detailing two visits – one last week and the other a year ago, with many of the dishes from my first visit (sadly) no longer on the menu. A lot of Filipino dishes that are traditionally meat-heavy have plant-free equivalents on Chibog’s menu.
For my most recent visit, I went with Proud Perthian and PooPal, who makes her debut on WFYB and is named as such because she’s the only person in my life apart from me who’s as obsessed with poo stories. For our (first) entree, we ordered the lumpiang sariwa ($11) – fresh, crisp farm vegetables encased within a housemade coconut crepe, served with a rich garlic peanut sauce. There are different types of lumpiang – lumpiang Shanghai, for instance, are deep-fried egg rolls that are more reminiscent of your typical Chinese spring roll, but lumpiang sariwa doesn’t get the heat treatment and is eaten fresh.
The coconut crepes had a fragrant floral quality to them, offsetting the savouriness of the sauce, while the crunch of the carrot and cabbage within was a pleasant textural contrast against the pillowy wrappers. These were hard to share in a group because they were difficult to divide without having the fillings fall out, but I’d recommend ordering them nonetheless!
Proud Perthian was keen on the ukoy ($11) – sweet potato, carrot and spring onion fritters, with the option to add school prawns for $3 extra. Ukoy falls into a category of Filipino food known as pulutan, described by Razon in her Serious Eats piece as ‘crunchy, salty and fatty snacks that are best enjoyed with alcohol’. They’re also a popular street food.
‘Traditionally, ukoy feature head-on, unpeeled shrimp for extra crunch but dried shrimp and headless, peeled shrimp can be used too. These fritters come in many different sizes, from large fritters that can be cut up and served family-style to small ones you can polish off in a couple of bites, and contain a medley of vegetables, like sweet potato, cabbage, squash, green papaya, scallions, carrots and bean sprouts.’
My favourite thing about the ukoy – other than its crunchy tempura-like batter, which reminded me of Indian onion pakoda – was the vinegary dipping sauce which I drizzled generously over my parcels of deep-fried vegetables. Vinegar is used liberally in Filipino cuisine, and I very much enjoy the marrying of savoury and sour.
Sisig, despite being a much richer dish and part of Chibog’s mains section, is also considered a pulutan. With origins that trace back to the Filipino culinary capital of Pampanga and traditionally made with finely chopped pig ears, cheeks, snouts and organs which are boiled and then grilled – nothing goes to waste in Filipino cooking – a sisig is typically dressed in soy sauce, vinegar/calamansi juice, chillies and, occasionally, mayonnaise for extra creaminess. While it’s a dish often enjoyed alongside a cold beer, it’s also considered ‘a popular remedy for nausea and hangovers’ – two in one!
While sisig is traditionally made with pork, there are many variations available today – from squid sisig, tuna sisig and chicken sisig to bangus (milkfish) sisig and tahong (mussels) sisig. Chibog does a vegetarian mushroom and tofu sisig ($22) and it is out of this world. Sauteed strips of bouncy black fungus, squares of spongy tofu, sweetened onions and peppers are cooked in a light brown savoury sauce. Chibog’s pork sisig is cooked in a chicken liver reduction, so am not sure what constitutes the vegetarian sauce, but it’s delicious. This is Proud Perthian’s must-order dish every time she’s at Chibog, and it’s an absolute treat when paired with Chibog’s garlic-fried rice in butter ($6).
Chibog’s garlic rice is the simplest thing on the menu yet maybe also my favourite thing. The aroma alone is enough to make me salivate, and I took to eating it by itself and uncovered by sauce because I loved the taste so much. Proud Perthian, PooPal and I shared one among us, but I’m not going to lie, I probably could’ve demolished an entire bowl by myself. Vegans will rejoice to know there’s a vegan garlic rice, presumably cooked with Nuttelex instead of butter. (View my friend Adolfo Aranjuez’s recipe for spamsilog – garlic rice with spam and fried egg – here).
Also absolutely sublime spooned over the garlic rice was Chibog’s seafood Bicol express ($25) – grilled fresh seafood in a rich, creamy, spicy coconut sauce with crunchy battered pumpkin. Bicol express is typically a fiery pork stew enlivened by bagoong alamang (shrimp paste) and more chillies than meat but in Chibog’s iteration, the pork was swapped out with seafood. While the generous proportion of shell-on prawns was the first bit of seafood I spotted, the curry was swimming with calamari and mussels.
