This is a transcript of “Episode 06: Cooking Filipino Food At Home With Betty Ann Quirino” (Click the episode link for the audio!)
Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.
Today we’re talking with Betty Ann Besa-Quirino, an author, recipe developer and prolific blogger whose thoughts and experiences on cooking has personally helped me develop confidence in my own cooking abilities – to become part of what keeps global Filipino food culture alive.
I’ve been reading Betty Ann’s blog, called Asianinamericamag.com, for awhile now – pretty much since I started cooking Filipino recipes from scratch. What I love most about Betty Ann’s writing is that it’s very personal. She writes truthfully, and like the best blogs, I always feel like I’ve walked away with some kind of reward, or treasure, after reading her posts about cooking Filipino food at her home in New Jersey.
So I asked Betty Ann if we could talk about home cooking – and particularly, the kind of Filipino home cooking that first and second generation Filipinos who grow up in the US know. And these are lessons that apply to understanding every kind of food culture, not just that of Filipinos.
There’s a deep love for food that’s simultaneously comforting and also really ecstatic. Between friends, I’ve found that although our love for the food runs deep, there’s still a bit of apprehension with actually cooking the dishes we crave, either because we know our moms make it best, or we’re not familiar enough with the cooking techniques and get this fear that we just ruin a dish would take over. Maybe that’s just me, but it’s a familiar feeling!
This episode, we’re talking about what it’s like to cook Filipino food at home. I can’t promise that we won’t make you hungry.
BQ: Hello Nastasha, and hello to all your podcast listeners. My name is Betty Ann Besa-Quirino. I’m a Filipina at heart who lives in America. I live in Northwestern New Jersey. I’m a writer by profession. I’m a cookbook author, a journalist, and I’m also an artist.
NA: Betty Ann has also written a book about her husband’s grandfather, a former president of the Philippines named Elpidio Quirino. The foundation they’ve helped start, continues to advocate for accessible education among students and teachers in the Philippines. Betty Ann is an active member of several research and journalism committees as well, including the International Association of Culinary Professionals based in New York, and a group called the Culinary Historians of the Philippines.
BQ: Right now I’m a correspondent for Positively Filipino, a premier online magazine that publishes out of San Francisco, and I have a blog called Asian in America, where I transform traditional Filipino dishes to modern meals in my American kitchen.
NA: I’ve been reading Asian in America Mag for several years now, and that’s one of the things that I’ve found really manifested itself in your blog posts, it’s a really big inspiration too. Roundabout the time that you started your blog, there weren’t that many Filipino recipe blogs online at the time. I remember that was when around the time we first moved to Canada and if I would start to crave some things, I would start searching for recipes. I always came across your recipes online there and I always enjoyed the stories. That was such a big part of cooking for me, that there’s always a story involved about the Philippines and life in America and that kind of thing.
04:25 “People paid attention to my stories?”
BQ: Oh thank you! That’s very encouraging to hear and I’m flattered. I didn’t realize people paid attention to my stories. It’s just that I was beginning to feel the I was boring people, and I don’t want to come off as a very self-centered person in my writings. So lately I’ve been trying to cut shorter my stories, but that was interesting to know.
NA:I think it is really valuable and I guess it’s kind of eye-opening in some way too, because for Filipinos sometimes, we still have this tendency to feel a little bit shy about ourselves and our cooking. So even – for example – if I’m cooking at home with my mom, we’ll talk about making dinner or something, or cooking Filipino food, and then I’ll tell her, “I cook this for my boyfriend who’s not Filipino.” And she’ll go, “Oh well that’s just lumpia. Would he like some?” And them I’m like, “Yah, he actually really does!”
NA: So, I really like that your stories are very descriptive and it’s a mark of a good journalistic take on it.
BQ: Oh thank you! Now I’m looking at my blog and I’m wondering, “Really? She likes my blog!”
NA: Some of my friends also know about Asiainamericamag.com because of all the recipes that you have published over the years. Could you tell us a little bit about how the blog started?
