Category Archives: mutterings and musings

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.


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.

Thoughts on No Reservations, part 3: Pampanga with Tayag

Miss me, friends? I’m back with another quick recap and review of the No Reservations episode in the Philippines, this time focusing on Bourdain’s dinner with Claude Tayag, or what I’m calling “Tony’s Bougie Night Out.”

A word on Philippines geography before moving on, since it is relevant not just to this scene but to the rest of the episode (and heck, to the entire episode!). The three major island groups in the Philippines are Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. Within each of these island groups are regions, followed by provinces within those regions, followed by cities and municipalities, and barangays. So, to relatavize this to US-centric terms (sigh), regions might be thought of like states, provinces like counties, cities like… cities, and barangays like clusters of neighborhoods within the cities. Got it?

Up through this segment, Bourdain has been in Luzon, the large island group in the northern region of the Philippine archipelago. Manila is the capital not only of Luzon, but of the entire Philippines, and is the Philippines’ second largest city; Bourdain started his trip off here, with Ivan Man Dy. Then, Bourdain went to the province of Pampanga, also in Luzon- first to Angeles City, and now (in this segment I’m reviewing) to some undisclosed second location, also in Pampanga, where Claude Tayag has his restaurant. (Note: his resto is Bale Dutung on the outskirts of Angeles City). The last portion of Bourdain’s trip, that I’ll be reviewing last, is filmed in Cebu, the large island in the Visayas island chain in a more southern area of the Philippines.

In sum: half of the trip is in Luzon, half in Cebu. Bourdain is in two cities in Luzon: Manila and Angeles City. Angeles City is in the province of Pampanga and this is significant for Tayag’s musings to Bourdain on Philippine identity. Then Bourdain flies south to Cebu for his time with Augusto and ends the ep. Guess Philippine geography isn’t so quickly explained after all!

So back to the segment, which is but a brief five to seven minutes in the show (it is the first five mins. of the YouTube clip above, plus the end of the clip just prior to this one). The gist is that Bourdain goes from eating street food in Angeles City to having a more traditional and yet infinitely more bourgeois eating experience with Tayag at his multipurpose establishment, Bale Dutung. Not simply a restaurant, Bale Dutung also features a gallery of Tayag’s art, a collection of everyday and high art cultural items from around the Philippines, and serves as home to the artist and his wife Mary Anne. (A great review of the Bale Dutung experience with some amazing photos is here).

First thoughts on Bale Dutung and the experience of eating at a place like this: While Tayag lauds this as a “traditional” establishment where you can get the “real” cuisine of Pampanga, I am marveling at just how unreal this place is. How many other Filipinos can afford such an amazing space, or have Le Creuset-esque cookware in their ‘traditional’ outdoor kitchen outfitted with time-saving and up-to-date technology? How much do tourists and rich Filipinos pay to have an aesthetic experience of traditional Kapampangan cuisine? (Answer: a lot). This is some brilliant cultural tourism right here, and kudos to Tayag for profiting off his art and cooking, but please don’t call this the ‘real’ Philippines when it’s not accessible to the majority of the Filipino population!

The food, however, does look damn fantastic. A quail adobo, with smoked bacon and chicken liver added (traditional? probably not. amazingly delicious sounding? heck yes!). Sinigang with bangus (called only “milk fish”, argh) made sour with guava– I messed up when I said earlier that tamarind was the only souring agent possible for sinigang. While certainly gussied up, this isn’t just the Spanish- or American-influenced Filipino cuisine being presented here. A lot of native vegetables and seafoods, garnished with bagoong— sounds about right to me. Nevermind the exorbitant price tag you’re paying for such ‘real’ local fare… it does look mighty delicious.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the Philippines episode of No Reservations if Bourdain didn’t start grilling Tayag on his thoughts of Filipino food, culture, and identity. Whether or not Bourdain went in thinking this was his theme, or his producers and editors decided after the fact this would be the angle, it seems you can’t go two seconds in this episode without Bourdain trying to ‘figure out’ the Filipino identity (a point I’ll elaborate more upon in the last review on Augusto and Cebu).

Tayag’s got a few gold nuggets to share, and of the other local guides, I generally tend to agree with his viewpoint the most, as he’s slightly less assimilationist than the others. He brings up the idea that Filipinos are “alienated from the rest of Southeast Asia” as they “look westward” towards the United States, their “last colonial master.” This Americanization and/or assimilation routine is repeated ad nauseum by every other Filipino guide, but Tayag seems to be the only one who makes the US-Philippines colonial connection explicit. It’s more than just free-floating “influences,” there is actual power involved! Crazy idea, I know.

