There will never be a clearer sign for a new beginning than a sunrise. It signals a new cycle. The rooster may crow, the sound of tricycles may rev up for early commuters, and the gentle flurry of people getting ready for the day may be heard in this hilly area near Daang Hari.
For Rap Cristobal and Marion Paggao, they find themselves making baos and dumplings in the early morning for their unassuming new restaurant Crouching Mama. And yes, it was partly inspired by the 2000 Ang Lee film.
Cristobal prepares the soup stock made with star anise, cloves, and bay leaf for their beef noodle soup. He also readies the sauces they will need such as their sinamak, a slightly sweet and tart version of the vinegar condiment that goes so well with their prawn crackers.
Everything is homemade here—from the chili oil and buns to the thick meticulously handmade dumpling wrappers. The only thing they can’t make yet is their noodles.
“Coming from Purple Yam Malate, we’ve learned that making your own sauces and bread pays off. Maybe soon we can start making our own noodles when we move into a bigger place,” Rap says.
Cristobal recently finished his seven-and-a-half-year run as head chef of Purple Yam Malate, the restaurant established by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan in Besa’s 72-year-old ancestral home along Bocobo St. that has famously championed local ingredients.
The power of purple
Cristobal was in charge of going to the market, planning the menu, and running the kitchen. His time under the mentorship of Besa and Dorotan created—and left—quite the impression on the young chef.
“I will always be proud of being able to work at Purple Yam Malate. They were able to share with me their principles and way of thinking. They were really good to me. That’s why I stayed for so long.”
“I will always be proud of being able to work at Purple Yam Malate. They were able to share with me their principles and way of thinking. They were really good to me. That’s why I stayed for so long,” says Rap Cristobal.
Paggao is also a Purple Yam Malate alumna and credits the fabled restaurant for her decision to return to the kitchen.
“I also used to work at Purple Yam Malate for three years,” she says. “Before that I used to work for other restaurants but instead of being in the kitchen, I was mostly doing admin work. I was scared that I forgot how to cook. So when I started working at Purple Yam, I regained my confidence in cooking in the kitchen again. I thought, ‘Ah! I can still do this!’ They helped me realize that.”
A new ‘crouching’ chapter
Crouching Mama is a big shift from what Cristobal and Paggao were used to at Purple Yam Malate. It’s casual, its price points are more accessible (no dish is above P200), it’s small (only a 26-square-meter footprint that was previously a salon), and it’s relatively quieter (located in the suburbs right outside of Alabang).
Here, however, the duo gets to do what they haven’t been able to do during the pandemic—cook in front of people. Crouching Mama finds the couple, especially Cristobal, back in their natural element of serving dishes inside their 11-seater restaurant.
Crouching Mama is a big shift from what they were used to at Purple Yam Malate. It’s casual, its price points are more accessible (no dish is above P200), it’s small (only a 26-square-meter footprint that was previously a salon), and it’s relatively quieter (located in the suburbs right outside of Alabang).
“The food is so different when you dine in versus when you have the food delivered. We’ve had customers that had our food delivered to them and when they finally came into our restaurant and ate it here, they were so happy and said that it was so much fresher. There was a difference,” says Paggao, referencing the freshly steamed baos as an example, which is toasted right before serving compared to its tendencies to harden while en route for delivery.
An Asian sensation in the south
When creating the menu at Crouching Mama, Cristobal considered three things: “What [do] Marion and I want to do or cook? Is it something we personally like to eat? Second, is it something people in the community will understand or would be willing to try? Third, is it doable in our kitchen with the equipment we have?”
The menu is short, reminiscent of small Hong Kong food stalls in train stations Cristobal has enjoyed in the past. The crab-udon has thick udon noodles hiding under a thick chili crab sauce, egg, and vegetables with pickled chili to cut through the richness of the sauce.
It’s an unusual combination but it works, and the udon becomes a great vehicle for the flavorful crab sauce. It’s also well-suited to the fried mantou that uses the same chili crab sauce as a dip. The homemade mantou is golden and crispy, revealing a soft and fluffy interior when torn.
“We didn’t want our menu to be typical Chinese,” says Cristobal, highlighting the deeper Asian ties their menu has with the Japanese udon, Indonesian pancit goreng, and Thai curry chicken.
The pork dumplings, meanwhile, use a homemade wrapper that is heftier than commercially available ones. It’s a welcome quality that adds depth and more bite to catch more of the soy-sesame sauce.
“The pork dumplings weren’t originally part of the menu. So a day before opening, we thought about trying to make dumplings and we quickly did R&D and came up with different sauces until we were happy. When we posted it on Instagram, we received so many orders,” Paggao reveals.
Since their opening in late January 2022, the two have already had their fair share of regulars—most of whom are in awe at how low the prices are for the quality of the food. Some nights the couple even share drinks and stories with customers and it’s this bond over food that makes all the hard work worth it.
Crouching Mama is still far in concept and stature from the legendary restaurant the two used to find themselves in, but Cristobal finds comfort in the fact that they are following their heart and gut on this new venture.
“Be sure of what you want to do and go for it. You’re never really ready until you’re there,” he says.
It’s another day and a new beginning—and this time it’s finally their own.