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

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.

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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.

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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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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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“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.

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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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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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