06:07 From writing ad copy to blogging and authoring
BQ: Okay sure, I’d love to. First of all, the blog is a recent writing platform. I have been a writer all of my career life. I have a degree in communication arts from St. Paul University in Manila. So, right out of college I worked as a copywriter for an ad agency. For many years, that was my life. I was very proud because I was trained by the best in the industry in the Philippines. It was a lot of hard work, but I learned so much. It was a very diverse industry and field, and you learn to write for everything – motor fuel, airline, cars, butter, noodles, ice cream, beauty soaps, detergents, and our clients from Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, San Miguel Corporation, Nestlé…
NA: And those are some of the largest corporations in the Philippines.
BQ: …And it is hard work but I was trained by the best. So, that’s honed my writing skills.
NA: And if that wasn’t enough…
BQ: Oh, and I also was a college professor for Assumption College when we were living in the Philippines. I taught creative writing and advertising.
NA: Now THAT’S impressive. “So, how did being an advertising copywriter and college professor lead to the blog?” I asked.
07:30 Moving to the US
BQ: Then we moved to the US and of course, life was different, totally different. Totally different from what you see in the movies and magazines, and it just shatters everything you dreamt about living in America.
NA: This was the first of several “real talk” moments during my conversation with Betty Ann that’s stuck with me; that difficulty of adjusting to life in another country as a new immigrant. I understand what she means by how it shatters you, perhaps not always in a way that other people can see, but you know is real.
NA: Anyone who’s started life in a new country inevitably becomes familiar with that feeling of being very far away from the world and family you know, with a day-to-day reality that doesn’t always match up to what most other people think life in America is going to be like.
BQ: Our children were very small. Our youngest son was only three years old. Of course, I opted to stay home and raise them even if I had offers to work in ad agencies. New York City is 50-60 miles away and I just won’t do that, leave the children. So I took some part-time jobs along the way just to be close to home, research jobs. I also taught language at Berlitz Learning Center because I’m also fluent in Spanish; I was teaching professionals Spanish to English. So those were things that kept me occupied as my children were growing. Before I knew it, they were soon off to college.
BQ: I have been home-cooking the whole time and all my life. That was the norm for our family, home cooking.
NA: And so with the help of her American-raised children who became digital product designers and cross platform journalists, Asianinamericamag.com became one of the first Filipino recipe blogs that consistently landed in top search results for Filipino recipes.
09:36 Starting the blog
BQ: I was afraid that my sons will be eating junk food when they go off to college, so I started writing recipes in a yellow pad for them. But being millennials they preferred something digital, so they told me, “Mom, you need to have a blog.”
BQ: So then my son Tim, who’s now a product designer at Facebook, he told me, “I’ll create it for you, and I’ll only teach you once. Then you’re on your own.” My youngest son Constante, is a journalist and a communications major. Both of them went to Drexel University in Philadelphia. Constante also gave me tips on writing for online publications.
BQ: So that’s how the blog started. It was a desire of a mother to make sure that her sons were well-fed while they were away from home. Even the name was off the cuff and done in a hurry because we were at the dining table and my son Tim – the older one – was starting away, and he said, “Okay what name do you want?” “Oh I don’t know,” I said. So I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. I had no idea what I was doing. But both of them said, “Mom, you’re a writer and you write about food. So you’ll know what this is all about,” they both said.
BQ: So that’s how it started. I had the camera but it wasn’t a nice one. Eventually, my husband started giving me for birthdays and Christmas – cameras, lighting equipment, and the boys did the same. Now they give me props for my blog or for my cooking.
BQ: So, it has grown. It was a writing platform at the start for me, and it grew.
NA: I love that story that you just shared with us because one of the things I really like about blogs is that it allows you to be very intimate with your writing in a way you can share it with other people. I was smiling as you were telling me the story about how your sons had encouraged you to start it and prompted you to start doing the recipes and recording them online because it’s such a great example of how really very family-oriented a lot of these types of projects begin, especially with cooking and especially with Filipino cooking.
12:22 On food, family, and cooking
BQ: Food, family, and cooking has always been central in our lives. Like I told you, home cooking has been the norm for us ever since. My sons, I taught them how to cook, and now I’m very proud they do better than me in the kitchen. It’s always a feast when they come home. There’s so much noise. We fight. They shoo me away from the kitchen. Now they think they know better, and they do! They actually do. It’s a very fulfilling and gratifying feeling and I’m very proud of it. I’m proud of how they turned out and I’m so happy when I hear from people that they read my blog, they love my recipes. It’s always my intention to help somebody, to share a recipe, if I can make somebody’s day better, that gives me a lot of happiness.
