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
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.
“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?
There’s this odd thing we – especially those from immigrant families – do when it comes to tasting new, usually “ethnic” (for lack of a better word) dishes. After the first cursory sips/chews/swallows, the proverbial light bulb goes off and we say: “Oh that’s nice…but you should taste the [insert own culture here] version of this!”. It’s annoying and heart-warming at the same time. On one hand, the fact that someone claims that they make a better “version” of a dish I grew up with is a bit unappetizing. “Bro…the Vietnamese one is far better”…”I mean…it’s not as flavorful as the Somali version my mom makes”…”Are you high? Everyone knows the Arab way is the real one”. On the other, it’s a quick and solid way to connect to one another; gaps bridged by soups, entrees, and confections.
Filipinos embrace the fierce loyalty we have to the Sinigang as the quintessential Filipino soup. Just about every college student knows how to make one from even the barest of budgets: meat (pork ribs or fish) + variety of veggies (usually radish, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and green beans) all boiled in a sour tamarind broth. No one fucks with Sinigang. So when a good friend uttered the words: “I know what this is! This is just a Filipino version of a really good Vietnamese Sour Soup called Canh Chua Ca!”, best believe I wasn’t going to take it lying down. The debate ended with me downloading the recipe for this…”Sour Soup” and trying it out with a few of my own twists.
(Looks like I have quite the backlog of posts hidden in “Drafts” so while I cook up [pun most definitely intended] some fresh content…I hope you enjoy the leftovers [yup there it is!] from yesterday’s writing. This is one of the few things I did after finally getting a blender many moons back…]
…this first one is a combination of two different soups: the Filipino Sinigang (a sour tamarind broth with a mixture of vegetables and some type of meat), as well as the Spanish Caldillo de Pero (an Andalusian soup soured by the local sour oranges). It’s got the smoky creaminess of a red pepper bisque but with an appetizing tang. In lieu of the traditional fish and to balance the richness of the soup, I’ve topped it with some fried okra, caramelized oranges, and ginger confit.
It’s got quite a few components (not to mention is quite a liberal interpretation of the two soups since I actually used sweeter blood oranges) but the resulting bowl is complex, balanced, and refined enough to elevate the ordinary to gastronomical suave-ness. Definitely something to keep up your sleeve for more creative nights (or when you need to make una buena impresión).
(Found this lost in the archives of my drafts from a few months ago…seeing as the weather’s getting colder anyway, this is the perfect time to make this warm, comforting dish!)
It was Sunday morning and I was in a bit of a dilemma: cook a cost-efficient meal of pasta but risk overloading on carbs…or make yet another stew. Ever since I’ve restricted my carb intake to a quarter of my total daily values, everything from ramen to *gasp* white rice looks like a gigantic carb bomb. If you’re curious as to just how carb-loaded a half cup of rice is…actually…forget I mentioned it. After all, ignorance is bliss as they say (you totally Googl-ed it didn’t you?)!
But I digress…faced with the impossible decision between comfort or breaking my diet…I said “Screw it! I’ll have both!”. Rather than the usual boxed fettucine, I opted to hand-make gnocchi with sweet potato (the de facto – and what seems like the solo – carb option to the health conscious) and pair with with a kale and beef ragout.
Making gnocchi is far easier than I thought it would be (though you most certainly can use the store-bought variety if you’re not as carb-conscious as I am this week). The trick is getting just the right amount of flour so that the dough is moldable without the end result having an overly mealy taste and texture. Pair that with a hearty ragout and you’ve got comfort…without overdosing on those carbs. Get cookin’!
Menu-writing for multi-course dinner sucks. There…I said it. Until recently, I never really enjoyed it and when I asked professionals how they compose/curate/conjure one up, I was met with two parts mysticism (“I just write what the Universe says through me…it’s all about connecting with the Divine”), a heaping of cryptic shade-throwing (“Well, you have to first study and really understand the seasonality of the local terroir after which you compose layers of sometimes contradictory but simultaneously harmonious flavors”), and a pinch of astringency (“Actually…I don’t know. I make what I want OK?”).
“Artful” menu-writing seemed so mysterious, shrouded in veils of secrecy to prevent us uninitiated commoners from discovering just how the Stewards of Sauce-ry know to follow a biting Mizuna-Shiso salad with lightly roasted cod under a citrus foam. Without much insight into their cabalistic procedures, I often resorted to cobbling together pieces of different menus/recipes into some Frankenstein-esque monstrosity where beef curry was somehow followed by roast chicken on biscuits & gravy with bok choy (true story!). For a data geek like me whose Accounting degree had no business being in the kitchen, it was infuriating!
With a month away from my third pop-up dinner, a collaboration with the Filipino Kitchen and Pilipino-American Unity for Progress, and the bad taste of gravy-soaked bok choy in my mouth, I attempted to apply some unartistic nerdery to come up with a menu centered around our chosen theme of Philippine Independence Day. Unorthodox? Perhaps. Time-consuming? Oh yes indeed! But did it work? Read on…
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
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.