By Hiedi Ermitaño
“I do not want to be called a chef.” Sonny Trias Lua of Asiong Caviteño Restaurant told us directly, his expressive eyes conveying a truth he believes to the core.
“Wala akong formal training, kahit isang cooking class. Para sa akin, ang chef yung nag-aral talaga. Ang training ko yung nakikita ko sa lola at mother ko since batang-bata pa ako.” How then is he able to deliver dishes that awaken the palate to the relatively unknown culinary wonders from his native hometown of Cavite City? The proud Caviteño smiled quietly and revealed that his motivation is to promote the beauty of Caviteño cuisine, and perhaps more poignantly, honor the legacy of his mother, grandmother and aunts who were quite popular kusineras of Cavite.
In 1920, his maternal grandmother, Jacinta Arcita Nocon, and her cousins were popularly known as the kusineras (cooks) of Salinas (the old name of Rosario, Cavite). Lua said that cooking was just a hobby for his maternal grandmother and cousins, and not really a source of income. They cooked for the family and were often invited to cook for the clan’s big parties. Lua reminisced that his family knew how to preserve food and use traditional cooking methods to create food that lasts. This practice was handed down from his grandmother and his cousins to Lua’s mother, Crisanta Trias and her cousins, and eventually to himself.
Sonny Lua inherited Asiong Caviteño Restaurant from his parents in the year 2000 and has single-handedly continued the business operations for the last 18 years. He is committed to follow the tradition that Asiong has been known for the past 58 years– to serve authentic Caviteño cuisine instead of the more expansive Filipino cuisine. “I don’t have any pretentions that I will cook dishes outside of Cavite. Everything that I use are all products of Cavite. Ako kasi, whatever is in season gagamitin ko. At saka ang mantra ko, ‘If it’s edible, I will cook it. If it’s potable, I will make it into a drink.’ Gusto ko i-harness yung potential ng lugar,” he explained.
Asiong Caviteño Restaurant, nestled in the upland Cavite town of Silang is a rustic food haven serving family heritage recipes and traditional Caviteño dishes. Food that brings us back to the old times and makes us remember our ancestors.
Lua recounted how their unassuming family restaurant started by accident. When a great fire razed a big part of Cavite City, neighbors affected by the fire started dining at Lua’s home, drawn by the incredible home cooked meals made by the women of Lua’s family. Before long, more people from farther areas made sure to stop by their place before going back to wherever home is. In 1960, a carinderia named Asiong De Cavite was established, named after, Lua’s father, Ignacio Lua, or Asiong, who ran the business with his wife. “My father decided to close his barber shop para matulungan nya ang mother ko and cousins nya dahil maganda ang relationship nya with them,” Lua said.
Even without culinary education, cooking is really in Lua’s genes.
Armed with a degree in interior design, Lua worked as a designer in Makati but frequently came home to Cavite. Truly a Caviteño to the bone, Lua cannot imagine being away from his beloved hometown and family, especially his mother who was sick and did not like him being so far. When she passed away after a long and courageous fight against cancer, Lua decided to continue the legacy started by his grandmother and upheld with fierceness by his mother. “I was forced by circumstances dahil when she passed away, walang magpapatuloy talaga ng tindahan. I have to continue the legacy. Tatlo kaming magkakapatid and I am the youngest. Perhaps ang mga nanay, they know best. Alam ng nanay ko kung kanino nya iiwan ang tindahan kasi at that time, lola na ang mga kapatid ko and siguro inisip ng nanay na baka ma-divide ang atensyon ng mga kapatid ko between family and tindahan. Pinipilit nya palagi na sa akin din ang tindahan. Hindi ko alam, siguro may nakita syang something sa akin. And everything started from there.”
He recounted a childhood story that may have given his mother a strong feeling that she can entrust him with Asiong after she is gone. “Kwento ng mother ko, 5 years old pa lang ako noon. Naiwan nya ako sa kitchen kasi may bisitang dumating. Pag balik nya, nagulat siya kasi nahiwalay na ang egg whites sa yolk. Eh kami lang dalawa ang nasa bahay noon. Kaya alam nya, ako ang gumawa noon,” Lua shared. Definitely, watching his mother work around the kitchen is the best training he received. His cooking skill is best characterized as organic, authentic and artistic. To this day, Lua never writes down the recipes served at Asiong. Everything is committed to his heart and he teaches his staff the same way his mother taught him: by example.
When asked why he chose to move Asiong from its original location in Cavite City to Silang in 2016, he wanted to remain competitive on his terms. When big-name dining establishments and fast food restaurant chains crowded Cavite City, Lua decided to move to a quieter and more relaxed area and go very traditional. “Naging challenge ang pagpasok ng modernization sa Cavite City. Yung carienderia namin hindi airconditioned at halos napagitnaan na kami. It dawned on me that I cannot fight the big corporations. But I’ll fight back at my own pace by going very traditional. Saka napansin ko din yung generation ngayon, hindi na nila alam yung mga traditional Caviteño food. But these are the kinds of food that nourished my ancestors, walang chemicals and preservatives. They do things traditionally. Saka di naman ako chef, bakit ako makikipaglaban? I’m just here to perpetuate my family’s legacy. Sa amin, family style dining and my plates have volumes of history,” he explained. By serving the kind of food that has nourished his family for generations, Lua is preserving the traditions that has his ancestors have employed in the kitchen. “I want to continue my family’s legacy with food that made my ancestors the kind of good people that they were,” he said, believing that food and culture go hand in hand.