NA: As it should and to me as well. Personally, what I find very rewarding about it is really being able to share that experience as well as the story too.
13:35 Growing up on a farm in the Philippines
NA: I mentioned over email a few times that, really when I started learning how to cook Filipino food, was really when I moved out of my parent’s house because I was going to college downtown. With a lot of Filipino families too, there’s still the tendency where, you know “Oh you know my mom will cook it,” or “I’ll come home.” And there’s always like something that someone in your family has made, and after I moved out it was like, “Oh you know I’m craving adobo or pancit,” and all that. Then I’m like, “Oh well, I have to learn how to make it,” because no one else will be able to make it for me unless I go to get some take-out or something.
NA: It’s very reflective of me realizing that so many of these food traditions I didn’t really care about much while I was growing up, became really important as I became an adult.
That’s what I’m finding in your blog posts and recipes over the years. They’re like a marker of life and things that you’re experiencing, that kind of thing.
NA: Naturally, I wanted to know more about how all of this started for Betty Ann, so I asked her to tell us about where she grew up.
BQ: I grew up in a very rural, agricultural province. Tarlac was my home province. I was raised in Tarlac up to high school. Then I went to college in Manila. But my father – by nature, by profession – was a farmer. He was an agricultural businessman. We owned farms and we owned rice fields and sugarcane fields. I was raised in that kind of environment. Our home had a large, huge backyard in the back. And we had cattle and we had a piggery and we had chicken and goose. I can’t even remember what other animals we had. Then we had fruit trees and vegetable crops. That was my way of life growing up. I didn’t step into a supermarket to buy food until much later, by the time I was merely a teenager. As a child, I remember being tasked with collecting the eggs from the chickens we were raising. For as long as I remember, there were always brown eggs because that’s how farm-raised free range chickens lay eggs.
BQ: For years I would collect the eggs and put them in the basket and later on, when we went to the city – by this time I was, I think it was fourth grade or fifth grade – my first experience to see white eggs in the supermarkets, I was shocked. The first thing I asked was, “Who washed them? Why are they white?!”
NA: …as if to say, why do these eggs look different from what they should be? They should be brown right?
BQ: So yun nga (that’s it). That was my kind of upbringing. Everything we had on the table was from produce that we grew in the backyard or our farm. As the seasons came and went, then our vegetables and fruits were seasonal.
BQ: And that’s how I learned to cook. I started going into the kitchen, and if I could reach the kitchen counter, one of my first task was trim the edges of sitaw, long green beans. I remember that. That’s why I love sitaw because that was one of my first tasks, to remove the edges of it with my fingers first, and later when I was old enough to hold a knife I was assigned to cut it into smaller pieces to be cooked.
NA: That’s the magic of bringing kids into the kitchen, pretty much as soon as you can trust them to keep their hands off of hot items, because those are the kinds of lessons that need to be learned. They need to be internalized in their own way. I totally remember snapping the ends off from these bright green beans like the yard-long ones Betty Ann talked about. They’ve got this little snap to them when you break them off, kind of how you’re supposed to snap off the woody ends of an asparagus stalk at the point where they naturally break. It’s a good task to give like six or an eight year old maybe, get them all set up in the kitchen, prep some vegetables next to the grown ups while they’re cooking. It’s the kind of stuff that sticks, until you’re grown and you have your own little kitchen helpers to share that kind of experience with.
NA: These kinds of food memories, in the end, are the things that drive us to write the stories that matter; the stories that we get to tell from our own perspectives, and in our own voice, driven by the need to connect with some part of ourselves that we’re looking for, or maybe have lost, in the “now” or the reality of our everyday lives.
NA: This next story is about mango jam, and it’s Betty Ann’s award winning piece in a food writing competition that’s like the gold standard of Philippine food writing.
