Kulinarya Cooking Club: Maligayang Bati at Manigong Bagong Taon edition

Happy Lunar New Year, folks! Once again, I dropped off the face of the earth, but at least I’m re-emerging to post for this month’s Kulinarya Cooking Club challenge. It would be extra embarrassing if I didn’t participate this time around, too, as Pearl of Sassy Chef and I were the two bloggers hosting this challenge!

The KCC challenge for January that the two of us cooked up was this one:
This month’s theme is a celebration– of good health and of new beginnings!
Words and Nosh’s big 3-0 is this month, so we dreamed up a birthday challenge:
What dish (entree, dessert, drink, merienda, whatever!) do you always request,
or wish you could have, for your birthday?

As a twist, how would you modify the dish to make it more healthy? It’s the new
year, after all, and it’s time to get back on track with good eating habits! You
can make your dish vegetarian/vegan, lower fat, dairy-free, low sugar or however
else you want, so long as it’s a little bit healthier for your body and the
planet!

I had every intention of posting earlier, but alas, since it actually was my birthday last week, I’ve been out and about, with no time to even think about cooking! Finally, though, I got it together and whipped up my own take on rellenong bangus (stuffed milkfish) with sauteed kangkong (water spinach), one of my favorite dishes. Not only is it easy to make, healthy, and delicious, but also pretty enough to serve for a special celebration.

 

Now, you’ll notice first off that the fish I’m using here isn’t bangus at all, nor is the green vegetable kangkong. In keeping with the theme of the month, and with my general outlook on eating and cooking with local, sustainable, and organic ingredients as much as possible, I branched out a bit; I preserved the essence of the Filipino flavors but switched the ingredients up a bit. Moreover, I tried to reduce the oils and sodium as much as possible so the typical post-Filipino meal swelling wouldn’t plague me again!

Between Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and the local farmers market, I was able to source all the ingredients for the meal. Though organic is often synonymous with overpriced, by sticking to in-season ingredients and whole fish (instead of fillets), the total check was <$20 to serve 2 people. [The rice, garlic, patis, and shallots were already in my pantry so that doesn’t count!]. I’d like to think I honored Ilokano frugality by keeping the cost low!

For the fish stuffing, I mixed up the following:

  • 4 cloves garlic (chopped)
  • 1 shallot (thinly sliced)
  • small handful macadamia nuts (chopped, in lieu of traditional pili nuts)
  • 1-2 tbsp. fresh grated ginger
  • 1/2 tbsp. patis (fish sauce)
  • roughly 1/3 cup cherry tomatoes (coursely chopped)

 

Then I simply stuffed it into two dressed rainbow trout, along with halved small Mexican limes (kinda calamansi like, though not exactly the same), cilantro, and some green onions. To the outside of the trout, I squeezed some more lime, sprinkled a little sea salt and pepper, and a very light spray of olive oil spray.

I then baked the fish in a 400 degree oven for 20 mins, to make sure it was all cooked through but not dried out.

[An important aside on the fish: I decided to go with rainbow trout over the other whole fish available at Whole Foods not only because it was the most cheaply priced ($6.99/lb. with these two fish coming in just under one lb.) but because farmed rainbow trout is listed as a “best choice” fish by the Seafood Watch Program. That means that it is the most sustainable choice, that commits less environmental and ecological harm than other species and sources of fish. I strongly recommend that you check out Seafood Watch– they have printable cards and even smartphone apps to help you make better seafood choices when shopping or eating out.]

While the fish was baking, I prepped and cooked the greens, which were actually broccoli rabe and not kangkong. I was actually surprised at how much the rabe reminded me of kangkong in this meal, the flavors went so well with the fish.

For the broccoli rabe, you simply wash and shake out (but not fully dry off)  a large bunch of the rabe, and add to a pan where 3 minced garlic cloves have been sauteed in 1/4 cup of olive oil on med-low heat for about 5 minutes. Sprinkle red pepper flakes, sea salt, and some white pepper to taste and raise heat to med-high. Once temp is up, lower heat to medium and cover pan for about 5 minutes. The rabe should then cook itself down, the excess water from washing helping to steam it a bit. I removed the rabe when it was al dente, but you could cook it down more if you like!

 

It never happens usually, but somehow both the fish and the veggies cooked at the same time, so they were both perfectly hot and ready to serve in half an hour after I started cooking! With some steamed brown rice, it was a perfect way to end my weekend.

