They Will Build Castles (pt. 1): the Making of a “Man”

This is the first of a two-part series I’ve been struggling to write for a while.  For those who know me, I’ve jumped between highly restrictive diets and workout regimens for the past few years interspersed with periodic bouts of alcoholic binges.  Truth is, I was hurting.  I was suffering from low self-esteem and violent thoughts that seemingly arose from nowhere.  The second post will cover how I’ve dealt with my issues of low self-esteem, being bullied, and toxic masculinity through food and exercise but I think it’s important to go through the darker times, for only then will it become clear why the extreme discipline of later years became so important to me.  This will be a very long read and at times the wording may get clumsy, a product of old hurts surfacing while I wrote this.  You don’t need to read this.  But if you happen to be reading this and see some of your story in mine, please believe me when I say there is a way out.  The story can end well.  I promise.


Every Soul is born in a Castle built for it by the Universe.  In this Castle, the Soul takes on two forms: a Child, pure as the Universe that created it, and an Elder, wise and rational as the Earth that bore it.  Every morning, the Elder leaves the castle to forage for food for the Child from the Fields of Life surrounding the Castle.  The sustenance takes many forms as well: warmth from a Mother’s hug, playtime with friends, a feeling of belonging at family gatherings, a bruised knee.  In the beginning, these fields are wide and clear and the Elder can always see the Castle no matter the distance…

My Castle was situated in the second floor of a small apartment where meals were predictable and parents, affording us little chance to roam the streets, ensured freedom from discomfort if not from discovery.  Attending school with all the complex, unwritten social codes forged during Recess then, was a disorienting experience far from the routine comfort of home.  Everyone had a role to play, and spaces from the canteen to the playground were divided with invisible markers as to which clique owns it: the Jocks, the Trend Setters, the Wannabe Gangsters, the Just-Migrated-Heres.  As a child, it was confusing and daunting trying to figure out how to fit into the right clique.  Humans after all, are still animals – albeit ones that seem to think the contrary – and the desire to create hierarchies is ingrained within us.  Any attempt to fit in though, just didn’t seem to work for me whether it was physically (I was the only kid who actively ran away from any type of ball during gyms class to the shock of the basketball-worshipping Filipinos) or socially (I couldn’t quite grasp how everyone around me played the “he-likes-she-likes” game so effortlessly).  And amidst all the teasing, my dad would insist I comb my hair over, hike up my pants just a little higher than socially acceptable, and get over it: “Don’t listen to them.  You’re not like them.  Learn to be proper”.  Easier said than done.

Singapore

Singapore trip, the Early Years 

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On Cakes and Colonies

(Disclaimer: All thoughts here are my own and are not intended as insults.  I believe we cannot separate Food from issues of Identity, History, and Culture and so if anyone’s offended by my musings below, let’s have Tea and talk about it…for it’s unlikely I’ll apologize for them). 

On Cakes

The British practice of Afternoon Tea is said to have started in the early 19th century when Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, requested for tea – a Darjeeling most likely – and a light snack be brought into her boudoir to combat “that sinking feeling” that usually accompanied the early afternoon hours.  Whether this sinking feeling was truly just a case of the hunger pangs brought about by the long, food-less gap between the morning and evening meals, or something more morose, is a point of curiosity for me.  The existential realization in the late afternoon that you haven’t quite gotten to the things you said you would do today, and facing the real possibility of another squandered moment does seem to produce the same effect as hunger; screw it let’s just eat.  Nevertheless, the practice spread first within Anna’s circle of similarly ennui-bound friends and later to the drawing rooms across Britain as an “important social practice” amongst those who had all the money and time they could want and nary the idea what to do with it.

Duchess of Bedford

Anna Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford

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Three types of Chikara Mochi paired with a cup of tea

Japan the Untranslatable Pt. 4 – Isshōkenmei

(For the previous posts in the “Japan the Untranslatable Series”, read: “Kimochii“, “Otsukare“, and “Shippai“.)

