Flavors of Baler at The Circle Hostel with Chef Grai Alvar

I was just scrolling endlessly on my social media feed like any other day when I stumbled upon the best reason to go to Baler – FOOD.

I have always wanted to go to Baler, but I wanted it to be more than just surfing. Since I already knew I could ride the waves in Catanduanes, I was looking for something else. I’m like on sabbatical these past few months because the project I was in ended abruptly, so what else to do? Aside from staying in bed all day due to overwhelming happenings, I knew I needed to go somewhere to wander. While living vicariously via social media, I saw a post that made me jump off my bed and pack my bag to Baler. πŸŽ’

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To inquire or book please send us an email to baler@thecirclehostel.com Block off November 18, 2017 because you're going to Baler to learn how to make delicious dishes (and one drink) from our guest chef Grai Alvar (@graiarea_), who is a big fan of Baler as a whole. Limited slots so Chef Grai can really give you attention during your class, which actually begins with a tour of the Baler Public Market to pick your ingredients! Packages start at P1000 (exclusive of lodging). On the planned menu are (pending availability of ingredients): Baler Salad *Pako Salad *Kamote Tops *2 types of Salad Dressing; 1 Fermented Fish based, 1 Calamansi Vinaigrette Aurora Style Poke Bowl *Aurora Fried Rice *Poke Style Local Fish *2 types of Poke sauce Poke Style Tofu** ** Optional Local Cocktail *Coconut Wine Based Cocktail with Seasonal Fruits

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Yes, I know I know, I can be bribed with food. But who wouldn’t be? You gotta eat while traveling, might as well eat good local food right?! To be brutally honest, I have no idea what a poke bowl was. But who cares, Baler here I come! So I dropped an email to The Circle Hostel Baler and to realize they had a little typo error. I sent them a DM on IG and they were a sport about it. They even offered free coffee or beer! Not to mention I won a free stay at any Circle Hostel last year in an event where Raf Dionisio, Co-Founder at The Circle Hostel, was the speaker. So I’m definitely going to Baler now! Wait, how am I gonna go there? πŸ€”

So here comes an impulsive solo travel to Baler. Though, I was kind of scared with the idea of taking the night bus solo going somewhere I have never been. However, there is always a first time. I did research on how to go to Baler beforehand, yet as expected, info was not updated. So, I just grabbed my bag and went to the bus terminal. And instead of taking the direct route, I decided to have a stopover in Cabanatuan city. What the hell was I thinking? None the less, it was an interesting midnight bus ride. At around seven o’clock in the morning, I arrived in a sunny Baler. Yas, I made it alive and in good weather, perfect for the market day! πŸŒ…

Baler port

Port of Baler

The hostel was jam-packed with guests and locals when I arrived. They were hosting a couple of events that weekend, so the introvert in me was like, why am I here? Half-awake I then met Rafa Oca, the Cheif Experience Officer at The Circle, who introduced me to chef Grai. Grai is not really a native, however, she is one of those who loved Baler and lived there for some time. And as a chef, she definitely knows Baler’s flavors like a local. The Circle Hostel Baler partnered with Chef Grai to highlight indigenous ingredients and promote market to table concept in Baler. Since it’s still early to check in, I went out to the beach. Ah yes, the waves, the boards, and surfers.πŸ„πŸ½β€β™€οΈ

Baler Public Market Poke, pronounced as poh-KAY, is an appetizer or sometimes the main course in Hawaiian cuisine. It also means, to cut, chef Grai explains further. A classic poke bowl is basically portioned bowl of base (rice/greens), protein (fish) and sides (fruits/greens/nuts). It’s chef Grai’s dish inspiration to incorporate Baler’s flavors. At around ten a.m. chef and I went to the local market. And on Saturdays, locals have this bagsakan weekend market, like a pop-up market showcasing local produce. From fruits to veggies and interesting products like pineapple and banana vinegar. Also local organic red rice, and fresh catch.πŸ˜‹

I am not that well versed in the kitchen, that’s why I wanted to expose myself to market and kitchen activities like this. I need to satisfy the foodie in me. While at the market, chef and I were like kids in a candy store. What caught my attention was the pineapple vinegar. I couldn’t believe it, there’s a vinegar made out of pineapples? It’s a way for the vendors to salvage the pineapples that were not sold according to chef Grai. Then as we go deep into the market, there’s another fermented goodness, banana vinegar. Same ideology on why locals came up with such product. We then went to the fish section and being a coastal town, Baler is rich with fresh seafood. From local salmon to yellowfin to lobster. We also got fresh greens, pako or fiddlehead fern which grows abundantly in the area plus kamote tops for the side dish. Then chef got local organic red rice, a different variety from the Cordilleras. We also came across an NSFW ingredient called kaba-titi leaves, apparently, it’s a souring agent. Actually, kaba-titi is not the only NSFW Tagalog word here, even our main dish, poke. In Filipino’s mainly used language, Tagalog, poke means vajayjay and then titi is the male counterpart. Those words are somewhat considered vulgar when said in public.πŸ™Š

En route to the hostel kitchen, guests can use the kitchen at the hostel, by the way, we now prepare our poke bowls! As for the base, a mix of the local organic red rice and white rice with drops of Bignay vinegar. Geez, Baler never runs out of vinegar eh? Chef Grai got this Bignay vinegar at a farm in Baler. Bignay or bugnay fruit is usually turned into wine, first time to see a vinegar bignay. Then for the protein, we got local salmon. Chef opted to use citrus or local orange with coconut milk and sesame oil plus diced mangoes and chili for the kinilaw na local salmon or local salmon ceviche. For the side dish, a different take on pako salad. A mix of pako and kamote tops with a hint of patis bagoong or patis labo or fermented fish paste plus caramelized onions and cherry tomatoes. Chow time! We shared it with the staff and a couple of hostel guests and they giggled when asked what it’s called.🍲

