Missing Tony

Fucking raw fish,”  I remember you saying that in response to my question, shaking your head in bemusement hundreds of feet away atop a stage next to Andrew.  I could barely make out your features but to a young college student who so badly wanted to be in the food industry, and used food to separate himself from the ill-fitting suit-wearing, resume-wringing rabble of the Accounting world, you seemed too…crass.  Your answers were irreverent and simple, lacking the wordy intellect of Alton Brown or the endearing affability of Andrew Zimmern.  I had watched a few episodes of “No Reservations” years ago after stumbling on them as I flipped through channels on rainy Philippine nights.  Mostly in passing, and never (de)volving into binging.  I had also read “Kitchen Confidential” after buying the book on discount at some corner shop in college and apart from a few stories (both Tyrone the Broiler Man and the Coliseum of Seafood Blanquette come to mind) and tips (no Seafood on Mondays, no Hollandaise at Brunch) I don’t remember much.  I suppose I bought that book mostly in passing as well, never having gotten lost in the depths it contained. You just didn’t jive with my idea of a lover of food; you and your torn jeans, raw attitude, and rawer confessions like wanting simple, borderline criminal (read: dirty water hotdog) food when you ate at home. Suffice it to say this post won’t be about what your shows or books meant to me seeing as I barely even knew you.  Instead, this is about that singular answer you had given to a question I still grapple with today.

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On Tyrone the Broiler Man, Kitchen Confidential by Bourdain

Truth be told, I wasn’t really expecting a deep answer from you when I asked my query in a shaky voice that cracked amidst a sea of adoring fans in that cavernous theater in Minnesota.  The space seemed more fitting for a smartly dressed Opera Chorus than two traveling diners who spent more time on TV in loose shirts and dust-covered jeans than suits.

You are fortunate enough to travel and try these exotic dishes and ingredients that are in fact, not that exotic at all to the local population. I wish I could too or at least get friends to try as many new things as they can here in Minnesota.  What then is your advice for how I can get picky eaters to try something new right here and now?”  I stood alone in that aisle (the “Minnesota Nice” probably preventing the audience from mobbing the mics), palms starting to sweat as you both thought for a moment.

Zimmern – who I once had the pleasure of glimpsing in this office after recording a voice over for a Philippine episode of Bizarre Foods – extolled the virtues of travel, waxing poetic about the exquisite flavors of some animal in some farflung locale who’s fried skin and belly put the run-of-the-mill pork belly to shame.  It was the type of answer I expected and loved: eloquent, noble, peppered with ingredients most people haven’t heard of, and highlighting the need to travel.  It was an answer that spoke of a love of ingredients, pure and mouthwatering without too much of the complexity of humans getting in the way.  Yours on the other hand, was anything but:

It all comes down to Peer Pressure and making it sound sexy.  I mean…who knew that us Americans would ever end up going crazy over Sushi?  I mean, it’s raw fish on rice for crying out loud.  Fucking raw fish!

Wait…that’s it?  Peer Pressure?  All I’d have to do is find some popular kids, wrap my thoughts in flashy packaging, and…that’s it?  I have to say I was a bit confused.  Our answer to expanding boundaries, tearing down walls, and getting picky eaters to at least try the kimchi/natto/[insert “ethnic” food here] was to goad them into it?  It didn’t sound right to me considering the fickleness of human tastes and irrationality of our emotions.  It took me many years to find the depth and complexity of your answer and to realize that one can’t really move people with food without considering the…you know…people.  That breaking boundaries didn’t just involve building bridges between people but having those first brave souls cajole the rest into seeing that the other side isn’t so dangerous at all.  In fact, it’s often delicious!

My first forays into cooking, writing, and speaking food as a language were cerebral: I read scholarly articles, approached menus as a theoretical exercise by cramming as many ingredients that seemed to make sense together on the same plate, and listed out facts as to why pasture-raised is categorically better than conventional.  Needless to say it hardly worked and I still remember the disastrous dinner where a salad with an ingredient list longer than a McDonald’s Chicken Nugget delayed our main course by almost an hour.  Looking back, what did work weren’t the dozens of articles I had clipped and annotated, ready at a moment’s notice to argue for our need to cook.  What did work was talking about my love for ingredients that brought tears to a diner’s eyes, the stories we weaved behind a menu that cause another to proclaim that we’ve helped “decolonize his palate”, it was talking not just of the food I tasted on my travels but the very thing you also sought to cover in yours: the People.  The People in all our messy, irrational, hopeful, crazed glory.  Peer Pressure it seems, is far harder to accomplish than I thought, requiring hearts to be broken open without the safety of facts and figures.  I wonder if that’s why you left.