Hope you enjoyed my little cooking adventure, peeps! Will try to post again soon, but no promises…

 

Kulinarya Cooking Club: Philippine History Edition

In honor of of August and September being Philippine National Heroes Day and Ninoy Aquino Day, the lovely folks at the Kulinarya Cooking Club dreamed up a patriotically-themed challenge: to create a dish using the colors of the Philippine national flag of red, white, blue and yellow!

I think I pretty much stuck true to theme, though played it the easy way out this month, with my not-so-original take on halo-halo! Halo-halo, which means “mix mix” in Tagalog, is basically shave ice with extra tasty goodness in it. And despite the relative ease it takes to make this, I thought it an especially apt dessert dish to fit the challenge, and not just for the colors of the ingredients I chose to make my halo-halo with.

Like the Philippines itself, there are plenty of different colonial influences in halo-halo: the ice and condensed milk (thanks, Amerikkka, for those innovations); flavored jellies, in this case lychee and almond (Chinese); and the most decadent addition, leche flan (a recipe borrowed from our Spanish colonizers and made even better). Despite all these foreign additions, you’ve still got some wonderful indigenous Filipino fruits and legumes which are my favorite part of the halo-halo– the langka (jackfruit), ube jam (pretend it’s blue, for the challenge’s sake!), sweet red mungo (mung beans), and macapuno (young coconut strings). This mix of flavors is probably the most harmonious collaboration you’ll see between these different forces; sadly, the Philippines today hasn’t benefited economically, socially, or politically from their various “benefactors”, despite the propaganda written to the contrary.

After making the flan, which is the longest part of the process and done the night before, assembling the halo-halo is a snap.

1: Shave the ice. Surprisingly fun when you’ve got a home ice shaver like this one. Way better than the tiny Snoopy sno-cone shaver from my childhood.

2. Choose your toppings. (If I had more time and money, I would’ve prepped fresh ingredients but alas… it will have to wait another day.)

3. Drizzle condensed milk on top and voila! Serve and eat quickly before it all melts!

Enjoyed my little educational cooking demo? Well, if you want more Filipino food history from someone far more educated on this topic than I am, do I have a treat for you! Next Sunday, October 2nd, the food historian Felice Santa Maria and noted chef Claude Tayag will be traveling all the way from the Philippines to San Francisco for a free food demo and lecture at the Filipino American International Book Fair. I will definitely be in attendance, and hope to see y’all there!

Restaurant Review: Wa Dining OKAN

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve done a restaurant review on this blog, as it’s actually a topic I don’t particularly care to write about. In this case, however, I’ll make an exception. After another wonderful meal at the still-under-the-radar homestyle Japanese restaurant, Wa Dining OKAN, I feel compelled to share it with you… even as I hope you never go and make it harder for me to get a reservation!

This place is a real jewel box– tucked away in a strip mall, like all places on Convoy Street, I guess–  OKAN seats a max of 25 people, most of whom are seated around a rectangular bar area where the day’s specials are presented in beautiful earthenware bowls and serving platters. For my birthday this past year, the mister and I were lucky enough to grab seats around the bar– it’s really the way to go to see all the fresh foods of the day, and ogle what the other patrons (mostly Japanese folks, not tourists or puti people) are ordering off the Japanese-language menu (which is way better and more extensive than the English menu, of course!). This time, with our party of four, we were seated at one of the three larger tables in the place, which was still lovely but definitely missing some of the ambience.

The decor inside is warm and inviting, almost like being in someone’s home. The hostesses last weekend, when I went, were in kimonos even– they don’t typically wear them, but it was the 3rd Anniversary celebration weekend for the restaurant, so the outfits were part of the festivities. Enough about the decor though– look at the food!

Wa Dining Okan specializes in small plates, but they offer much more than standard izakaya bar fare. They offer large rice pots, soups, and the like, but I enjoy ordering from the small plates and daily specials, which are always fresh and seasonal. They say they offer “homestyle Japanese cooking,” and I’ll believe them, even if I’ve never eaten in a Japanese person’s home before (anyone wanna invite me over for dinner?). Some of the highlights from this past weekend’s meal (though I’ve never had a dish I didn’t enjoy here) are pictured below.

scallops in sea urchin sauce

The scallop sashimi in sea urchin sauce was so delicate and boldly flavored at the same time– it was my first time eating scallops in the raw, and these had such a briney taste, as if they came directly from the sea to the plate. I didn’t try it, but our friend also raved about the leaf beneath the scallops– turned out it was shiso, which I’ve never had before. Good thing they sell it at the Nijiya market, next door to OKAN, in case I ever get the urge to try some at home.