Tayag also goes to say that for him, identifying strongly with his ethnic group and province as a Kapampangan (one from Pampanga) is primary, done before he identifies as Filipino: “You cannot be Filipino unless you’ve become a Pampangan first.” Tony seems to like this viewpoint, concurring that he identifies as a New Yorker before he IDs himself as American. Seems pretty reasonable, no?

Well, this little point made by Tayag caused a FUROR on the internet boards and blogs, with everyone identifying this as but another example of Filipino ‘disunity,’ or ‘why we have no strong culture’ et. al. To me, it was perhaps the most prescient thing any Filipino on the show had to say about Filipino identity and culture, and this criticism really educated me about how the mainstream understanding of national culture and sentiment really works: namely, that to properly claim Filipino identity, you are supposed to deny affiliation with anything else, particularly with regional or ethnic ties that threaten to undermine the ‘unity’ of the national culture.

Much has been written about nationalism that I won’t get into here, though perhaps the most quoted has been Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (I prefer the decolonial works of Frantz Fanon, myself). The basic idea about nationalism that Andreson puts out is that the perception of a unified cultural and social milieu greatly contributes to nation-building and furthermore, to projects of nationalism. So, for Tayag to stress regional loyalties based on shared language, ethnicity, and food cultures over a homogenized “Filipino” identity is read as somehow nearing treason. But what marks “Filipino” culture, anyway? In the US, what has come to be identified with Filipino food (in particular) is actually heavily based on “lowland Tagalog” foodways, and particularly with the more Hispanicized or American-influenced versions. I’m with Tayag on this one– to claim a homogenous Filipino identity does not reflect the realities of the Filipino people, who are tied to their local land, languages, cultural practices, and foods out of both desire and necessity. Why try to flatten that?

Yet, even as Claude extols the virtues of Pampangan food and identity, his wife Mary Anne offers her own speculations on the apparent un-popularity of Filipino cuisine in the US, which are:

1. not many people come to the Philippines
2. “our food is different [in] different [Filipino] restaurants, so that’s why people don’t remember it,” giving an example that if you go to 5 different Filipino restaurants, you’ll find 5 different flavors of adobo.

Now, here’s where I offer my quibbles with this perspective. On point 1 (not many people come to the Philippines), I have to disagree. While, yes, the Philippines hasn’t been promoted as a Southeast Asian vacation destination like, say, Thailand, there are several reasons for this that beg to be explored. The first being that due to its successive colonization by Spain and the United States, the Philippines has already been understood as a place without ‘authentic’ native culture unlike those other Southeast Asian nations. A brief historical foray clearly shows this idea (of the Philippines as the only colonized Asian nation) to be false, if you note the fact that of all the Southeast Asian nations, only Thailand has remained free of colonial rule. Still, this perception of Filipino culture being too ‘westernized’ by colonial influence, and therefore less ‘authentic,’ persists– even if most people don’t consciously know the history of the US-Philippine colonial relationship! Enough subliminal and overt messages have permeated US pop culture for the ‘fact’ of Filipino non-culture to just exist, without any understanding or context for why this ‘fact’ came into being.

I guess I want to push us think about this: is this claim that the Philippines is ‘culture-free’ due less to the tourists’ perception that there are no pretty beaches or native dances (of which there are an abundance of in the PI), or does it really have more to do with America’s desire to ignore the impact of its colonial history on the real ‘natives’ of the Philippines? I mean, why visit a former US colony, whose economy has been decimated due to US foreign policy and the ravages of the IMF-World Bank, when you can visit someone else’s former colony instead, somewhere like Indonesia, where you can marvel at their Dutch-inspired architecture and eat their ‘pure’ native food? No guilt about their poverty, if you see it- it was someone else’s fault! Pure joy at their technology- how westernized and modern! Something to chew on, perhaps.

A second reason there is a perception that ‘not many people’ visit the Philippines is the character of the tourists who most likely go to the islands, one that the tourist bureau would rather not have you hear: again, due to the history of US military presence in the islands, they have come to be known as a savory destination for sex tourism, not just in Angeles City but throughout the country, particularly in Visayan beach towns like Boracay. When you’re an American or European male tourist busy exploiting the women and children of the Philippines for your sexual pleasure, you maybe don’t care so much about the food, no?

