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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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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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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Sinigang à la Andalusia: Red Pepper-Blood Orange Bisque

(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).

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Kale/Beef Ragout + Sweet Potato Gnocchi

(Found this lost in the archives of my drafts from a few months ago…seeing as the weather’s getting colder anyway, this is the perfect time to make this warm, comforting dish!)

It was Sunday morning and I was in a bit of a dilemma: cook a cost-efficient meal of pasta but risk overloading on carbs…or make yet another stew.  Ever since I’ve restricted my carb intake to a quarter of my total daily values, everything from ramen to *gasp* white rice looks like a gigantic carb bomb.  If you’re curious as to just how carb-loaded a half cup of rice is…actually…forget I mentioned it.  After all, ignorance is bliss as they say (you totally Googl-ed it didn’t you?)!

But I digress…faced with the impossible decision between comfort or breaking my diet…I said “Screw it!  I’ll have both!”.  Rather than the usual boxed fettucine, I opted to hand-make gnocchi with sweet potato (the de facto – and what seems like the solo – carb option to the health conscious) and pair with with a kale and beef ragout.

Making gnocchi is far easier than I thought it would be (though you most certainly can use the store-bought variety if you’re not as carb-conscious as I am this week).  The trick is getting just the right amount of flour so that the dough is moldable without the end result having an overly mealy taste and texture.  Pair that with a hearty ragout and you’ve got comfort…without overdosing on those carbs.  Get cookin’!

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Reimagine: A Storyteller’s Guide to Writing Menus

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Menu-writing for multi-course dinner sucks.  There…I said it.  Until recently, I never really enjoyed it and when I asked professionals how they compose/curate/conjure one up, I was met with two parts mysticism (“I just write what the Universe says through me…it’s all about connecting with the Divine”), a heaping of cryptic shade-throwing (“Well, you have to first study and really understand the seasonality of the local terroir after which you compose layers of sometimes contradictory but simultaneously harmonious flavors”), and a pinch of astringency (“Actually…I don’t know.  I make what I want OK?”).

“Artful” menu-writing seemed so mysterious, shrouded in veils of secrecy to prevent us uninitiated commoners from discovering just how the Stewards of Sauce-ry know to follow a biting Mizuna-Shiso salad with lightly roasted cod under a citrus foam.  Without much insight into their cabalistic procedures, I often resorted to cobbling together pieces of different menus/recipes into some Frankenstein-esque monstrosity where beef curry was somehow followed by roast chicken on biscuits & gravy with bok choy (true story!).  For a data geek like me whose Accounting degree had no business being in the kitchen, it was infuriating!

With a month away from my third pop-up dinner, a collaboration with the Filipino Kitchen and Pilipino-American Unity for Progress, and the bad taste of gravy-soaked bok choy in my mouth, I attempted to apply some unartistic nerdery to come up with a menu centered around our chosen theme of Philippine Independence Day.  Unorthodox?  Perhaps.  Time-consuming? Oh yes indeed!  But did it work?  Read on…

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Being Too Busy is a Lame Excuse for Skipping Breakfast

(All references to people are made in jest.  They don’t pertain to any specific person so don’t even try playing the guessing game on this one.)

So it’s a new week and there’s plenty to celebrate: it’s Tuesday (yeah my coworkers hate me for actually enjoying Mondays and Tuesdays), it’s almost August (fewer sweaty days on the subway), and it’s Eid (Eid Mubarak to everyone who’s celebrating…esp my roommate who can finally eat out again)!  I haven’t had a good rant in a while so since I’m feeling particularly energetic, do indulge me as I get something off my chest real quick.

It really irks me when someone tells me they’re “too busy to eat breakfast”.  Really dude?  So you don’t have 10 minutes to get some much needed nutrition for the day but somehow have enough time to dick around Facebook for 20 mins. when you wake up?  Oh that’s precious.  I’m not even talking about a full continental breakfast complete with artisanal jams and breads baked in some hipster outpost in Greenpoint, a simple piece of toast perhaps?  Boiled eggs?  A goddamn protein shake?!  But noooooo….you’re such a busy person whom the world so depends on that global catastrophes would befall us should you choose a bagel over saving the world.

spidey cooks

Coz if Spidey can cook…

I call bullshit.  There’s absolutely no way you’re too busy. In fact, you’re probably lying in bed right now hating Monday and it’s twisted sibling Tuesday.  But I believe in you…you’ve got some semblance of humanity in that coffee-addled brain of yours so I’m going to be nice and teach you a quick and easy way to bang out a couple of breakfasts so quick you’d put the local deli guy to shame.  The real trick here, oh Busy One, is to cook in advance, in large batches, and in hearty styles….but you knew that already since I saw you stuffing your face with that 2nd donut you claim is the only quick thing you can buy around here.  So lemme drop some breakfast wisdom on how you can pull off a bomb meal in record time and still have time to pine for the dream job you always said you’d find one day.

Sure you do!

Sure you do!

Enter the Frittata.  Now most of us have seen the frittata on brunch menus or the generic Italian lunch spots and it looks like a cross between an omelette and a quiche (it does stand for “egg cake” after all).  Sometimes warm or cold, it’s filling and can be made with anything from ham, vegetables, or some payday-worthy stuff like quinoa and kale.  I kid you not this whole thing will only take 10 minutes of active work on a normal night to produce and the only limit is how fast your mouth can devour it.  Hell…it’s so easy I won’t even bother numbering the steps!

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