A dish so good we ordered it twice– fried mochi in broth. I’ve never had mochi prepared this way, and it was wonderful. A great contrast in textures, and the broth was beautiful (as are all the broths made here). Pictured behind are skewers of fried beef tongue, which I’ve had before here and always really enjoy. It’s one of the menu items on the Japanese menu– I’m assuming the restaurant doesn’t think average Americans have the palate for it, and sadly they’re probably right.

A menu staple, and done right here– rice balls with salmon. Though seeing the special being brought to the next table– plain rice balls rolled in sea salt and served with broth– did give me some rice ball envy, that’s for sure.

Dinner at Wa Dining OKAN isn’t cheap, but neither is it outrageous, especially for the quality of food you get. For their third anniversary weekend, all small plates were 30% off, and Sapporo drafts were only $2. They seem to have special events quite often– following them on Facebook or Twitter will keep you abreast of what’s happening.

While I bitch about living in San Diego most days, I will say that there are a growing number of restaurants here that are really good– not just good for San Diego, but good for anywhere else. I’d add Wa Dining OKAN to that list, any time.

 

Wa Dining OKAN
3860 Convoy Street, Suite 110
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 279-0941

on going slow, commitment, and roux

There’s something so simple, so basic about gumbo that it’s easy to forget just how damn long a proper gumbo takes to cook. That delicious cacophony of sausage, chicken, peppers, onions, and okra mixed and simmered in a highly spiced roux and broth– that doesn’t come quick or easy, which I found out the hard way yesterday. If I thought I had made gumbo before, I was dead wrong. This dish is something that takes a whole lotta time and a commitment to being in the kitchen that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone but the most committed (or crazy) of home cooks.

That dark brown color you see there? I’ve never made a gumbo that dark before, and that’s all because I had never made a proper oil roux before, either. This recipe, taken from Donald Link’s incredible Real Cajun cookbook, called for a serious roux, that had extra depth of flavor due to the fact that you fry the chicken for the gumbo in the oil first.

For this first part- you basically fry up your chicken pieces (I used 6 skin- and bone-on chicken legs, seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged in flour) in a cup of oil heated medium-high in a sturdy cast iron pot. Once the chicken is browned (not totally cooked through), remove from oil and set aside.

That’s the easy part. Hopefully you, like me, have the whole day ahead of you and have queued up some good shows on the DVR to listen to; hopefully you, unlike me, have strong wrists and no nagging carpal tunnel or other nerve issues that won’t flare up after making the roux. Because, again, this roux is not playing around. To the cup of oil that’s now warmed at the bottom of your pot, add 3/4 cup flour and start whisking slowly, for a damn long time. Start on medium heat, and incrementally lower the heat as the roux begins to thicken and change colors, until finally the heat is on low and your roux is a deep dark brown, almost black.

I’m sure there are plenty better descriptions of making roux than I’ve offered above– I’ve read quite a few myself over the years– but all I can say is that you won’t ever know how to make a roux until you just do it yourself. Watching it change from a dark to a medium brown back to dark brown again, thickening all the time, became truly hypnotic and helped the hour(!!!) of stirring go by relatively quickly. It’s impossible to have a gumbo with this kind of depth of flavor– no matter how fresh your vegetables or how well-raised your meats– if your roux isn’t done right. Being able to complete this process myself, with my own two hands, was incredibly satisfying, and taught me a few things about my capacities as a cook (and a person) that I hadn’t really thought through before.

For all you wannabe Top Chefs out there, making a roux the long way offers pretty quick reality check– a potent reminder of why we as home cooks are not, and will never be, cut out for a professional kitchen. I wasn’t kidding when I tweeted that my hands were shaking when I finally stopped stirring the roux– they kept on shaking the rest of the afternoon as I finished up the dish and well after. Even as I fantasize of one day going to culinary school and wearing chef whites, I’m pretty sure I won’t be seeing the inside of Momofuku’s kitchen any time soon. I’m just not cut out for the life and the work of cooking full-time.

I am already committed to being a professor, however, and making this roux, and the entire gumbo (which, if you want the full recipe, you’ll have to find in the Real Cajun cookbook that I’ve gushed about many times before) served as a necessary kind of head clearing that I’ve needed for a while now. As I try to write my dissertation– a long, slow-going and often demoralizing process– I can’t help but try to take shortcuts, to find the easy way out of really working through difficult questions that I know I don’t have the answers to, right now. Like making proper gumbo, though, writing and research is a slow process, and to do it right you’ve got to sit with it for a long while, and be ready to commit. If I can commit a day to cooking one dish that will be eaten in a few short days, then I think I should offer the same level of care and work into a written piece with my name attached to it that will exist in perpetuity…. Thanks, Donald Link, for helping me regain sight of that with a simple, not-so-simple gumbo recipe.

