(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.
Anna Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford
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.
Start of the trail.
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 24-Hour Restaurant
// 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.
// 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.
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.
More Subway Rules
// Past midnight, a 24-hour Sukiya diner across from the hostel. お腹すいた
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.
Karee Rice, Tofu, Shiro Miso, Sansai
“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?
Seafood, crab fat rice, native chicken – Breakthrough Restaurant, Iloilo
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?
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 Mercado: Bangus (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.
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.
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!