 

Kotoya-san and I met near the tail end of winter in an old tea house by Lake Ashi under awkward circumstances.  She stood on one end of a wooden platform raised a foot from the ground, cleaning supplies in one hand, face mask hiding her expression.  On the other side, separated by an unlit fire place with a worn kettle and a ring of rocks, were four Australians girls alternating between trying to explain to Kotoya-san in increasingly louder, slower, and broken English that me taking their picture would take far less time than for them to first remove their shoes as they were being asked to.  I stood on the dirt floor below, shoes also caked in mud, shivering after trekking through an ancient highway slick with rain, annoyed at having to choose between the logically expedient request of my fellow travelers of whose camera I held, or respecting the traditions of the storied establishment.
Japanese cemetery at the entrance to the Old Tokaido Highway, Hakone section

Start of the trail.

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Japan the Untranslatable Pt. 3 – Shippai

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 – Otsukare

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 – Kimochii

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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“Filipino Enough?” The #FKEDUP Team Questions the Question in Boston

In this lookback of the first #FKEDUP live collaboration in Boston this past February, Paolo Espanola and Sarahlynn Pablo reflect on the team’s brunch pop-up and participation in a regional conference for Asian-American students.

PART 1

It takes a certain kind of muted masochism to pull off a pop-up: embracing the uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and heightened stress that comes with these one-off engagements that lack the full commitment of owning your own space. In our case, masochism took the form of a crew that’s never met in person, a venue smack dab in the middle of Winterfellian Boston, and a cuisine that hasn’t quite broken into the local populace’s psyche quite yet.  Now, I don’t want to make it sound like we were in the throes of despair as we peeled over 60 lobster tails during prep night…but we definitely preferred the raucous music playing on the kitchen speakers to what must have been bubbling anxiety underneath; courageous denial, so to speak.

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The menu – a far cry from Filipino dishes of long ago – seemed more fitting for a sun-soaked Californian patio, not the gloomy slush that covered the streets: Longganisa Scotch Eggs? Chicken Inasal and Atsara na Mangga? No one asked whether the steady snowfall would mean we soft-boiled too many eggs. No one asked whether the unsuspecting populace would “accept” our version of Filipino food. And when a tita – the venerable judge of Filipino food – called and said she would rather eat in Chinatown where it’s cheaper since we weren’t offering some sort of “show” along with brunch service, we hardly had the time to panic.

Longganissa+Scotch+Eggs+Maja+Blance+Pancakes+#FKEDUP

And so we waited breathlessly during those first few hours; waiting for signs that they’ll like our food.  That’s the paradox of how we were cooking Filipino food: reckless abandon by a people so concerned about what “they” will think of our food. “Baka ‘di magustuhan ng mga Kano!” [“Maybe the Americans won’t like it!”] The feeling that perhaps our cuisine isn’t good enough…not refined enough…not pretty enough to warrant a proper brunch service; food that belongs in the dimly lit turo-turos and not the airy pub-cum-brunch hall we found ourselves in.

Inasilog+#FKEDUP

Then again, we weren’t really cooking Filipino food, were we?

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We Hosted Our First Pop-up Dinner…And I (Almost) Wanted Us to Fail

(Note: for pictures and more info on our co-conspirators, check the links below!)

You mind can really fuck with you while washing dishes.  When you’re elbow-deep in soap, your fingers caked in coagulated fat, and your shoes are unrecognizable in a thin coating of rice flour and flecks of slimy basil puree, your mind has no other option but to transcend the cramped dish room in order to escape the combined smell of burnt cookies and leftover shrimp. Once again, I had forgotten to eat anything today save for the occasional taste test and in my hunger-induced dizziness, I glanced over my shoulder to the remaining hardcore friends who formed a dishwashing brigade in the now empty loft. “What the hell are we doing?”  One of us just missed two days of work and a much needed paycheck, another had a flight in a mere few hours, one was a dinner guest conscripted into cleaning duties.  Just a few minutes ago, we were surrounded by supporters praising us for the wonderful dinner but here I was trying to feel the elation I thought I would be experiencing and finding it oddly missing.  Yep…washing dishes can definitely put you in a rather pensive state.

One-man service (c/o Abdul

One-man service (c/o Abdul “DJ Douly” Abdirahman).