Like White on Rice: June Kulinarya Cooking Club challenge

I’m back! After a crazy month and a half (school ending, fellowship writing, ankle cast on and off, and Lasik!), I’ve finally had the chance to begin enjoying my summer and cooking up a storm! Lately, it’s been a mostly liquid diet; after the mister and I came back from a fantastic May trip to New Orleans, where we sampled many amazing cocktails, we’ve been on a bit of a tear trying out new cocktail recipes at home. Still, one can’t be boozed up all the time (right?!), and I’ve been playing around with recipes, figuring out ways to make them healthier, with more organic and sustainable ingredients and so on.

This dish I just made today, however, isn’t any of those things. It’s rich, wasn’t sustainably sourced (remember what I said before, about ethnic groceries and organic food?), but damn if it wasn’t incredibly delicious:

I made this dish for this month’s Kulinarya Cooking Club challenge, which called for “white food.” There are few things I love more than fresh Jasmine rice and coconuts, and so this dish was perfect for it. Borrowing liberally from a recipe I saw a long time ago in The Adobo Book, here was my take on shrimp with sawsawang adobong gata (coconut adobo sauce).

The shrimp itself is super easy to prepare. While the recipe called for charcoal-grilled pandan-wrapped shrimp, necessity and time restrictions led me to simply pan-grilling the shrimp with liberal squirts of lemon (no calamansi either, natch).

For the adobo sauce, I basically got these ingredients

and cooked them all up together. First sauteeing the 5 cloves chopped garlic, small piece crushed luyang dilaw (turmeric), and 1 chopped red onion until translucent; then adding 2 chopped sili labuyo, 1/2 tsp bagoong alamang, 1 tbsp turbinado sugar, and a can of coconut cream (the fatty stuff!) and simmering until thick.

I bought about 1 1/2 lbs of prawns and had enough for two generous servings plus leftovers, so this recipe could serve four for a main entree if you added more side dishes. My tummy’s still full from this lunch, and next time I’m in the mood to bust my diet, this dish will definitely be high on the list!

 

 

(For more “white challenge” recipes from Kulinarya members, visit their websites linked here!)

My ugly duckling: the 2011 Brazo de Mercedes Experiment

Happy Easter, folks! I’m still stuffed from a huge Easter brunch / dinner party, and I hope you ate just as well today. Contrary to my most recent posts, I *do* still love writing about and cooking food, and have joined up with the Kulinarya Cooking Club as an extra motivation to push myself to try new-to-me Filipino food experiments.

This month’s theme, courtesy of Lala, was “decadence” and I immediately knew what I had to try my hand at making: Brazo de Mercedes (translated from Spanish as “Mercedes’s arm”). Don’t worry, there were no body parts involved in the preparation of this decadent dessert, though trying to cook and bake all day on a sprained ankle really was a painful bodily experience.

I didn’t have Brazo de Mercedes very often as a kid– this rich cake, basically a meringue sheet wrapped around yema or an egg custard, was pretty hard to find in the very puti neighborhoods of my youth. When I did come across it, though, I would always have to order it– the fluffy, sticky sweet meringue and the filling which was like a leche flan on steroids was simply too good to resist.

When a friend threw her annual birthday dinner party, and asked us all to bring a food item featuring some kind of citrus, I knew what I had to do: make a Brazo de Mercedes with a twist, adding Meyer lemons to make a filling akin to lemon curd.

Unfortunately, finding Meyer lemons proved to be impossible, but lemons from our home lemon tree and some extra sugar came to the rescue. Everything at first went really well. Our meringue sheet, which dear hubs mixed up in our Kitchenaid, came out beautifully:

And baked up perfectly brown and lovely. Basic meringue recipe (8 egg whites, 1 tsp. cream of tartar, 3/4 cup Caster sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla) on a slightly too-big 12×17 jelly roll plan:

When it came to filling, though, I began to run into some trouble. The “Filipino-American” cookbook I used diverged from the typical Brazo filling, asking for gelatin and whipping cream to be folded into the egg yolk/condensed milk mixture. That, plus the juice from the lemons I added, made this filling soooo runny. Even after cooling down in fridge and waiting for gelatin to set more, it wasn’t doing the trick. My poor Brazo had to be subjected to some plastic surgery to make it to the birthday party intact:

Even if it was a little whole lot uglier than the beautiful Brazos I remember, people still loved it, and I must admit the filling was delish, with the lemon lightening up the yema nicely.