19:50 The story of mangoes in a jar
BQ: I saw in your website you have the book ‘Savor the Word’ of Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez’ Writing Award Essays. My essay ‘A Hundred Mangoes in a Bottle’ is in that book. I won an award in 2012, and if you read that essay, it’s all about making mango jam. That is a very memorable essay for me because I grew up cooking with my mother, learning from her, and mango jams in the summer were one of the most important traditions we used to participate in.
BQ: Fast-forward to life in America. A few years ago when I saw mangoes in the market, I was so excited and I said to myself, “Let me recreate the mango jam of my childhood.” I was trying and I couldn’t quite get it. At the same time, I was refreshing my writing, so I was taking writing classes with Monica Bhide…
NA: Monica is a renowned food writer and cookbook author with a dedicated online following. Her blog about modern Indian cooking has led to several book deals, leading workshops and international conferences…
BQ: …and she was coaching me on different writing styles. I told her about the mango jam experience…
NA: …and Monica basically said, “That’s a beautiful story, why don’t you write about it?”
BQ: …so I said, “Yeah, why don’t I?” So, she said, “Write an essay about how you made mango jam with your mother.” So I set off to write an essay, then I went back to my writing teacher, went back to Monica and I said, “There’s a problem. I can’t write the essay.” She said, “Why not?” “You know? I just remembered, one of the most painful things I remembered is I never asked my mother for the recipe. My mother died in 1981, so of course six years ago, I couldn’t ask anyone anymore.” I told Monica, “How sad is that? I’m really, really so sad that I never asked my mother for the recipe of the mango jam. It’s something we did for so many years and I took it for granted, and I never asked her. Why did I not ask her?” I said, “I know how to do it, but I don’t know the measurements. I don’t know how many mangoes, how much sugar, or the temperature, or what kind of mangoes to choose.” I was so sad, and Monica said, “You know what? There’s your essay. Write about the sadness.” And I said, “My God! That’s hard! I’m going to be crying for every word.” “And that what makes a good writer,” she said.
BQ: So I wrote the essay. Long story short, I wrote it, 800 words, showed it to Monica my writing teacher, showed it to my sons, showed it to my husband, and they all said it’s good. “Yes,” I said, “it’s good. But I’m not giving it to anyone,” I said, and I put it away in a drawer. I kept in in a drawer for years.
NA: At that point, Betty Ann says, she just wasn’t ready to share something so personal yet; something that affected her deeply, that touched upon a memory that wasn’t just about food, but really about loss and regret.
BQ: Then one day, I saw the Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez Writing Awards. They were open to submissions and, even if I was in the States, they encouraged me to “Yeah, why don’t you submit?” So I emailed my essay, and I’ve won an award…
NA: Which just goes to show that if you’ve got a story that needs to be told, go ahead, tell it! Because there’s no other person on earth who can tell that story better than you can.
23:50 “Who cares?”
BQ: When I wrote ‘A Hundred Mangoes In A Bottle’ essay, Monica – my writing teacher – encouraged me to submit it to several publications. “But, first of all,” I told her, “Who will be interested in this? People who don’t know me are not going to care.” I said, “It’s about my personal sadness, and there’s no recipe. So ultimately, nobody will care.” And she said, “No you’re wrong, no really.” The thing is from my perspective, who’s going to care about my sadness? If you don’t know me, are you going to care? Who’s going to care about mangoes if they’ve never tasted mangoes. I also said, “It’s about a rural town in a province in the Philippines that people have probably never heard about.” There’s really no draw for the reader; that’s what I kept thinking. So I kept it.
24:50 A lesson learned
BQ: So what did I learn from that? Nobody else has your story. Every person is unique and if you worry about things that have not yet happened, then it’s an exercise in futility and it’s just going to make you crazy. I should not have said to myself, “Hey, nobody’s going to care.”
NA: See what I mean by real talk? Thanks for the life advice, Tita Betty Ann! It’s all real in many respects. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained by simply waiting for something to happen to you. I can’t help but think of how motivationally engaging that is; to know that other people experience that same kind of vulnerability you feel, that you’re not alone.
