In a conversation with a friend the other day, I remarked how I felt oddly “at home” during my short visit to Japan in all its glorious neuroticism; a nation of rules, propriety, and arbitrary rituals. Completely unlike the “Bahala na” vibe of rural Antique, Philippines or the frenetic obsession with the new of New York City, Japan felt like a thick tome of step-by-step instructions accumulated over centuries of what one can and cannot do. One must not eat in public. One must not refer to someone of a higher status solely by their name. One must not sit on a tatami mat in a tea house with their shoes on. There were signs on how to properly eat your onigiri, signs on how to sit in the subway, signs on how to flush the hostel toilet (hold down for five seconds, then pull up, otherwise not enough water will flow), and signs on how to properly make a bed (put one sheet over the mattress, then another over that, then sleep in between the sheets). I adored the liberating restrictions. There was no guesswork as to how to act and where some saw an overly stuffy way to live, I saw order in an otherwise chaotic world. The steps one had to take in order to get a glimpse of the Tsukiji Market auction were no less onerous.
// Late night, multiple trains from Narita to Tokyo Proper. つかれった
// Past midnight, a 24-hour Sukiya diner across from the hostel. お腹すいた
I remember the first time I had kinilaw (kee-knee-lau…not the “law” in “lawyer”), Filipino cured seafood similar to the more well-known ceviche. It was a weeknight back in Saudi Arabia and my mom was hit with one of those rare nights of laziness so we bought food from the corner kalinderya serving the local Filipino workforce. Amongst the requisite containers full of greasy adobo, menudo, and chop suey was one filled with cubes of white fish and Thai chilis swimming in a milky white liquid. Looking back, that shit wasn’t good at all: the fish overcooked and chewy, the acidity overpowered by the too finely minced peppers, and the onions beginning to seep their purple into the liquid. But without a frame of reference, I remember my eyes widening…the perfect moment of childhood discovery. The burst of sharp sourness from the Datu Puti vinegar, the firm flesh…the rawness! Ever since then, kinilaw was a treat. From lunches during sweltering Saudi summers to seaside feasts back in our hometown of Iloilo, kinilaw provided the much needed bite to cut through the rich Filipino spaghetti (it contains condensed milk…a story for another day) and meat-heavy dishes without the tired pretension that ceviche sometimes carries (ceviche does NOT belong in a martini glass slathered with guacamole and salsa…gtfo!).
The origins of kinilaw are murky and I’m sure indigenous cultures all over the world began using acid to cure their seafood and extend its shelf life. However, I really like this legend I stumbled upon on the Bisaya blog Huni sa Daplin:
I usually skip the baking section of most food magazines. Pies with flaky crusts, light and airy cakes topped with glazed fruits, rich and buttery cookies, macarons made exclusively for well-lit Instagram photos, mocking me with their all-knowing glossy stare: “You can’t bake for shit”. And to be honest, that’s mostly true. A co-worker once gave me a supposedly fool-proof recipe for sugar cookies with less than 5 ingredients and the whole mess looked more like a lumpy, rectangular Sicilian flatbread pizza instead of the homey, round circles of rustic sweetness they were intended to be.
And so I usually forego recipes that even involves yeast, rolling, or proofing for something…meatier, vegetable-ier, anything entree-ier! Until I couldn’t. I had promised to bring a dessert into work and I was running out of meringue-based, no-bake ideas and every food magazine I had subscribed to was extolling the virtues of a warm pie. In a fit of pie-ophobia, I opt for the cop-out solution: the Galette. No exacting crust pleats, no mishandled lattice tops, no possibility of fruit exploding through the top in a volcanic mess of burnt sugar…just a rough, quick, almost child-like creation of fruit in baked dough. Pair that with fresh whipped cream (all those meringue-based desserts trained my whipping arm well after all!) and the wrath of the Baking Harpies is assuaged for another day. Thanks Bon Appetit (with some tweaks)!
This piece was originally posted at Filipino Kitchen by fellow blogger Sarahlynn Pablo. Head on over to their site for more musings, recipes, and happenings in the Windy City.
How to Make Bagoong
by Sarahlynn Pablo
An Historical Defense of Bagoong, by Dr. Jose Rizal
“Their daily fare is composed of: rice crushed in wooden pillars and when cooked is called morisqueta (this is the staple throughout the land); cooked fish which they have in abundance; pork, venison, mountain buffaloes which they call carabaos, beef and fish which they know is best when it has started to rot and stink.” – Antonio de Morga, Spanish lieutenant-governor of the Philippines, in “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” (Events of the Philippine Islands), late 16th century.