The Bicol province in the Philippines is known for the Mayon Volcano and its mouth-numbingly spicy food. No doubt dialled down for its audience, Chibog’s seafood bicol express had a pleasant level of heat, but wasn’t as spicy as its traditional forebears. While made in the traditional Bicolano style, bicol express is said to have been named by a chef from the Laguna region, Cely Kalaw, who made the dish during a cooking competition in the 1970s in Manila. The dish was named after the Bicol Express railway train that operated behind Kalaw’s restaurant. Bicol express bears resemblance to a traditional Bicolano dish called gulay na may lada.
Cutting through the strong flavours was the mansanas crunchy salad ($12) – a textural salad of crunchy wombok, crisp green apple, jalapenos, chives and coriander dressed in a palm sugar and sukang lloko (naturally fermented sugarcane) vinaigrette. ‘Mansana’ translates from Spanish to mean apple, and the bright, fresh crispness of the strips of apple were the perfect foil to the richer dishes we’d ordered.
Proud Perthian, PooPal and I had the best meal at Chibog, only the second time we’d visited together since March 2022, when we went with Resident Photographer.
That time, we ordered far more dishes because we had a fourth person. First up were the chibok bok ($15) – crispy fried chicken wings drenched in a sweet, spicy glaze. The blistered chicken wing skin was the perfect receptacle for the flavoursome sauce coating it, and with ten pieces between the four of us, we didn’t have to fight each other for them. This is sadly not on the current menu, and the same goes for the Pancit Malabon we ordered – thick rice noodles coated in a smoky pork and prawn sauce topped with crunchy chicharon and spring onions.
Pancit falls into the fiesta food category – that is, dishes typically prepared for large gatherings, a cornerstone of Filpino culture. No Filipino fiesta is complete without a large platter of noodles, which is where pancit comes in. There are many types of pancit, but Pancit Malabon and Pancit Palabok are similar. Both feature a pork and seafood sauce steeped in incredibly umami prawn stock, but where Pancit Malabon uses thick tubular rice noodles, Pancit Palabok uses thin rice noodles called bihon. Malabon is a coastal suburb in Manila and owing to this, Pancit Malabon can feature more seafood than a Pancit Palabok – think crab fat, shrimp, smoked fish flakes, squid, oysters and mussels. Chibog’s had fresh prawns and the simplicity of the dish’s appearance belied its complex flavours, with the silky, savoury sauce just enough to coat the strands of noodles rather than acting like a broth.
On our first visit to Chibog, we had the traditional pork sisig ($23) – triple-cooked sizzling crispy pork with onions, chilli, lime, chicharon in a rich liver sauce. Because we had this meal a year ago, my dining companions couldn’t remember much about it other than how good this sisig tasted.
This time to cut through the richness of everything, we had the singkamas crunchy salad ($11) – equally as refreshing as the mansanas crunchy salad, except the strips of apple were replaced with jicama.
What I found most fascinating while researching Filipino cuisine is that because the idea of courses don’t exist in Filipino cuisine, desserts are consumed at any time of the day and alongside savoury dishes rather than as an adjunct at the end of a meal.
Enter Chibog’s excellent desserts. Desserts aren’t often the highlight for my savoury-leaning tastebuds, but I remember Chibog’s hitting it out of the park. The first time we visited, the crispy leche flan – rich, fudgy housemate leche flan wrapped in spring roll pastry and fried till crisp, served with ube (purple yam) gelato – was on the menu. Brought by the colonising Spaniards, leche flan is a dense custard rich with egg yolks. Resident Photographer loved the ube gelato in particular.
Luckily the sans rival cake ($12) – a slice of gelato cake layered with chewy cashew biscuit, roasted cashew praline, brown butter gelato and candied cashew nuts – still is on the menu.
I’d be lying if I said I remember how bloated this meal made me a year ago, but it kick-started a high bloat-scoring week this time, so I’m according it three bloats. I felt fine immediately after, but by the next morning, it was clear to me and my stomach that the meal was a bloaty one. It doesn’t matter, because I plan to revisit sooner than this time next year.
Chibog is open from 5.30pm to 9.30pm Tuesday to Thursday, 5pm to 10pm on Friday, 5pm to 10.30pm on Saturday, and 5pm to 9.30pm on Sunday.