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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Scallop and Monkfish Kinilaw: Cured Fish Made to Kill (or so the story goes…)

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I remember the first time I had kinilaw (kee-knee-lau…not the “law” in “lawyer”), Filipino cured seafood similar to the more well-known ceviche.  It was a weeknight back in Saudi Arabia and my mom was hit with one of those rare nights of laziness so we bought food from the corner kalinderya serving the local Filipino workforce.  Amongst the requisite containers full of greasy adobo, menudo, and chop suey was one filled with cubes of white fish and Thai chilis swimming in a milky white liquid.  Looking back, that shit wasn’t good at all: the fish overcooked and chewy, the acidity overpowered by the too finely minced peppers, and the onions beginning to seep their purple into the liquid.  But without a frame of reference, I remember my eyes widening…the perfect moment of childhood discovery.  The burst of sharp sourness from the Datu Puti vinegar, the firm flesh…the rawness!  Ever since then, kinilaw was a treat.  From lunches during sweltering Saudi summers to seaside feasts back in our hometown of Iloilo, kinilaw provided the much needed bite to cut through the rich Filipino spaghetti (it contains condensed milk…a story for another day) and meat-heavy dishes without the tired pretension that ceviche sometimes carries (ceviche does NOT belong in a martini glass slathered with guacamole and salsa…gtfo!).

The origins of kinilaw are murky and I’m sure indigenous cultures all over the world began using acid to cure their seafood and extend its shelf life.  However, I really like this legend I stumbled upon on the Bisaya blog Huni sa Daplin:

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A Summer Welcome: Harlem Rooftop Picnic

I once read that there are more than 50 words for “snow” in the Eskimo “language” (this has been the subject of an ongoing debate believe it or not).  And while I like to think I have 50 of my own, they all happen to be vulgar and unfit for print.  Summer however, yields a far more polite but just as numerous vocabulary for the type of weather we’re having.  There’s “beach weather”, that almost-too-hot sting of a cloudless day that can only be balanced by jumping in an almost-too-cold ocean.  “Patio weather”, when the mosquitoes haven’t quite decided to attack yet and the light breeze won’t threaten to blow out your grill flame.  “Window-shopping-with-ice-cream-in-hand weather”, “people-watching weather”, “brunch-with-unlimited-mimosas weather”.  It wasn’t until I moved here to NYC that I found a new one to add: “Rooftop Weather”.

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With NYC’s streets crammed with bodegas, irate cab drivers, and parks too full of pasty bodies attempting to achieve that slightly seared look, those lucky enough to have access to a rooftop clamber up.  Be it the European models at the Top of the Standard, the pseudo-hipsters at the rooftop pools in Williamsburg, or in our budget-conscious case, a Spartan rooftop all the way up in Harlem.

An accessible rooftop in your apartment is sometimes almost as good as having a large living room and the moment Rooftop Weather hit, my friend Angel and company decided we should baptize it the right way and hold a feast.

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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.

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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.

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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?).

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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.

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

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Winter Daydreams (NY to Palawan)

It’s cold out here.  With this whole polar vortex deal, going anywhere is a Herculean task what with my lazy self never having invested in proper snow boots, gloves, or a plane ticket to Miami.  And so here I was sitting on a cold subway bench on Friday night in a trance over the fact that not even 3 weeks ago, I was basking in the warm Filipino sun.  I shook my head, lamenting the fact that it was busy season for us accountants…

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…I shook my head and marveled at the fact that I was on a boat headed to another pristine island.  On that beach, in a moment of rare hipster clarity, I wondered why we work so much in order to afford a few weeks off of paradise when humanity has the ability today to live in such a condition if they so wished.  I sighed…

…I sighed as I walked out of the subway station, gritted my teeth against the biting cold and stepped out into the swirling snow…

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…I stepped out onto the soft, white sand.  Hopping islands in Palawan and there was no trace of work-related worries on my mind…at least for the moment.  We swam, ate, swam some more.  It was quiet, devoid of boisterous families and rich European tourists with their dolled-up Filipina wives.  It was as if nothing existed in the vast expanse of ocean around me…

…It was as if all joy fled the city, out into the warm homes in Sunnyside and the dive bars in Bushwick.  I trudged down two avenues, gingerly skating across black ice.  I stepped into a deep puddle, grimacing as the ice cold water seeped into my too thin leather shoes…

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[Review] Bilao at Palayok – A Clay Pot Half Empty

Communal dining has always been a fave of mine.  From grilling Korean samgyupsal (pork belly) to sharing 10 heaping plates of food on a Lazy Susan for Chinese New Year, there’s something about partaking from a shared table that just feels right.  In fact, I don’t know of many places in the Philippines (excluding the more modern establishments of course) that cater specifically to individuals.  From soups to entrees, everything’s about sharing the love and so I was excited to try the food at Bilao at Palayok during our short trip to the islands of Palawan.  A bilao is a large, woven, tray-sized “plate” meant to hold several dishes at once to serve multiple people.  A palayok on the other hand is a large clay pot used for a variety of dishes from stews to soups and even rice.  The name itself implied that this was a place for large servings and large groups.

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And there it was: smack dab in the middle of Rizal Ave stood a giant palayok; more kitsch than grandeur.  True to its love for all things large, the place was a sprawling complex, complete with faux bridges, huts, and walkways that made it seem more like a resort stop than a restaurant.  We had to trek through winding pathways to finally reach the bar area where several waitresses were lounging around, texting on their cellphones.

Village-sized.

Village-sized.

We requested seating near the outside (where a hostess should’ve been waiting for us) and only this second time through the place did I notice that a place that could’ve held hundreds was only occupied by a table of French tourists and a family of locals.

We cracked open the menu and I was pleased to find favorites: Sisig (pork innards), Pusit (Squid), Kinilaw (Filipino ceviche), and various barbecued meats were well-represented and the prices reasonable.  We attempted to order the “Ihaw-ihaw sa Bilao” (Ihaw means “grill”).  And I say attempted as almost half the dishes were inexplicably unavailable.  No baked clams, so we added a tuna filet.  No squid, so we added 2 extra crabs.  When asked if we could substitute with similar items from the rest of the menu, the waitress replied by saying that the food was already “portioned off”.  Well good lady, if it indeed was “portioned” off, then why is this particular dish missing some of its “portions”?  And are you then saying it’s difficult to “portion” the other dishes as substitutions?  Is it that much harder to maybe add a few Calamari in there?  Seems like this was one bilao that wasn’t going to be full.

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