“This is another preoccupation of the Spaniards who, like any other nation, treat food to which they are not accustomed or is unknown to them, with disgust… This fish that Morga mentions, that cannot be known to be good until it begins to rot, all on the contrary, is bagoong and those who have eaten it and tasted it know that it neither is nor should be rotten.”
– Annotations from Dr. Jose Rizal’s re-edition of Antonio de Morga’s historical text, 1890. Both quotes from Professor Ambeth Ocampo’s “Meaning and History: The Rizal Lectures” (2001).
Bringin’ the Funk
“Your auntie is making bagoong, go and help her,” Mom said.
During my recent visit to the Philippines, my mom and aunt showed me how to make bagoong. Sure, I may rarely, if ever, make bagoong myself in Chicago, but there’s something comforting in knowing that I know how.
Bagoong, the funky, fermented seafood paste, is a mainstay of any Filipino’s kitchen. It’s a salty, aged, rich fish flavor–the blue cheese of the seas. It can be made with different types of seafood. Bagoong from shrimp appears pink or mauve in color, and is studded with the black beady eyes of the baby crustaceans. Made from crab, the paste is dark orange; from anchovies or sardines, it is a dark reddish brown. Bagoong flavors many Filipino dishes and is also served on the side to compliment dishes like Kare-Kare (a savory peanut oxtail braise), and snacks like unripe green mangoes, steamed rice or saba bananas. Bagoong is a relatively inexpensive protein that is shelf stable and can last a long time.
“But that’s not reeaalllly Filipino food though isn’t it?”. Definitely an if-I-had-a-penny question if I’ve ever heard one mentioned. Talking about the cultural aspects of food is so difficult that I’m constantly tempted to drop the label and just call it…”food”; pure, unadulterated, homogeneous, boring, it-just-is, food. Of course that’s just as irresponsible as creating imaginary divisions by arguing what makes a food Filipino (or *gasp* “authentic”) enough but it’s tempting nonetheless. But what IS Filipino food anyway? Who gets to decide and mandate the confines by which it’s labeled by? Is there some tome or someone’s lola I can just go to and get a final say?
There’s this odd thing we – especially those from immigrant families – do when it comes to tasting new, usually “ethnic” (for lack of a better word) dishes. After the first cursory sips/chews/swallows, the proverbial light bulb goes off and we say: “Oh that’s nice…but you should taste the [insert own culture here] version of this!”. It’s annoying and heart-warming at the same time. On one hand, the fact that someone claims that they make a better “version” of a dish I grew up with is a bit unappetizing. “Bro…the Vietnamese one is far better”…”I mean…it’s not as flavorful as the Somali version my mom makes”…”Are you high? Everyone knows the Arab way is the real one”. On the other, it’s a quick and solid way to connect to one another; gaps bridged by soups, entrees, and confections.
Filipinos embrace the fierce loyalty we have to the Sinigang as the quintessential Filipino soup. Just about every college student knows how to make one from even the barest of budgets: meat (pork ribs or fish) + variety of veggies (usually radish, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and green beans) all boiled in a sour tamarind broth. No one fucks with Sinigang. So when a good friend uttered the words: “I know what this is! This is just a Filipino version of a really good Vietnamese Sour Soup called Canh Chua Ca!”, best believe I wasn’t going to take it lying down. The debate ended with me downloading the recipe for this…”Sour Soup” and trying it out with a few of my own twists.
(Looks like I have quite the backlog of posts hidden in “Drafts” so while I cook up [pun most definitely intended] some fresh content…I hope you enjoy the leftovers [yup there it is!] from yesterday’s writing. This is one of the few things I did after finally getting a blender many moons back…]
…this first one is a combination of two different soups: the Filipino Sinigang (a sour tamarind broth with a mixture of vegetables and some type of meat), as well as the Spanish Caldillo de Pero (an Andalusian soup soured by the local sour oranges). It’s got the smoky creaminess of a red pepper bisque but with an appetizing tang. In lieu of the traditional fish and to balance the richness of the soup, I’ve topped it with some fried okra, caramelized oranges, and ginger confit.
It’s got quite a few components (not to mention is quite a liberal interpretation of the two soups since I actually used sweeter blood oranges) but the resulting bowl is complex, balanced, and refined enough to elevate the ordinary to gastronomical suave-ness. Definitely something to keep up your sleeve for more creative nights (or when you need to make una buena impresión).