Canh Chua Ca: On Cross-Cultural Consumption

Canh Chua

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.

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Spanish-style Pinamalhan: Bluefish in Sour Salsa Verde

A while back I wrote about an exhibit in SoHo showcasing the great Ferran Adria’s notes and sketches.  Instead of the usual food porn we see from other chefs, Adria’s notes are scientific, cultural, methodical, and utterly cerebral.  Which was why his book entitled “The Family Meal” was surprisingly simple and home-y.  I decided to try (and modify) one of the seafood recipes, having turned a casual pescetarian during the weekdays.  I got a great deal on Bluefish at Whole Foods and after I snagged some ultra-rare organic rice from Ayesha’s farm in the Philippines, I wanted to see if I could make a Spanish, amped-up version of my childhood Pinamalhan, a Filipino dish consisting of fish slowly braised in vinegar until the sauce reduces and thickens.


My summertime slump continues and so I’ve begun to tone down the rich, hearty meals of winter in favor of something lighter and not as food coma-inducing.  And with very few ingredients, this dish will really showcase that nice fish (no…you may NOT filet it!) you’re going to pick up this weekend.  Here we go…..

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Mom’s Lazy Dinners: Fish En Papillote (kinda)

My Mom, like every other mother out there, is a hardworking woman.  Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I’d remember how she’d get up every morning to sweep the entire house, she’d cook all 3 meals 6 day’s a week, do everyone’s laundry, and scrub the stove like it was going out of style.  As a child, I would look in fear and awe at how this diminutive woman could possess this unnatural energy to do the same thing day in and day out for more than a decade with only the occasional pocket book or cooking show to amuse her.  Of course that unnatural energy I later found out (yeah…I’m not exactly the brightest light bulb in the bunch), was pure unadulterated Love.


But she had her moments.  Looking back, I knew which days she wasn’t in the zone; when the energy just wasn’t quite there.  Looking back at her dinners, I could tell which days she wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest her tired bones.  Those days were the ones where her dinners had less than 6 ingredients and minimal prep.  Those days were not the ones where she pressure cooked ox tail for 2 hours to make her rib-sticking soup, or the ones where she baked multi-layer Shepherd’s Pie against the protests of my Filipino-to-the-core father’s taste buds that craved rice and soup.  Those were the days when she stuck a fish in foil, threw it in the oven, and simply called it “Baked Fish”.

The more bougie of us know this as “Poisson En Papillote” or “Fish in Parchment”.  Of course our version utilized a Filipino sentiment, swapping the parchment for foil and favoring the cheaper milkfish.  A truly bare bones recipe, this one is perfect for the end of a tiresome week when all you want is some peace and quiet.  Less than 30 minutes to cook and because of the perfect balance of acidity and fat, you get comfort without all the effort.  It was a dish that said: “I’m dead tired, and yet I will feed you the very best”.

Let’s keep this short and simple…

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D’Avoir Une Fete pt. 2: Poisson Meuniere

(Photo cred: William Panlilio)

Last weekend, I had posted up a quick and easy salad recipe I made during one of my friend William’s many dinner parties (though party would probably be an understatement for these feasts).  Seeing as Lent has begun and I’m giving up red meat for a while, I thought it’d be a good time to introduce my second dish from that night: a simple yet elegant French dish of pan-fried bluefish drizzled with a rich lemon-butter sauce.  The tartness of the lemon cuts through the fatty butter (it’ll also cut through any guilt you have of using butter soooo…we’re all good yes?).


A quick note on fish.  The appropriate type to use in the recette authentique would be sole or a similar whitefish, but seeing as Whole Foods charges an arm-and-a-leg for these wild-caught, “luxury” cuts, I went with Bluefish, which is akin to Mackerel.  Bluefish is fattier and is great grilled, another reason using lemon is key in this recipe.


It’s lunch time on a Monday so I’ll be less verbose than usual…straight to the recipe!

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The Return of Rosendo: Sinigang (Filipino sour broth for Busy Season)

What makes a good Busy Season dinner?  I was thinking about this the other day while attempting to decipher a particularly troublesome client spreadsheet (I mean…that’s what normal people think about when they do that right?).  But really, what IS a good Busy Season dinner?  Is it one that’s cheap, quick, and simultaneously healthy to make?  Most would think so, but I beg to differ.  After all, you can make a salad and we all know if that’s all you were going to do, you might as well have gone to Chop’t and contemplated the end of the world or something just as melodramatic.

No…I think an amazing Busy Season dinner has 2 other components:

1) It should have the power to comfort you.  Just as a plate of perfect fried chicken can do the soul good, a good Busy Season dinner must be one that can erase the burdens of the day from an unruly client to a Partner nitpicking one formatting error too many.  Of course there’s a fine line between “comfort” and “indulgence”, the latter being driven by a sort of quiet desperation and involves a trip to McDonald’s.

2) It should be eaten more than once.  The warm feeling of reheated pizza, last night’s roast chicken dropped onto a plate of fresh rice, dishes that are good enough to just be put back in the pan straight from the fridge and reheated while you boot up your laptop for another late night session are better the second time around.

For me, one such dish was Sinigang: a soup with a protein, vegetables, and usually soured with tamarind or mangosteen and a a staple of every Filipino’s culinary repertoire.  I still have vivid memories of weekend nights with the family when family dinners were still a thing and conversations were yet to be tainted by talk of politics and how the job market is screwed.  I remember exciting times when my mom would find a giant salmon head to make the Sinigang with and we’d happily split the fatty cheeks between us.  For all you of weaker stomachs, consider how disgusting the pink slime in your burger is before you turn your nose up on a perfectly good fish head.

To me, it was comforting, and after a long day, all I had to do was toss the pot on the stove and reheat.  This version is a simple one, fit for those quick dinners and uses the most basic of Sinigang mixes.

To a comforting night…

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Gettin’ Tail: Tea-Steamed Red Snapper Tail…Busy Season continues




That sign looks trustworthy…

For the past few weeks now, I’ve been stopping at this hidden gem of a grocery on 22nd and 2nd after the weekly yoga session.  Seemingly out-of-place among bagel shops and vintage clothiers, Rosendo’s Fish Market offers fresh fish, organic meats, and free range chickens.  So of course when I see a fish with clear eyes, some good weight to it, and doesn’t look like its malnourished, zombie-fied cousins in Chinatown, I had to buy one.  Forget the fact that the behemoth set me back $40 or that this red snapper was bigger than my forearm…fresh fish at an affordable price in Manhattan?  Sounds fishy (har har har).

Considering where I found Rosendo.  You'll be seeing more of him...literally.

Considering where I found him…meet Rosendo. You’ll be seeing more of him…literally.

I got home and cut the whole thing in 3 parts: the head, tail, and fillets, drenching myself in blood and fish guts in the process (note to self: have the fishmonger dress the fish for you next time).  For the head, I was able to cook Sinigang, a Filipino sour soup, of which I’m still debating if it’s worth posting about since the meal I just made with the tail-end far surpasses it.

Tonight’s Busy Season Dinner is a Tea-Steamed Red Snapper Tail drizzled with hot sesame oil infused with ginger and spring onions.  Typically a Cantonese or Teochew dish, steamed red snapper is not only cheap ($8.99/lb.), I managed to cook the whole thing (while cooking the next day’s breakfast at the same time mind you) within half an hour.  Plus, with a minimal number of ingredients and the healthiness of fish compared to that gut-bustin’ burger you must be chompin’ on, you’d be a fool not to make this dish (or you’re on a particularly difficult audit that doesn’t let you leave until 2 AM in which case, you’re excused).

Onward to epicness!

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