I was going to just brush this sad experiment under the bridge, but then remembered we would have a second chance to make it again– for the Easter brunch we were invited to today. This time around, I turned to the queen of Filipino home cooking: Nora Daza. I followed her instructions to a T, and was feeling much better about this experiment. Sadly, this time too I was destined to have an ugly Brazo de Mercedes. The hubs got a little too over-zealous with the Kitchenaid mixer, and the meringue sheet didn’t rise, and my filling was still too runny, though not as much as before. My poor Brazo was the ugliest desert in the house, but at least she was delicious!

I’m not sure I’ll be trying this recipe again soon– it is a decadent recipe, after all– but if any of you are Brazo de Mercedes pros, please send along your tips! Now that I have these jelly roll plans, I think I want to bring back the old-school Filipino roll cakes of my youth– the mocha roll, buko pandan roll, and DEFINITELY the ube roll. Anyone want to be a taste tester for these upcoming experiments?

Treading (more) lightly: thoughts on Filipino America and veg*anism

In case you didn’t know (as if it’s unsurprising, given that I am of Filipino descent), I’m totally a lapsed Catholic. For a lot of reasons, most significantly my anti-racist/feminist/queer politics, I haven’t been involved with the church for a very long time. That being said, I do still appreciate the beauty of many church / religious rituals– especially after my grandfather passed in January, going to mass has been a way for me to work through my grief, in a place that was so dear to him. Maybe it’s been the recent visits to church, or my latent fear of being sent to that ring of fire (I may no longer be Catholic, but I still have a ton of Catholic guilt), but I’ve been observing Lent this year, and have been abstaining from meat on Fridays.

 

"California Roll" salad with miso-green onion dressing

It’s been surprisingly easy to keep meat-free on Fridays, since even before that I’ve been cutting down on meat consumption, at least when it comes to home cooking. My acquisition of the absolutely fantastic vegan cookbook Appetite for Reduction (so amazing, it deserves its own post with photos!), and my general turn to eating healthier and with less processed foods, coincided perfectly with Lent and so I’ve actually been cooking nearly entirely meat-free meals at home most days of the week. This isn’t the first time I’ve gone nearly meat-free– I have had short but failed stints as a pescetarian, as well as brief intentional periods of total meatless-ness– but in the context of my growing interest in and work around food justice, it definitely feels different this time around, in that I’m reflecting much more on how a meat-free diet has the potential to be an extension of a radical Filipino/American politics of decolonization, but also how it may not, as well.

Besides reveling in the health benefits I’ve reaped from keeping a mostly-veg*an diet, I  have really been trying to sort through my feelings about veg*anism and racial and social justice. I really respect and appreciate the the way that, for some, being vegetarian or vegan is part and parcel of their work in fighting institutionalized ‘isms: species-ism, ableism, racism, classism, sexism/homophobia, etc. As food justice advocates such as the lauded Michael Pollan have written, the general nastiness of the meat industry, not to mention the use of otherwise fertile farming land for cattle farms, is a large contributor to the global food crisis. I don’t know how many yoga seminars I have been to where this fact is illustrated by my veg*an yoga instructors, with varying degrees of graphic details and photos– while I disagree with some of their shock tactic methods of inciting guilt and shame (who knew yoga guilt could be just as bad as Catholic guilt?), I am generally on board with the call to end factory farms, for the sake of both the animals and for the hungry and obese people of the world who are suffering under the current food regime. This kind of veg*an political ethos, I think, has very much informed my recent refraining from preparing red meat at home now, and in my ongoing attempt to cook and eat ethically-sourced and environmentally-sound meat both at home and when eating out (Fish is another story. I need to start using my Seafood Watch app way more!)

But as Breeze Harper and the other bloggers at Vegans of Color have also pointed out, I’m also painfully aware of the outright racist and classist assumptions made by more “mainstream” (aka white) veg*an individuals and organizations in their campaigns for animal rights and so-called food justice. This post in particular really hit home, especially in light of my prior research on the US colonial regime’s display of  Igorot “dog-eating and head-hunting” at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair as evidence of Filipino racial savagery, in order to justify American “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines. I hesitate to identify myself with a veg*an movement that doesn’t question its own internalized racial logic, and that uses the language of “us vs. them” or “enlightened vs. savage” to make its political and moral claims– rather than working for the decolonization and justice of all, these kinds of movements are reserved for the privileged, “enlightened” few who can then deem the rest of us (mostly brown) folk to meat-eating barbarity.