His efforts were recognized when he was invited to join other chefs to promote CALABARZON in the first Madrid Fusion Manila in 2015, the first and only Asian edition of the most important gastronomy event in the world. It was February 2015 when his best friend, the food writer Ige Ramos, who also hails from Cavite City, called to say that he was invited to join the prestigious event where he presented his creation, Huevos de Pescao. “Malay ko ba kung ano yun. Kasi ako pinapakialaman ko lang yung sarili kong ginagawa. Hindi ako nakikipag compete. When I took over Asiong in 2000, gusto ko lang may vindication ang Cavite cuisine at saka yung legacy ng family ko. So I never imagined na tatawagin akong chef or ma-invite in anything. I was the only nonchef present noong general assembly meeting and I introduced myself, ‘Hi, I’m Sonny. I’m not a restaurateur but a carinderiateur,’” he told us with a laugh.
In 2016, Asiong participated again in Madrid Fusion Manila as a representative of the Philippines in the International Category. He was part of the team of the famed food writer JJ Yulo, curator of Pinoy Eats World, who became a fan of Lua upon tasting the Caviteño’s leche flan in a private party a few years earlier. In 2017, Lua welcomed to Asiong the international chefs who were part of the 3rd Madrid Fusion Manila. In his humble restaurant now located in Silang, Cavite, Lua showcased his crowd favorites — Pancit Pusit, Leche Flan and Caviteño Cheesecake.
Lunch that day was when I fell in love with Caviteño cuisine starting with Asiong’s signature dish Pancit Pusit, an enticingly fragrant heaping of pancit bihon noodles soaked in squid ink and topped with seafood, kamias, chicharon and other vegetables. Sporting darker lips and tongues was a nonissue when the taste was so vibrant on the tongue. Binagoongan Gulay was the Caviteño’s version of pinakbet topped with different vegetables. Next was the all-time favorite Fried Chicken, the dish that started it all for Asiong. The coating was very light, it was super crispy but tender and juicy inside. “Yung timpla ng chicken namin is what made us. Dito nag-umpisa ang munting carinderia ng pamilya. When people started coming to us to be fed after the fire in the city, na-inspire na yung family ko na i-full time na yung business. Tutal, parati naman sila nagluluto,” Lua shared. The health conscious in our lunch table enjoyed the seasonal Paco Salad (ingredients were supplied by the nearby farm, Taniman sa Pook). It was drizzled with homemade dressing, topped with edible flowers, organic tomatoes, white onions, lettuce, carrots, salted egg with fresh black peppers and parmesan cheese. We were also delighted with Lua’s Roselle Juice. It tasted like cranberry and raspberry, made with antioxidant-rich roselle from the Lucciole farm, lemon balm and tanglad mixed with stevia and honey complemented our delicious heritage dishes. Roselle juice is now my favorite drink of all time.
The star of the dessert offering was the three-layer All Star Caviteño Cheesecake, created by Lua himself. Naturally, all ingredients came from Cavite as well- jacobina from Mendez, tablea chocolate from Alfonso, coffee from Amadeo, cream cheese and carabao milk from Tanza and Malabon (the old name of General Trias). It was heaven at first bite. We also got to try the popular Leche Flan: so light, smooth and creamy.
I highly recommend that you drop by their pasalubong corner. This County store is full of unique and delectable goodies to bring home: salted egg potato chips, kapeng barako with toasted rice, greaseless chicharon, kesong puti or Quesillo as it is called in Cavite city, fresh greens, vine-ripened tomatoes and many more unique items from the province of Cavite. “Itong pasalubong area, lahat ng may labels ng Asiong, lahat yan gawa ko na natutunan ko lang sa family ko and nagawa ko na. Then the rest are all products of Cavite. Tapos yung ginagawa kong Ube Leche Flan was voted as one of the Philippines’ Best Pasalubong by the Food Magazine last June 2017.”
Unapologetically proud of his family’s heritage and contributions to upholding Caviteño cuisine. Singular minded in promoting the understated culinary gems of his native hometown. Unfailingly honest about his lack of formal training. Firm in his belief that only those with proper training and education deserve to be called “chef ”. Passionate and dedicated about creating food that showcase the best of Cavite. Sonny Trias Lua is all that, and he is the heart and soul of Asiong.
“I don’t want to be called a celebrity chef because I believe that I’m still a work in progress.” Lua said emphatically. I dare say his grandmother and mother are very happy with how things are turning out.
If you would like to meet this talented man or discover excellent dishes that come straight from the heart, visit Asiong Caviteño Restaurant at 4455 Buena Vista Avenue, Bo. Bucal Silang, 4118, Cavite. They’re open at 8:00 a.m-9:00 p.m on weekdays and 6:00 p.m-10:00 p.m on weekends. For more information and reservations, please call 0926.713.9400 or 0918.565.2691. Please message them on Facebook: @AsiongSilangCavite.