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When I heard you had gone to cleaner kitchens, it was through an Instagram message late at night.  I was of course shocked, the death of a singular person we somewhat know far more visceral than the unnamed thousands that suffer in the lands you’ve seen.  Still, it didn’t really hit me until the ticket to that distant talk fell out of my box of collected restaurant business cards.  I remember feeling a strong grip around my chest and tears welling up for someone I barely knew.  I remember not a sadness of loss for myself or even for those you’ve left behind, but a fear of what we stand to lose without your voice amongst us.  I remembered wondering not why it happened but whether it could happen again: if someone so loved and adored by many could move on like you did, would all the love in the world still be insufficient to save us from ourselves?

As days passed I began to wonder what it was you saw and thought over these years as you left a piece of yourself all over the world just as the world left its flavors within you.  I wondered whether, upon seeing the struggles and joys of so many, the world began to feel more absurd in its fascination with the nonsensical; warring tribes who cared more about their Geode Cakes and #foodporn-friendly Shakes.  I wondered whether you saw what it took to heal a divided world and despaired at how far we have yet to go.  I wondered whether you found your accolades hollow, preferring the hug of a kitchen table conversation, the kiss of that third bottle of wine, the rawness of a meal without pretense nor presentation.

Perhaps none of these thoughts ever entered your mind. I’m well aware that the little I know of you forces me to confront them in the presence of your absence.  And yet I find myself not asking “Why?” you had left than “What?” you had left behind: a world continuing to tear itself at its seams or one just groaning through growing pains as borders become increasingly archaic things?  None of it makes much sense to me and I never had another chance since that night to ask you for the wisdom you shared so generously with your peers and followers, Instagram littered with mini-eulogies in your wake.  I still believe Food can solve the World’s Problems and that it underpins our relationships to ourselves and each other, though the “how” is still a mystery to me.

The other day, after being poked fun at for my supposedly risky habit of eating things dated far beyond their “Sell By” date, I instinctively responded with a quote of yours that’s become my go-to retort for all things questionably gustatory: “My Body is not a Temple, it’s an Amusement Park”.  It was a lot more bittersweet saying it this time.  I imagined you on a rollercoaster, a Pastrami sandwich in hand, hurling obscenities and laughing all the way through.  I’ll miss you Tony.  May we all find the courage to ride this ride all the way through.  Together.

 

Bourdain

Photo Credit: Miller Mobley

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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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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My Milkfish Brings All the Girls to the Yard

A few weeks ago, #FKEDUP collaborator UniPro posed the question:

“What Filipino food/dish do you identify with the most and why?”

I cringed when I saw the response by contributor Cris MercadoBangus (aka the Milkfish), that rich, fatty fish that’s got the soft creaminess of its namesake.  I’m still traumatized by the one time I accidentally swallowed one of its tiny bones and was rushed to the hospital, too scared to breathe.  I’m glad I didn’t let that stop me from seeking out its crisp skin and salty flavors again as I would have led the rest of my life deprived of this truly unique and flavorful fish!

Here’s Cris’s piece, a veritable ode to a fish that makes you work for it!


My Milkfish Brings All The Girls To The Yard!

by Cris Mercado

Featured image: @FilipinoKitchen, instagram photos: @FilipinoFoodMovement

If we truly are what we eat, then I’m Bangus – otherwise known as Milkfish. But I’m not that sanitized, boneless small version you see at restaurants. I’m grown. I’m full-flavored and I’m prickly as hell. See that’s the thing with me and Bangús: It will take some patience and effort to enjoy the unique taste we bring.

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The 5 Biggest (Un)-Trends in Filipino Food for 2015

Every year, a group of tastemakers and trenderati pontificate on what they believe are going to be the top food trends for this year.  Whether or not these trends are actually just self-fulfilling prophecies is beyond us.  However, one particular “trend” that’s consistently made it in recent years, from Andrew Zimmern proclaiming it the “next big thing” in 2012 all the way up to this year’s list, is “Filipino Food.  It’s supposedly going to gain a huge following, an increased appreciation outside of the iconic adobos and halo-halos, and ever more restaurants pushing our heady flavors to the hungry masses.  But what exactly does saying Pinoy food is a 2015 trend mean?  Filipino cuisine is such a rich topic, full of historical context and ripe with stories that to say it’s a “trend” this year is quite an oversimplification and implies we’re being given a limited time on the proverbial stage to strut our stuff!  What does “trendiness” look like?  Prolific to the point of cheap Pinoy takeout via Seamless?  A Filipino Michelin-starred restaurant on Park Avenue?  Whatever your opinion is, we’re just as excited as you for the opportunities Filipino cuisine faces this year!