poster for 1904 St. Louis World's Fair

Also– and this is my biggest contention/concern– I’m still not quite sure how a veg*an diet fits in with a Filipino decolonial politics, in terms of the cultural appropriateness of a veg*an diet to Filipino culture. Definitely, I’m down for turning to a more natural diet with less processed, colonially-derived meats like SPAM, and of course want the Filipino people to have control over their food production, distribution, and consumption– that’s the essence of decolonization and the very meaning of food sovereignty, is it not? But wanting/working for those things isn’t the same thing as cutting out meat entirely from the Filipino diet, especially not fish, which historically has been the basis of many in the archipelago’s livelihood. Not to mention, can I really ever let go of the swine? Look at this pork-y deliciousness that is lechon:

 

(being inappropriate with lechon, September '10)

Perhaps my own gluttony is what keeps me from making a final jump into full veg*an territory– I’ll admit, I’m a weak soul. At the very least, this time has allowed me to more critically self-reflect on the ways I embody and live my politics on a very corporeal scale, and to think not only about why I fight for food sovereignty, racial and social justice, but also about how.

Talking about food justice, hitting a wall

[Note: I had originally posted this on my Tumblr, but decided to repost here for better documentation and possibly more discussion. There was a news article I referred to that immediately preceded my own musings– for clarity, I just added an external link here. Would love any thoughts and feedbacks on this quickly-written musing!]

I had a challenging time last night trying to facilitate an educational discussion about food justice in the SD Fil/Am community with some friends of mine that I volunteer with (we are in a progressive Filipino/American high school student mentoring program together). I tried to get us all thinking about ours and our families’ shopping and consumption practices as a gateway to talking about structural barriers to getting affordable, healthy food, but we never seemed to get beyond a discussion of “cultural differences” between Filipino markets like Seafood City versus mainstream shops like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or even Von’s. “Cultural differences” became the explanation for why prices are lower and why Filipino folks keep returning to ethnic groceries, and that alone was the answer.

Now, while it’s true that there are things that ethnic grocers can provide many services, products and relationships that puti markets can’t, to claim that a cultural difference alone keeps prices lower and products varied at Seafood City is to ignore the vast structures underlying food production and consumption in the US and around the world. To say that Filipino/Americans just “aren’t used” to buying organic food or even lots of vegetables (organic or not) is to defer a conversation about why our national or cultural diet might be so poor— about why many in our community have limited financial means or access to fresh produce and meats; about the colonial and neo-colonial origins for many of our so-called “unhealthy staple foods” (such as SPAM and sisig); about the linked causes for hunger and obesity in communities of color in the US with the growing international food crises in places like Korea and the Philippines. The conversation wasn’t able to progress to even begin discussing these things, and I self-critique for not being able to facilitate in a way that could get us there.

I guess it was so hard for me to have this discussion about food justice and communities of color without getting into everything— the FDA complicity with corporate ag; the neo-imperialism of land and labor exploitation on Third World plantations (aka the Philippines); white middle class privilege in demanding “good food” at the expense of poor immigrants of color who are being paid below living wage to produce it; and so on. These are all huge topics that at the very least folks should ideally read a little about before we engage in a (BRIEF!) 30 minute educational discussion about it, but in the absence of that, what else could I have done? Lecture? Brought in a news article like the one above as a piece to center our discussion?

Even in a very short news article like the one above, you have so many issues at once intersecting— gentrification, white privilege (and white guilt), different cultural discourses on what qualifies as “healthy food” and “diverse neighborhoods,” and that’s just hitting the surface. Even bringing in these two paragraphs seems overwhelming, when folks are coming from different places and have different viewpoints on all these topics…

Meh. I’m not trying to figure it all out now, just venting/processing a little on this blog. More or less, I’m frustrated with my own inability to translate my “intellectual work” (whatever that means) into real talk, to actually work with the community instead of me continuing to talk “at” them.

Sunrises, sunsets

Two weeks ago I went to Hawai’i. I celebrated a wedding, my birthday, but ended the week with a funeral. Let me rewind.

I went to Hawai’i for the first time ever as my friend D’s date to a family wedding. It was a rainy week in Honolulu, so we spent more time eating than sunbathing, but I did manage to get in a few scenic runs and enjoy the beach nonetheless. This being a food blog and all, I’ll show you a few highlights of the week’s eats:

Haupia (coconut cream) malasadas from...

We OD’ed on the malasadas from the famed Leonard’s Bakery. While the haupia was a bit too cream-filled for my liking, the plain sugared malasadas were pure dough-y heaven. D’s family loves these malasadas so much that we brought a  whole box to the wedding as an extra snack! I love a family that loves food as much as I do.