But I’ve skipped forward quite a bit.  It all started months ago when the iron grip of my day job slowly loosened and after months of scheming, I was itching to finally throw a dinner that didn’t involve my apartment’s poor lighting and mismatched plates.  And so with a bit of youthful recklessness and some unresolved bitterness to regain my rightful place in the kitchen, I booked a date at Suite ThreeOhSix’s classy loft in Tribeca to host Hidden Apron’s inaugural pop-up dinner.  It took mere days before thoughts of dishes took over the last remaining brain space I had.

Guest chef Yana Gilbuena of the SALO Series.

Guest Chef Yana Gilbuena of the SALO Series.

I dreamed of breads during breakfast, compotes during commutes, offal at the office, jellies at the gym, and sauces in my sleep.  I caught myself staring at blank walls imagining multi-course menus and flavor profiles and soon enough, the scribbles made their way onto life-size post-it notes that covered my bed room wall.  I went to work an hour earlier and slept an hour later agonizing over every last detail: Can a hollow croquette keep its form?  What if people don’t like raw fish?  Will diners eat with their hands?  Every last detail was pored over that I knew nothing could possibly go wrong…

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Kitchen crew. S/O to Bertha for the last minute assist!

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[Review] Mysttik Masaala and the Mysterious Smiling Man

(Note: Check Mysttik Masaala’s Facebook page for daily menus and locations!)

I’m not quite sure why I turned right instead of left to get lunch that Wednesday. I usually headed south on Park to the chain delis and restaurants closer to Grand Central.  For some reason I decided to get food that day from the “Mysttik Masaala”, the Indian food truck right outside our building on 54th and Park. I approached the solitary man working the line of suits in a cart that simply said “Indian Food” on top bordered by a litany of rotating menu items, many of which I have never heard of before despite growing up on vegetable kormas and mutton handis.

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As I had gone vegetarian for a while, I ordered the Vegetable Curry which came with a side of Daal (cooked lentils) and Basmati rice from the friendly and talkative proprietor. I ordered it with “the works” and got the whole thing topped with onions, cilantro, chili sauce, and raita (yogurt-based sauce). Having subjected half my taste buds to death by chili over many years, I gave my usual request that he make my food spicy the way Indians knew spicy and not the milder level Americans found more palatable. With a glimmer in his eye, the man pulled out several shakers of mysterious spices and covered my curries in it. He chuckled and said, “We have a saying. With Indian food, the spicier it is, the more fun it gets…you’ll have fun with this one”.

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Rice topped with lentils and yogurt. Potatoes, spinach, and paneer (Indian cheese)

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The Life and Death of the Mystery Meat Group pt. 1

(Special thanks to Ayesha, Jerry, and the Topitzers for having us over and letting us be a part of a three-way birthday/reunion).

It’s weird being back on WordPress and writing again.  It’s like that one time you finally cooked that last can of Spam you had taken with you when you moved apartments.  It doesn’t evoke the subtle smell of nostalgia like a warm bowl of arroz caldo.  Nor does it give you that sinking feeling of guilt you get when you devour that full pint of dulce de leche ice cream.  It’s more like reuniting with a not-too-long-gone past.  Like that familiar salty goodness, it’s like being back in a place you’ve never quite left.

It’s been almost two months since I’ve taken a leave from this blog and I was surprised to have people asking whatever happened to the Errant Diner.  Well…I’m back now and I’d be remiss if I didn’t fill you guys in.  For the past month, my job has kept me in the office till long past midnight and the better part of both weekends.  I slept, ate, drank, and shitted Excel sheets.  While the young and hungry plowed through brunch after boozy brunch, my pots and pans lay untouched, dry on a stove that only turned on to heat the occasional cup of tea.  I lost 10 lbs., slept 4 hours a night (on a good night), and subsisted on Seamless sushi dinners.

But in the midst of it all…I became part of a ragtag catering crew.  A crew that would later fizzle out as fast as it had came rushing into my life  I’m hesitant to call ourselves a legitimate business and you may label us as you wish, but I suppose I should start at the beginning.

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