Ok, so onto Mary Anne’s second point- that there is ‘too much diversity’ in Filipino cuisine for it to be memorable to American consumers. I mean, really? So what if there are many different versions of sinigang, some made with shrimp, others with fish, others with goat or beef? Does that make the Filipino cuisine inherently any less desirable than another? Again, it presumes that in order to identify a cuisine with the nation, that a homogenized unity must exist to the exclusion of any variation. To use the case of Italy as counterpoint to this false logic– five Italian restaurants, five different versions of ravioli. Does this make people not like Italian food? Italy, here, is interesting because, like the Philippines, it is a country that is intensely regional, with much variation between north and south, urban and rural, etc. While there are hundreds of Olive Gardens and Sbarros pushing out standardized versions of Italian classics, that’s not what foodies seek out, is it? No- they go for the regional, or the hole-in-the wall mom and pop shop, or the Mario Batali renditions. So, again, why should the Philippines sacrifice its regional flavors to appeal to some (false) idea that westerners only know singularity?

Now, my dismantling of these claims doesn’t change the fact that Filipino cuisine still isn’t the ‘next big thing,’ to Bourdain’s chagrin. My thoughts on why this really is coming up next, along with my final review of our poor maligned friend, Augusto. Oh, and the lechon! Oh, the lechon.

Thoughts on No Reservations, Part 2: Angeles City, Pampanga

Part 2: Angeles City / Pampanga

(end of Manila segment/ Angeles City segment)

So when I last left you, I was lamenting the Manila portion of Bourdain’s trip to the Philippines. But my spirits rose in the next segment, which by far was my favorite.

In this segment, Bourdain meets up with Claude Tayag, Pampangan chef and culinary expert extraordinaire, in Angeles City. Notorious for its red light district (due to the American military presence at Clark Air Force Base, open until 1991), Angeles City isn’t generally thought of as a necessary scenic stop in the PI, unless you’re a US war/colonialism/genocide buff and/or someone looking to get their kicks singing karaoke and bedding a prostitute.

Here are a few thoughts on how the US military presence in the Philippines, and specifically in Angeles, is presented: I appreciated how Bourdain and the producers mention this history, albeit briefly, though it was quickly dismissed as if there are still no real social issues in the Philippines that stem from this US presence. Bourdain says this US military/colonial presence began with the Spanish American War, and for someone like me who researches and writes about US-Philippine political relations, would have preferred he used the more accurate name of the Philippine American War. But hey, some bonus points to Bourdain here for at least making lip service to this history instead of brushing it off completely.

Ok, so, Tayag takes Bourdain to Nancy’s Carinderia, a hole-in-the wall where goat specialties are served. Bourdain tries goat in four different preparations: in papatan (bile soup); kilawan (sp?), which Claude describes as a “gelatinous rubbery skin thing”; sinigang (like adobo, can be made with different proteins. common element is a sour soup base made with tamarind); and finally, the goat head soup complete with eyes and brain.

This menu definitely had the potential to be made into a “weird foods” spectacle but I was happy to see that it wasn’t. Bourdain even enjoyed it all, digging into the goat head with relish to pick out the nasty bits. Claude proved to be an engaging guide here, and the rapport between them seems genuine and not awkward. The episode was looking better so far!

The next scene in Angeles is at night, and is the only real ‘going out’ scene we have in this episode– surprising for Bourdain’s track record in No Reservations, where it seems like he’s hungover half the time. Tayag and several other (unidentified) men are with Tony at Aling Lucing’s, another divey spot that lays claim to inventing sisig, that “symphony of pig parts” best enjoyed with plenty of San Miguel beer.

Is it sad to say this is the only scene were Bourdain really seems to be enjoying himself? Hate on me all you want and say he loved his entire trip… but I never really got the sense of that except for in this scene. Throughout the show, I as a viewer felt that Bourdain was going through the motions. Certainly, he didn’t actively hate his trip (see Romania and Namibia episodes for some real hate!), but his polite deference throughout was a little disconcerting. To see him dig into the sisig and “chicken butt skewers” and chatting with Claude and the other men in this scene was a refreshing change from the stilted conversations he had elsewhere in the ep.