Sabang Beach, Baler, Aurora

Sabang Beach, Baler, Aurora

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. I was thinking of surfing but man, the waves were intimidating. At dinner time, I tried out a nearby restaurant that’s said to have good food. Then at around ten o’clock in the evening, I passed out. So much for being awake for twenty-four hours. The following morning, I was at the beach before sunrise, it was such an amazing sight. Then I decided to check out tourist spots in Baler.😎

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gentle whiskey 🍍🍹#banayadwhiskey

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Before I left Baler, we managed to make a cocktail, of course with local ingredients, the Pineapple Coco Whiskey. For the base spirit, chef Grai got Banayad Whiskey, distilled coconut wine. I kept thinking why banayad whiskey sounded so familiar, chef then said, “Banayad whiskey commercial in a movie”. Right, the infamous commercial that got the actor drunk, contrary to its name banayad or gentle because of re-takes. Cheers! We then went for a walk to check out another restaurant that’s close to chef Grai’s heart. While walking, we chance upon a couple more local finds right on the sidewalk. Passionfruit and wildberry.🍹

My take away.

I so love what my tote bag says, “Time wasted in Baler is time well spent.” More than wasting time, I had an awesome weekend! I learned a lot from chef Grai. And people at the Circle Hostel Baler were definitely welcoming, thus no strangers there!

Baler as a whole is rustic, straightforward and flavorful. A lot of interesting local finds though, sadly, locals do not fully utilize these. I do hope to see more local flavors when I go back. Maybe a poke bowl and cocktails soon at the Eats @ the Circle Baler? Who knows?πŸ˜‰

29 thoughts on “Flavors of Baler at The Circle Hostel with Chef Grai Alvar

  1. thatguywithstories says:

    That bottle of whiskey is the best which has whiskey inside…Hey Hey Hey..
    I like your style of writing, it is so forthcoming. I am not a foodie though but this Baler post compelled me to read it in its entirety. The photos could have been bigger to add magic to this otherwise great post.


  2. jayresa03 says:

    Something different from the common Baler trips. My husband went there with his friends a long time ago. I notice that your post and his story were totally different. This is why one must do more research and not just go with where the people go for you to be able to explore more places.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Milton Coyne says:

    this is an interesting spot! Been to Baler twice but never got the chance to explore their cuisine! We stayed in Mama Nene’s Transient house during our stay… it was near the Sabang Beach and we went to Surfer’s Grill too
    I would love to try their poke bowl (gosh that sounds like Poke ball too hehe)
    This makes me more eager to go back to Baler… probably next summer yey!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stargazer Writes says:

    It really must be brave of you to go on a solo trip! Though, I am not a stranger to solo travels, I really admire free-spirited people. I am glad you were able to enjoy yourself despite lacking sleep. Poke sounds interesting too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Joanna Davis says:

    I didn’t hear about the poke bowl before but the idea of it it’s similar with the Buddha bowls. I have actually managed to make one myself one time and I was very proud of the flavours chosen. The poke bowl that you make looks delicious though and it’s great that you have gone to the market before, to pick up the fresh ingredients. I’d love to try the banana vinegar!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. momi berlin says:

    I am not also very good in the kitchen but with practice, I have come serve our family more than three meals a day. But just like your experience, I believe we need to learn more dishes and this Baler food is something worth the try.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. mariaisquixotic says:

    Oh, so that’s how it’s pronounced! I thought it’s pronounced like /powk/ or even like PokΓ©mon. I guess, it was such a wonderful and enticing experience! I just ate and this makes me hungry once more!

    On another note, Baler is such a paradise that people go to for leisure and relaxation. Some forget about what the place really offers. The beaches, the culture and even the locals are what makes it awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. orana says:

    I think you did a great thing taking that solo trip to Baler! Much better than nursing a hangover. I’ve always want to try a poke bowl, one of those things that just flood Instagram. Having a cocktail before leaving is awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Nathalie says:

    Not quite your usual Baler trip itinerary; surfing is always the first thing that comes to mind when Baler is mentioned. That, and the Anne Curtis movie, maybe? πŸ˜€ But I digress. Cooking lessons for local cuisine is definitely a good reason to go anywhere somewhere new. I mean, out of town trips would not be complete without sampling local cuisine, but learning to cook their dishes guided by a great chef is taking it to the next level and not something you read about everyday. It’s stuff like this that makes it fun living vicariously through personal blogs. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  10. GenerationXLee says:

    Every time I read up anything on Baler, I am so intrigued to pack up my bags and go. But that is no longer an option for me. I have kids and I love them so much that solo travel no longer is fun. In my last travels, regardless locally or abroad (business trips), it was meetings and hotel, that’s it. Even if I am offered to by suppliers to take me everywhere and wherever, the hotel room is more enticing. So, I wish you the best of luck in future travels, and not just to Baler. Keep it up while you can.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Violinkit says:

    I admire your courage and determination on pursuing your dream of going to Baler. The fact you took a night bus on your own when you didn’t even know your destination says it all. I’m so glad you had a successful trip and that the food was to your liking.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ana De-Jesus says:

    Wow I wish I could be as impulsive as you and I think that it is amazing that you went to baler after your project ended suddenly. Well done for following your heart and so glad that you had a wonderful time. I too love trying out new cuisines and count eating as one of my hobbies haha!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. annaszoke says:

    I love exotic cuisine and to try new flavours, but unfortunately I’m terrible at the kitchen…I’m more of an “end user” of food :):):) But I bet that I would enjoy this opportunity very much. Lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

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