Often, to understand the present, you need to look back at the past.
That, to this writer's mind, is the main takeaway from "Makati's Sulô: Where Taste Was Style" by Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio. Described by Dr. Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo — former director of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies — as "both social history and personal memoir," "Sulô" chronicles the rise and fall of one of Makati City's premier restaurants. Additionally, the book contains 45 pages worth of recipes near the end, so if you feel the need to recreate Sulô's iconic delights for yourself, you have the means to do so.
At this point, you might be thinking: "Why read this book? Why should we care about a (presumably) old woman who's basically reminiscing about the long-gone past?" Well, as we've mentioned earlier, there's a lot of history in this book. And not just any history, mind you: It's the history of Makati City, and as far as this writer knows, there's almost no existing material on that topic at all. If you know of any materials that fully document the history of the aforementioned city, feel free to share them in the comments section.
As a Personal Memoir
When you read a memoir, you expect a certain level of self-indulgence from the author. And "Sulô" is no different: Mrs. Panlilio liberally sprinkles her text with the names of larger-than-life personalities during the Marcos presidency. Sometimes, it gets to the point when the book throws so many names at you, you can barely remember who's who anymore. To her credit, however, Mrs. Panlilio does remind you when, for example, she's talking about the "Concepcions of Carrier air conditioner fame" or "Glenda Rosales (later Barretto)."
Other than that, the book is quite entertaining to read. Contrary to what you'd expect of this kind of book, Mrs. Panlilio does not gloss over the bad times. Yes, she often goes into excruciating detail about how the Sulô restaurant served Mr/Ms. Big-Name So-and-So. But she doesn't hold back either when relating incidents like petty thefts by staff (which is to be expected in a restaurant that uses tons of fancy silverware and cloths) and the 1977 fire that nearly destroyed their entire business.
Mrs. Panlilio also remembers to tell the stories of those who built the restaurant into what it became. There are the numerous foreign chefs who introduced their country's cuisines into the menu, as well as the faithful Filipino waiters who rescued the restaurant's belongings when they were caught in the fire. Clearly, the author is grateful to be associated with these awesome people.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Philippine culture, the book also provides insight into the same. For example, it's considered good luck to hold wedding receptions in the morning, while it's bad luck to push on with any non-religious affairs during Holy Week. There's plenty more where these came from, if you squint.
As Social History
As we said earlier, "Sulô" covers some of the history of Makati City. Mrs. Panlilio kicks off the book with an account on how Col. Jaime Velasquez — who helped develop Makati City — challenged her family to create a "high class" restaurant that "should serve the good food that the D&E (restaurant in Quezon City) had come to be known for." To motivate them, the ex-colonel promised not to allow any competing businesses within the city. (He would eventually break this promise after three years.) So they proposed a restaurant named "Sulô" (the Bulaqueño word for "torch"), and the rest is history.
Since the Sulô restaurant's heyday coincided with the Marcos presidency, the book also offers a look into a different — though expected — side of that era. Celebrities, politicians and other members of the elite would flock to the Sulô to drown their cares in alcohol and food. The restaurant's staff would also wryly observe that "waiters are privy to customer's conversations." Most notably, President Ferdinand Marcos himself would confide in an acquaintance that he would be the "last president of the Philippine Republic" — foreshadowing the transformation of the Philippine government from a democracy to a dictatorship.
We also get a glimpse of a younger Joseph "Erap" Estrada, who would later become Philippine President and incumbent Manila mayor. Apparently, prior to his rise as a politician, he would frequent the restaurant to have a good time (and, according to the author, feast his eyes on the beautiful chanteuse Zeny Cruz). As his political career rose more and more, his visits to the restaurant became less and less. Still, knowing what Erap would eventually become, Mrs. Panlilio probably thinks it's a good thing in hindsight.
As for the recipes, there's not much to say about them. Frankly, you can find more in-depth material in other cookbooks, as the recipes in "Sulô" only touch on the very basics, and assume that you already have some mastery over cooking. So it's definitely not recommended for beginners.
All in all, "Sulô" is an interesting coffee table book. Even if you don't care much about the fate of the restaurant after which the book is named, perhaps you will care about it as an insight into the Makati City of the martial law era.