So back to the food: When Bourdain says that this is his “come to mama moment of my trip so far” because of the sisig, I totally believe him. My own first encounter with sisig was at a bar on Timog Avenue, a popular bar strip in Quezon City (Metro Manila area) two summers ago, and the only good sisig I’ve had since then can only be eaten in the Philippines; my US-cooked counterparts hold no weight, perhaps because folks like to gussy it up with nicer pork bits instead of using the head like in the PI. The US military connection to sisig is clear- Bourdain says that Aling Lucing invented sisig to make use of the pig heads that Clark AFB used to give away in the 70s. And though that too is but a fleeting mention, I wish that the Filipino guides in the show who kept on offering reasons as to why Filipino cuisine is unpopular in the US or less “Asian” would remember this colonial history a little better.

That is to say, there is a huge difference between saying
“The Philippines has no identifiable cuisine/culture/personality because there are so many influences”
versus saying
“The long history of colonialism and genocide have impacted many facets of Filipino life, from the Philippines’ political-economic dependency on the US, to its access to good pork products (instead of the ‘dirty bits’), to the large immigrant population who have to leave the Philippines to survive.”

Just sayin’.

Next up: Bourdain bougies it up with Claude in his house/restaurant/ridiculous compound in Pampanga!

Thoughts on No Reservations Philippines: Part 1

So, I know I’m tardy on my promise to blog my thoughts on the much-anticipated episode of No Reservations in the Philippines, and it’s frankly because I wanted to watch the episode at least one more time before weighing in. In case you don’t stalk food blogs like I do, let me just say there has been quite a bit of controversy about the episode, with the high (or low?) point being renowned Filipino blogger MarketMan’s outburst for the haters to leave poor Augusto alone. So, yes, I am a bit nervous about putting out my thoughts on this episode given the fact I might be torn to shreds for saying one negative thing (and sorry, I will be), and I’ll be taking my time to write up my full review as I rewatch the show, segment by segment.

First, though: Who’s Augusto? What’s the controversy? Let me break it down for you real quick. Augusto, the Filipino American man who came in second place in last year’s fan contest (winner gets to take Bourdain to their location of choice for a taping of No Reservations), was brought back in as one of Tony Bourdain’s ‘local guides’ when they finally decided to shoot an episode of the show in the Philippines. Augusto, raised in Long Island, NY and having only spent a total of one week in the Philippines prior to this episode, did not, let’s say, “perform” his knowledge or love for the Philippines properly, or so the critics claim. Battle royale ensues.

Before I weigh in on the Augusto situation, let me share some thoughts on the other segments of the episode before he really enters the picture: the segments filmed in Manila and Angeles City/Pampanga. And before we get any farther, I should let you know up front: this episode made my soul hurt, and not necessarily in a good way.

Part 1: Bourdain in Manila

Tony Bourdain starts the episode in Manila, guided by Ivan Man Dy, proprietor of Old Manila Walks and professional foodie tour guide for primarily non-Filipino tourists. As most of my family that still lives in the PI live in the Metro Manila area, and it’s the part of the country I’ve spent the most time in, I was super excited for this segment. The two began in Binondo (the “Chinatown” of Manila) and are shown in the famous food market (dampa) in Cubao. They eat, they chat, it’s business as usual on No Reservations.

First thought: for a foodie tour guide, Man Dy’s factual statements on Filipino cuisine seemed a little… different than how I’ve learned about Filipino food from my family, from cookbooks, Filipino chefs, and other sources. For example, his definition of adobo as “anything that’s cooked with soy sauce, garlic, peppercorn, and onions” just had me shaking my head. I’m wondering if they cut out the first part of his list of ingredients, because the KEY ingredient to adobo is not soy sauce, but vinegar. As the existence of adobo puti attests to, and the writings by folks like the authors of The Adobo Book I reviewed a few posts back corroborates, you can certainly have adobo without the soy. Oy.

My second thought was that as engaging as Ivan is, I can’t get over the fact he’s calling nearly all the food items not by their proper Filipino names, but instead listing their ingredients and likening them to American/Western dishes. Taho, the breakfast treat of the masses, is simply referred to as “tofu with tapioca syrup.” Now, when those taho vendors are walking down the residential streets in the early morning, they’re certainly not yelling out “tofu with tapioca syrup” to entice the people to buy… they’re calling out “TAHO!” The pancit (“which can mean anything”), the “chicken balls” dipped in “spicy sauce,” and the “pork rind” (chicharron) are similarly treated, and I can’t stop cringing every time a new dish comes on screen.