NA: Drifting away from our story for just a little bit. I just want to talk about this event I went to not long ago called “Fear as Fuel,” organized by my friend Gelaine who runs a social entrepreneurship meet-up group. Amazing, right? Anyway, I’m glad I went that evening. It was at a co-working space right across the Christie Pits Park in Toronto. At the event, there were business owners, people who ran workshops, people who were looking to find a community of other self-starter kinds of people. Honestly, taking part in that form of community engagement – for me I think – really helps. In the end, it’s kind of nice to hear other people go through similar kinds of challenges with their lives. You can feel vulnerable about work, about relationships, life in general. But you kind of just have to learn how to overcome them, and it’s a lot easier – or at least a bit more comforting – knowing that other people experience that same kind of fear, that same kind of vulnerability too.
NA: Next, I wanted to hear about things Betty Ann has learned over the years as a food blogger and recipe developer; like cooking techniques she’s honed or adapted for her North American kitchen, and examples of ingredients she’s used to substitute for more traditional Philippine fruits and vegetables.
28:02 Finding ingredients is a challenge
NA: I’m wondering over the years, what kinds of substitutions have you had to make? Say for calamansi, for example, because that’s kind of a really very popular, integral thing to a lot of Filipino cooking, but even here, it’s not very easy to find.
BQ: No, it’s not. Here’s the thing. As far as the ingredients are concerned, substitution has always been a challenge for me and I will say, for most people who do not live close to a Filipino community where Filipino groceries or Chinatown are far away, it’s always a challenge.
28:43 Three components to successful recipes
BQ: How do I deal with it? First of all, I came to the realization that for the success of a recipe, there are three things that are needed: ingredients, ease of the recipe/how easy it is to do, and the delicious result. If you have those three things, those three components, then your family will have a very good meal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple adobo or an elaborate paella. You have to have ingredients, ease of the procedure, and a delicious result.
29:22 Substituting traditional Philippine ingredients
NA: So, how does Betty Ann get that in her own kitchen?
BQ: Early on, I realized I will not always have 100% of all the ingredients in my Filipino notebook or my Filipino cookbook. So, I learned to memorize what flavor I wanted to achieve and I taught this to my sons. Then I kept searching and searching for the right substitute. For example, if we got invited to Filipino parties in New York or where Filipino communities are, I wouldn’t ask, “Oh where did you buy your calamansi,” or “where did you buy your pancit.” I wouldn’t ask. I pay attention to the flavor that was achieved, then I keep that in my memory, in my mind, in my heart, in my senses. Then I go home and try to recreate it to the best of my ability. Calamansi was only something I recently found because it’s only lately that we have frozen calamansi. In the early 90s, we had to go to Chinatown in New York, which was 60 miles away by car for us. Even then it was always expensive, so why do that? Later on, through asking, through researching, and through tasting myself I found that Meyer lemons are the closest in flavor to kalamansi. So I kept that in mind, even in my blog I say that, I said that to friends, I share it as a cooking tip to other fellow Filipinos, or to those who are not Filipino who want to cook Filipino food. That’s one.
BQ: And you know, everything down the line, if you need a souring agent for sinigang? I know that tamarind is not unique to the Philippines and geographically it’s used by other neighboring Asian countries. So, this was like in the early days of the Internet, in the early 90s. I researched for ingredients from other cultures, from other stores. Sometimes, international markets will have a wider inventory of Thai ingredients versus Filipino products, so that’s where I look.
NA: And really, the 90s were not that long ago. Thinking about how difficult it was to source certain types of Asian produce then – before the arrival of today’s international mega-marts and online shopping and even Asian vegetables like bok choy and those yard long beans we were talking about, available at local farmers’ markets – you would really have needed to think outside the box and kind of critically about the flavors you were looking for. If you couldn’t get the ingredients you wanted at the closest grocery store…
32:30 Remember the origins of a dish
BQ: When you have to remember also the origin of the dish – again I taught my sons this one; aside from remembering what the flavor is trying to replicate – you have to remember that basic Filipino dishes in the Philippines, they use backyard fruit; like sinigang, pinakbet, they always use backyard fruit; nilaga, whatever is the produce from the backyard is what goes in the cauldron, and that’s what you cook with. That’s important to remember. That’s how I learn how to substitute ingredients here in North America. You just have to remember the origin of the dish. You have to remember how it tastes like, and then you go on your search to try to recreate that by being creative and finding different sources.
