On Misunderstanding and Molokhia

(*Thanks to Amir El-Abbady and Doha Salem for the inspiration behind this week’s meal).

My passport used to elicit the same effect on TSA agents that a benign cookie tin would to an immigrant child expecting something to munch on between meals.  As routine motion gave way to shock and confusion when confronted with a tin full of sewing supplies, agents opening my Filipino passport with slight boredom quickly raised their eyebrows when they saw all the Arabic writing in there due to my being raised in Saudi Arabia.  And despite my obviously Asian features (never mind whether I looked more Filipino or Chinese), I somehow was always selected for “random screening”.  These days I just flash my New York City ID to avoid any delays, but the questions and awkward confusion still ensue.

Bruh.

“Oh you grew up in Saudi Arabia?  Was it dangerous?” – No the biggest threat I faced was of utterly debilitating boredom.

“Wow!  You must speak Arabic really well!” – Actually seeing as there was a large, diverse population of Filipinos, Indians, and other Westerners who outnumbered the local population, I barely understand Arabic.

“Was it like…very oppressive coz you couldn’t like…drink like…alcohol and stuff?” – No homegirl but listening to you is oppressive enough an experience (not to mention having fewer vices also meant fewer distractions).

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Japan the Untranslatable Pt. 3 – Failure

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.

Jonathan's Restaurant

Jonathan’s 24-Hour Restaurant

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Japan, the Untranslateable Pt. 2 – Beautiful Day, Hard Work

SUBARASHII (すばらしい)

// Mid-afternoon, Shinobazuno Pond, Ueno Park, きょわ素晴らしいです
“I wish there was more green around here,” my spontaneous explorer friend and food buddy for the day remarked.  “The gardens back in Argentina or Germany always looked greener”.  Looking around I couldn’t agree more.  Concrete paved most of the park and the few patches of grass were covered in park-goers and fellow tourists.  Still, it was hard to complain with the the sun out in a cloudless sky and a light breeze playing across the water.  It was the rare nice day since I arrived in Tokyo and with Asahi beers and a Sakura Yakimochi (Charred Cherry Blossom-flavored rice cake) between us, I could forgive the otherwise grey landscape.

 

 

 

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Japan the Untranslatable, Pt. 1 – Difficulty, Embarrassment, Deliciousness

MUZUKASHII (むずかしい)

// Late night, multiple trains from Narita to Tokyo Proper.  つかれった

Getting lost in a foreign country’s subway system is far from romantic.  Absent are your fellow backpackers whom you companionably nod to from across the car, the starry-eyed lovers cuddling in the corner, the gentlemen who offer seats to old ladies with knitting projects or pastries in hand.  There is no rumbling excitement of a population marching towards the future but a subdued desperation that usually fills public transportation at the end of the working day, cog gears hurtling back to worn beds to grab any sleep they can before the next gray day.
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The Subway Sutras

The train(s) from Narita to Chuo at 11 PM on a Thursday night were far from romantic.  Take away any public Wi-Fi, a completely foreign language, any printed map or written directions and it becomes downright nerve-wracking.  To the left were monochrome suits and red faces, the smell of beer and smoke wafting through face masks, to the right, other nine-to-niners contorted in sleep.  In between were blurs of beige and grey with the occasional neon scurrying between platforms, mouths hidden behind more face masks behind which sorely needed directions lay.  Yup…I was lost.  The directions I looked up while still in New York looked simple enough: take the Skyliner to Nippori, switch to the JR line to Uguisudani, walk a few kilometers.  Boom.  Staring at a Japanese subway table that looked more like the Diamond Sutra and less like a map though is an entirely different practice.  Couple that with multiple exits per subway, multiple companies running them, trains that actually run on time without waiting, and the fact that I misread my hostel’s address, and a leisurely one hour trip turned into nearly three with a mile hike to cap it all off.  Muzukashii desu.
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More Subway Rules

// Past midnight, a 24-hour Sukiya diner across from the hostel. お腹すいた

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Exhausted and finally checked-in, I ventured out at past midnight to the only place open around: Sukiya, a 24 hour joint frequented by late night salarymen and other God-knows-why-you’re-still-up folks.  Elsewhere, you’d usually just order the greasiest thing without opening the menu and be done with it all.  But like everything else, chotto muzukashii desu given that all orders are first entered into a RedBox-like kiosk whose choices rivaled my Netflix account’s.  4 different meal types (gyudons, curries, sashimi, or sets), 4-6 sizes each, 4-8 different sides to add on, not to mention any options for adding pork to soups, additional drinks, etc.  All while a female voice cheerily – but obviously judging my newbie self – reminds me every few seconds in Japanese to please make a selection.  The paradox of choice meets the nagging mother and after a what felt like five straight minutes of “food order panic”, I settled on a plate of Japanese-style curry to soothe my tired (and frayed) soul.  Muzukashii desu.
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Karee Rice, Tofu, Shiro Miso, Sansai

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Scallop and Monkfish Kinilaw: Cured Fish Made to Kill (or so the story goes…)

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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:

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Blueberry-Pecan Galette

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)!

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Caramel Apple Turon (Filipino Apple Spring Roll)

Early Spring is now a season I really look forward to with its promises of patio brunches, beautiful people watching, and the ability to wear something more flattering than a poofy jacket paired with chapped skin.  But Spring during my college years wasn’t as…”Spring-y”.  Most student groups plan their largest events during these months and for me, I somewhat dreaded spring as it meant back-to-back meetings planning event after event.  However, Spring also heralded the start of Bake Sale season as groups sought to fund events and as an equal open diner, this was open season for all things carby.  Sure there were the usual cookies and brownies (in varying shades of chocolate) but the real treats were the cultural delicacies: the orange, sticky Indian Jalebis that had to be washed down with tea, the Chinese Moon Cakes, the Arabic Baklava, and when you hit the jackpot and stumble on an all out ten item dessert buffet?  Well…makes you forget the next five planning meetings on your calendar.

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Bagoong: the Ultimate Umami Bomb

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

Homemade bagoong, ready for aging.

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.

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Questions from the Motherland

“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?

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Seafood, crab fat rice, native chicken – Breakthrough Restaurant, Iloilo

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Canh Chua Ca: On Cross-Cultural Consumption

Canh Chua

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.

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