I’d like to believe Ivan knows better, and maybe this is how he makes Filipino food palatable to the ‘average’ non-Filipino/Western tourist, but c’mon. This is a foodie show! It would behoove the viewer, and Bourdain, to learn what the names of some of these foods are… so when you (the ‘average’ US-based viewer trying out Filipino food for the first time) are in a Filipino joint in Daly City or Queens, you’ll know that pancit means a noodle dish and that bagoong is the ‘shrimp paste’ Ivan refers to. I mean, if you went to an Italian restaurant, you wouldn’t just ask for “the starch with the red sauce,” now would you? Why should Filipino cuisine be flattened out to a few banal descriptives unconnected to the actual names of any of these dishes or ingredients?

I mean, even the famous jeepneys, those brightly-painted former US military trucks now used as public transport for the majority of Manila’s citizens (at least those who can’t afford drivers and armored cars…) are called “jeeps.” Can we call things what they are, please?

I don’t mean to hate on Ivan, but as the first “food ambassador” to Bourdain in this episode, he got me worried as to what would be following. While I loved his enthusiasm and clear love for Filipino cuisine, I wish he would have given Bourdain (and the viewers) the benefit of the doubt and called just the food by its local names. Is that too much to ask?

But moving on… In this introductory segment, Bourdain begins sharing a quick-and-dirty summary of 500+ years of Filipino history, emphasizing the cultural/ethnic mix of Spanish/Mexican, Malay, Chinese, and US influences on Filipino culture, particularly the cuisine. Ok, valid claim. As you’ll see as the episode progresses, this will become the refrain of the show, with any and everyone featured proclaiming this hybridity. Unfortunately, the ultimate take-away from all this lamenting/praising of the ‘mixed’ Filipino culture is that this is perhaps the reason why 1) Filipino cuisine is not popular in the US, and 2) why Filipino/American people have no discernible identity or culture. !!!

Wha? Yes, dear readers, if you know anything at all about me, you’ll understand when I say that this constant refrain of cultural assimilation and dilution had me absolutely fuming. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the next post, I’ll share some thoughts on Bourdain’s next stop: Angeles City / Pampanga… so hold off your flaming of my review just yet, please!

Monday Worries: what will Bourdain say?

Filipino table

Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on the Philippines is premiering tonight, and I must say I’m pretty nervous. I’ve read a little bit about the taping from Market Manila and from Bourdain’s food blog on the travel channel. But all I can think of is the one line they keep playing in the trailer for tonight’s episode, where Bourdain asks why the food of the Philippines is “such a blank page.”

A blank page to whom, Tony? To US-based chefs and consumers who haven’t ‘discovered’ the Philippines yet? While I’ve been championing Filipino food for years, I’m not sure I want it to be ‘discovered’ on No Reservations just yet… I guess it’s better it be Bourdain’s show and not that horrifying “World’s Weirdest Food” show or whatever it’s called. Maybe Bourdain’s fetish for Southeast Asian cuisine will carry over to the Philippines. But still, I can’t help but feel irritated that it’s 1) taken him this long to visit when’s he been to (what I think are) some really random countries, and 2) that apparently he’s never had Filipino food before. He’s from New York! All it takes is a quick subway ride to Jackson Heights, or downtown to Elvie’s in the East Village, to get a taste of good Filpino food. No excuses, dude!

But I get ahead of myself. I’m saving judgment until after the episode airs tonight and will blog my thoughts on it ASAP. Maybe I’ll even live blog it…. hrm.

Before I go, I must thank my dear buddy A., whose parents were in town this weekend and cooked up this scrumptious feast of fresh prawns and crabs, green mango, and (not pictured) the most amazing sinigang I’ve had in years. It brought me right back to my Lolo’s kitchen, and I’m so envious of friends who can have Filipino food home-cooked on the daily here in SoCal. Sigh. East coast familia, come west please, ok? I’m hungry for homemade Pinoy eats!

Adobo Puti, and general musings on cooking Filipino food

I woke up on New Year’s day, ready to face the world with a renewed outlook on life, resolutions I would never keep, and all those other hippy-dippy kind of thoughts. But then I realized something had been missing from my New Year’s, Christmas, and general December holiday celebrations: I had spent an entire holiday season without a bite of Filipino food. Total, absolute blasphemy! I think I cried a little inside upon my new year’s realization.