Of course we sampled classic Hawaiian fast food fare: moco loco and pork chops with gravy from Rainbow Drive-in, hot and spicy shrimp from Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck on the North Shore…

and lots of shave ice. While we made sure to make our pilgrimage to Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, I actually preferred the extra smooth and creamy shave ice with custard (aka leche flan!) at Waiola Shave Ice back in Honolulu. The folks at Waiola make their syrups in-house, and were sweet enough to serve me and D. even though we arrived a wee bit after closing time:

coconut and mango flavored shave ice

Two experiences stand out from my brief stint in Honolulu. Both very, very different from each other but amazing just the same.

While D. and I stuck to cheap eats most nights, we made an exception to visit Town, a buzzed-about  eatery that’s supposedly “bringing the locavore movement” single-handedly to Oahu. While I’m not sure I buy all that, and was initially skeptical about a place outside the mainland trying to do “American comfort food” with local ingredients, this meal was truly delicious. So good, in fact, that I’ll share with you photos of nearly the entire meal that D. and I shared.

Simple olives, bread, and a huge pat of butter in olive oil. If you can make this exciting, then I know I’m in for a good meal! We were then served an extremely fresh tuna tartare on tiny grit cakes, and a big bowl of mussels in what tasted like a pure butter sauce:

D. and I split our main course too, but the portion size of my half was plenty. This was the most interesting dish of the night- a beef shank in mole sauce, with hominy and greens. A little bit Southern, with a classic Mexican sauce done fancy, but amazingly it didn’t taste out of place in Hawaii.

We closed out with a yummy chocolate pie, featuring pretzels and sea salt as a contrasting twist! Like my favorite compost cookies from Momofuku, but with more chocolate-y goodness.

Can I just say that the lighting at Town is just made for food bloggers? The pinlights over each table highlighted the food perfectly without creating a glare off the white dishes in photos. Why can’t more restaurants design their lighting schemes with us in mind? ;)

After dinner at Town, I wasn’t sure my birthday dinner two nights later could top it. I wasn’t looking for anything fancy- just a good, solid Malaysian meal, something near impossible to find in the mainland US. A quick Yelp search on my phone pointed the way to the Green Door Cafe, and I knew as soon as I called for a reservation that we were in for something unique. The phone call went something like this (I’m speaking in italics):

Hello?
Is this Green Door Cafe?
Yes, hello.
What time are you open until tonight? We’d like to make a reservation for two if possible.
Um…What time did you want to come?
7:30-8?
Ok, I’ll stay open for you then. 7:30. See you! (Click).

I wasn’t sure what we’d walk into after that conversation, but it definitely piqued our interest. A little more internet sleuthing revealed Green Door Cafe to be a one-woman operation, with a tiny capacity of 8 patrons, but it didn’t fully prepare us for actually meeting Betty and dining here.

When we walked in, the place was totally empty, except for Betty who was sitting behind the counter, texting or otherwise playing with her phone. Behind the counter was a tiny space, a make-shift kitchen like I’d only seen in Hong Kong or Manila back alleys- with a fridge, a propane burner, and a huge rice maker making up the bulk of the space. Betty cooks everything to order, with a tiny menu written on a white board, kept small so she can focus on doing those few things well with local ingredients. At her recommendation, we ordered the Singaporean noodles and the day’s special- chicken with oyster mushrooms, since the mushrooms were fresh from the farmer’s market that day. What were you saying about introducing the locavore movement to Honolulu, propietors of Town?

I wish I had better photos of the food (served in plastic take-out containers with the lids ripped off), but it was just so dim in here. But, in this failed photo of me, you can actually get a good look at the kitchen set up at Green Door, which is the most interesting part:

Betty's kitchen

Totally unpretentious, excellent and fresh Nyonya Malaysian food, for a quarter of what we paid for the meal at Town. I couldn’t ask for anything more… only that I wish we had a place like this in SoCal, so I could get my fix without having to try (and fail!) at cooking it myself.

The day after my birthday, our last full day in Honolulu, D. and I went to tea at the Moana Surfrider, where we had stayed the night before in an unexpectedly-upgraded suite with crazy views of Waikiki and Diamond Head:

We got as far as sniffing and choosing our teas and taking gratuitous photos of ourselves when I got a call.

 

 

I picked it up, wondering why my cousin, whose call I had missed once already that morning, was trying me again. I mean, we’re close enough, but not that close, y’know? I picked up, and before she spoke I already knew something was really wrong. As she told me that my lolo had passed away just a few hours before, I remember thinking that I wish I hadn’t picked up the call and could just enjoy this tea. Shock set in, I actually sat through the tea service and ate the food, then immediately went to rearrange my flights to leave early from HI and to fly home to be with my family.