Elected by a not-as-secret sect of foodies (us….duhhh), we’ve tasked ourself on compiling the next stages in the evolution of the Filipino cuisine and why we believe this is one “trend” that’s going to be around for a while.

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Top Filipino Dishes We Ate in 2014

To say it was humid that day was an understatement.  Having to walk 15 blocks to the supermarket in a polo and jeans, walk back with several bottles of patis and coconut oil, and then proceed to cook in a sweltering kitchen with an industrial size oven and gas range on full blast?  Yeah…humid my ass.  It was in these conditions that I first met Sarahlynn of Filipino Kitchen (and a few months later, her co-conspirator Natalia) as I sous chef’d (is that even a verb?) for my friend Yana Gilbuena of the SALO Series (covered said dinner here and a previous one here).  We didn’t speak much.  Just a few pleasantries and some polite commentary on the bangus that was dripping its guts onto my arms.

It wasn’t until several semi-chance encounters here in NYC and in Chicago when the thought of collaborating came up.  I’m an automatic supporter of food bloggers and side hustlers and when we got into a conversation around Filipino food culture in the middle of a loud beercade in Lakeview, Chicago, I had a feeling we were going to be working together soon.  Well that soon is right now and without further ado, I’d like to introduce our first post in this #FKEDUP series care-of the Filipino Kitchen gals featuring the best Pinoy eats of 2014.  (Disclaimer: this list is neither comprehensive nor definitive…that’s where you come in!  Think anything’s missing from this list?  Let us know!)  Let’s get to it!

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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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Interview with Yana of SALO: Chicago (Filipino pop-up dinners)

(Photo credits: Cassandra Sicre & Eileen Zara, Video by SALO Series.  Check out the YouTube link below for more details inc. the full menu, co-sponsors, and deets on where the next SALOs will be!)

Cooking in a Filipino kitchen has always been chaotic for me.  Oil from the frying short ribs was splattering everywhere, the oven wasn’t heating up fast enough, the person bringing the ice (who was also providing music for the night) was nowhere to be found, and the blender for the Kare-Kare sauce just broke.  Remind me again why I took a 24-hour bus ride to Chicago for this?

A few months ago, I had written about Yana Gilbuena, Creative Director and genius behind SALO, the 50-part pop-up dinner series bringing every state a Filipino kamayan-style (eating without the use of utensils) dinner every week.  Just recently, I trekked out to Chicago where she held her 19th one to a turnout of almost fifty people (I mean…mainstream media channels have been covering her)!  Having made it almost halfway through without being driven insane by the perils of her cross-country travels (ie. monotonous roads, endless McDonald’s, and horror movie-esque rest stops), Yana graciously welcomed me as her sous chef for the day.

Getting interviewed for the documentary in progress

Getting interviewed for the documentary in progress

Cooking for SALO was an entirely new experience, throwing down at Sweet Tips BBQ, an artist launch pad-cum-BBQ joint owned by modern-day Renaissance Man, Roy (who happens to raise his own cattle too).  However, it still felt comfortingly familiar; the banana leaves, the lack of rigid plating conventions, the family atmosphere, and the celebration of the Filipino sport of eating non-stop.  It was a hot and humid day made worse by the simultaneous operation of a sizzling griddle for the fried rice, the entire stovetop, and an industrial convection oven.  But in between wrapping the milkfish in taro leaves and checking to see if the chicken inasal was done, I got a chance to catch up with Yana and ask how SALO was going.

Into the heat...

Into the heat…

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4th of July recap: The Un-/All-American Burger

Fresh Off the Boat.  It was always the (rather inappropriate) excuse I’d use whenever I’d commit some cultural faux pas, justifying that no…I’m just a Pilipino boy from elsewhere who has NOT seen the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (apparently that’s a crime around here).  I’d always be the outsider despite being reminded the other day that I would have spent almost a decade here in the States.  Still, I never could quite bleed the red, white, and blue and up until recently, I regarded Fourth of July celebrations with mild amusement; the day became synonymous to me as one of gluttony and excess rather than its actual revolutionary roots.

murica

For years I also saw J4 as just an excuse to skip class, drink some cheap beer on a rooftop, and sleep in.  Unlike Thanksgiving with its iconic turkeys and cranberry sauce, J4 as an American Holiday only offered me rubbery hot dogs and charred burgers and so it was difficult for me to relate foodwise with the event.  I do believe that food, in a primal way, helps us connect with the unfamiliar and so if the holiday offerings are the same as the slop I can buy off the carts by Grand Central…was there anything unique that I could relate to with J4?

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