Determined to eat my body weight’s worth of Filipino food in the following weeks, I’ve now made caldereta (minus the liver sauce, to my disappointment); eaten a tremendous amount of coronary-inducing favorites like kare-kare, beefsteak, leche flan, lechon kawali, et. al at the buffet(!!!) at Ihaw-Ihaw Grill; (formerly Manila Tokyo) in National City; and am currently simmering my first-ever batch of Adobo Puti, or “white” adobo cooked in coconut milk (Note: I first started this post on 1/10… everything below is post-eating!).

Deciding which adobo recipe to make this week was difficult, especially since I’ve revisited my copy of The Adobo Book for just about the first time since purchasing it two summers ago in Manila. A compendium of over 200 recipes, this edited volume by Reynaldo (Ronnie) Alejandro is Nancy Reyes-Lumen is more than just a cookbook; it’s an oral history collection from storied cooks and ordinary Filipinos alike. I love reading people’s memories of their lola‘s secret recipe for pork adobo, or the lineage of an adobo recipe supposedly direct from ancestors in Spain. If nothing else, it’s an amazing mini-resource for thinking about the influence colonialism (both the Spanish and American varieties) had on the development of Filipino cuisine, particularly on adobo, a dish that bears no resemblance to others that share its name found in Latin America or Spain.

The adobo I usually make, like many in The Adobo Book, came from my family by word of mouth (from my Lolo – grandfather– and mother to be more exact), and has been modified by me over the years. I don’t work from a printed recipe, and won’t even try to write it down here, because it’s all done by smell, sight, and whim. It’s usually chicken (sadly, I’ve yet to make adobo with pork that isn’t a dry mess- I never am able to procure liempo, the pork belly with fat attached, that is essential to good pork adobo); always with soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, and whole black peppercorns as a base; sometimes I add sugar and onions; and frequently cut yellow potatoes too. Mine is more ‘wet’ than most (meaning there’s a lot of liquid left over), and I don’t fry my chicken beforehand or afterwards (some swear by this step, but I’ve just never done it). I’d like to think I make a pretty damn good chicken abobo, but my Lolo’s version still trumps mine.. and tastes completely different even if we’ve used the same ingredients.

( Personal Note: I never knew adobo was usually made without potatoes- it’s the version I grew up with and never questioned it. I found out later that the potatoes are something that my grandparents added when they were raising my mother and her seven siblings in the Philippines; there wasn’t enough meat to go around, so potatoes were added as a filler to make the meal stretch. I’ve made ‘adobo potatoes and vegetables’ for vegetarian friends before, and love to eat my adobo-ed potatoes even without the meat!)

So, branching out to try a new adobo recipe I’ve never eaten myself is a bit of stretch… but I was pretty pleased with my results. I think next time I’ll use more chicken (only used 5 drumsticks, which made this batch very ‘wet’), add some red or green peppers, the chili that was optional in the recipe, and go up on the ginger. My version actually reminded me a lot of my family’s arroz caldo, even though coconut milk isn’t the base of that dish. It’s really interesting to me how the addition of lemongrass and spices would’ve made this similar to a Thai curry. I’m wondering if they have similar origins, since this adobo puti comes from the southern regions of the Philippines, where more trading with what was known as Java (now Indonesia) and other southeast Asian countries went on. In any case, I’ll try refining this recipe over time to really make it my own… the best adobo is always personal to the chef, I think.

while cooking

while cooking

Chicken Adobo in Coconut Milk (recipe from Ronnie Alejandro, in The Adobo Book, eds. R. Alejandro and N. Reyes-Lumen)


2 Tbs garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 Tbs olive oil
1 whole chicken, cut into 8-10 pieces My note: you can substitute 8-10 pieces of thigh and drumstick, bone-in for best flavor
3 cups coconut milk, halved
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh ginger, grated
3 tbs vinegar
1 small piece chili, optional

In a soup pot, saute garlic and onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add chicken pieces, 2 cups coconut milk, black pepper, salt, ginger, and vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered until chicken is very tender, about 1 hour and ten minutes (I recommend at least 1 1/2 hours for the chicken to be falling off the bone). Add chili (optional to taste) to make dish hot and spicy. Add remaining coconut milk, stir and simmer 2 to 3 minutes until sauce is thick and oily. Serve hot over rice.

adobo puti, seved over hot jasmine rice

adobo puti, seved over hot jasmine rice

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