I definitely wasn’t expecting to spend the end of my birthday week at a funeral home, and I’m still grieving over my grandfather’s passing, so this post is a bit bittersweet. I’ll always remember this Hawai’i trip, for some wonderful times with friends, but also as the last time I spoke with my lolo on the phone (he called me on my birthday) and as just before the worst week of my life thus far.

2011 is certainly proving to be a mixed bag so far.

Out with the old…

Good riddance, 2010.

I guess, to be generous, I could say that 2010 was a transition year. That it was difficult but rewarding, with obstacles and setbacks that were unforeseen yet overcome. But that would be a lie. 2010 F-ing SUCKED. Except for the one month we spent in South Africa during the World Cup, I wish 2010, especially the latter half, could be erased from my memory. Family illnesses, an unexpected emergency move, and the 1 1/2 year-long process of preparing for (and passing, thank gawd) my qualifying examinations for my PhD just sucked the joy right out of my life.

To celebrate the end of that craptastic year, I’m going to share with you two things. The first, photos from my overly-ambitious but still quite tasty Filipino Noche Buena dinner. It was way too much food, considering it was just me and the mister for dinner, and a whole lot of work, but I’m glad I tried my hand at making new-to-me Filipino dishes.

Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan’s Memories of Philippine Kitchens provided the templates for my chicken relleno (aka Filipino turducken) and the cassava bibingka, while The Filipino-American Kitchen Cookbook (not my favorite cookbook, as it’s too Americanized / wanna-be bougie for my taste, but ok in this case) provided me a recipe for lumpiang sariwa (fresh lumpia) and lumpia sauce. I rounded out the meal with a simple but delicious salted egg and tomato salad,  and of course lots of white rice. Some photos of the prep and final set-up:

the mister making fresh chorizo for our chicken relleno stuffing

our deboned chicken, ready for stuffing

fresh lumpia- man those crepes were a pain to make!

itlog ng pula salad - salty deliciousness!

sliced and ready to eat!

the full spread

There were a few hiccups along the way with this meal– nearly setting the oven on fire because I didn’t soak the banana leaves for the bibingka; losing valuable moisture from the chicken because of imperfect sewing; forgetting to make the grilled saging completely. But of all the mistakes and mishaps from 2010, these didn’t even matter.

Of all the things I left behind in 2010, the biggest has been the weight. Skeptical as I was at the time, in September I joined Weight Watchers, after a close of mine signed up, and so far I’ve lost fifteen pounds. This may not seem like much (and I often have to remind myself that it is something significant) but after the past decade of struggling with my weight, it’s a big step in a better direction. That’s less than half of what I would ideally lose before I’m at a healthy weight again, but I need to remind myself, it’s not about the scale but about how I feel. The change in my energy level, the feeling of not being “stuffed” into my jeans and t-shirts… that’s more important than hitting some perfect number on the scale.

While I’m not a believer in crash diets, cleanses, and all those latest fitness trends, I think that Weight Watchers has worked for me so far because it’s made me aware of exactly how much I had been eating on any given day. Even if I had been eating “healthy” for years– organic, lowfat, etc etc.– I couldn’t believe how much my little bites, snacks, and large portions had been adding up. It’s so obvious, but controlling portion size, eating breakfast daily, and upping the amount of fresh fruits and veggies I consume has really made a difference not only in how I look, but more importantly, how I feel. Crazy, right?

But even more than changing eating habits, I picked up something else in 2010 that probably saved my sanity in the midst of all the difficulties and challenges. Running. For the first time since high school, I got back into running in a serious way, unlike all my previous attempts, the last of which resulted in plantar’s fascitis and a clicking knee (they still bug me, ouch!). I started, and completed the Couch to 5K program, which I highly recommend to all first time and returning runners who want to run injury-free. Two weeks after I finished the program, I ran the Jingle Bell 5K benefiting the Arthritis Foundation with a group of friends, and finished in a respectable 35 minutes:

 

pre-race giddiness

crossing the finish line

I wouldn’t consider myself a good runner by any means, but it’s been rewarding to build my endurance and challenge myself to be stronger and healthier. Maybe I’m crazy, but I joined a training team in the hopes I’ll be able to run the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll 1/2 Marathon in June. It’s my 2011 goal–not resolution– to finish the half marathon in 2 1/2 hours. But to even be able to run that distance would be amazing enough!

So I guess after typing all that, that there was something positive to come out of 2010 after all. I’m still excited to be in a new decade and moving forward with my life in (hopefully) all positive ways. My hope is that 2011 will be full of delicious eats, exhilarating runs, and new adventures not only for me, but for all of you!

Farewell, 2010. TGI 2011!

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