(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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then again, we weren’t really cooking Filipino food, were we?
(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.
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.
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…
(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.
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”.
(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.