33:40 A visit to the Ilocos region
NA: Switching gears a bit. Next, I wanted to talk about culinary trips, and some of Betty Ann’s travels to the Philippines that she’s written about online.
NA: I know earlier you were telling me about the experience you gained as a copywriter in the Philippines early on in your career and how a lot of the skills and the lessons you learned, copywriting for all these different brands and these different types of products kind of fed into your approach to writing in general with being creative. For people listening as well, I’ll post the links to two of Betty Ann’s articles on Positivelyfilipino.com.
NA: Specifically the one you sent over to me was something called ‘Holiday Dishes With Ilocano Flavors’ and ‘Day Trips to Culinary Heaven.’
BQ: The Ilocano Flavors coincidentally, that was the same year we were celebrating the 125th birthday anniversary of the late President Elpidio Quirino who was the grandfather of my husband. So the entire Quirino clan was going to get together in Ilocos in November 2015. As early as a few months before the trip, here in America I was already planning, “Hmm, why don’t I research about Ilocano food and write about it?” It was twirling in my mind already; the different ideas, different things, and what approach I could do, because I knew we will be served the flavors of the province. I knew that. I knew that just going from one town to the next, there’s a big difference in flavor and in ingredients, even if it’s the same dish you’re served. That’s how it came about. I already planned it even before going home to the Philippines.
BQ: Now when I got there, that was the challenge. You know why? Because nobody else had the mindset that I had. Everybody else was busy with the reunion, with the historic events, with getting together with relatives you haven’t seen in 30 years, and then the heat, the traffic, and so many other elements. So, long story short, I was the only one who was interested in doing a deep dive of Ilocano flavors. Nobody else was thinking the way I do.
NA: Man, if I were there, I’d have loved to go around and accompany Betty Ann with her research. That would be amazing!
BQ: It was interesting. You know how I went about it; I would take as many pictures I could. I tasted everything; taste, not ate; taste a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I interviewed people – not celebrities – I interviewed ordinary people in the restaurants, in the streets, the family cook, the aunt, the cousin, the friend of the cousin, and just basically put the article together. The thing about Ilocano food is that regionally, the flavors are strong and powerful. They grip you. You know when you come from America where the FDA controls the saltiness and the ingredients and requires a list of ingredients on the labels, then you’re thrown in the province where nobody gives a hoot what’s in it, but it’s delicious, then it’s really, really, really a cultural experience.
BQ: Again, you have to look at the geography and where you are. Ilocos is in the northern part of the Philippines, where the soil is barren and dry, and not good for many other vegetables and produce that are grown in other parts of the country. But there are things that survive in that kind of soil, in that kind of heat.
NA: Some examples of fruit and vegetables that thrive in this environment include string beans, squashes, gourds, peppers, eggplants, some corn, papaya, root crops like sweet potatoes and purple yams, and a plethora of beans, okra, and the eponymous bitter melon.
BQ: Believe me it was so hot in Ilocos. Hotter than any other province I have been to. Geographically, that’s because we’re nearly at the tip of the northern part of the Philippines. There’s actually a part of Ilocos where you can see China from there. Now, going back to that you have to understand the geography and what kind of food they produce. They produce a lot of garlic, that very powerful Sukang Iloko (Ilocos vinegar) made from coconut, and then they put siling labuyo (wild chili) with some bird’s eye chilies which, whoo! It’s much more potent than it is here in America.
BQ: One of the first things I ate was the Vigan longganisa. They’re small, cured pork sausages that are very garlicky and very vinegary. You can’t be in Vigan, Ilocos Sur if you don’t try the longganisa. Then I also had lechon kawali (crispy pork belly). In Ilocos, it’s called bagnet, and we had that. Why is it very popular there? Piggeries and agricultural livestock are predominant.
BQ: We were also served pinakbet, the vegetable stew, which is not the same as the pinakbet you eat here in America, nor the pinakbet I had in Tarlac. It’s just really Ilocano pinakbet. There’s a different way they do pinakbet there. There’s different norms and customs. In Ilocos, you do not put squash in the pinakbet. You don’t. A true Ilocano knows that. If you put squash like the kabocha squash? Aha! You’re not Ilocano. Even the way it’s cooked, they basically layer and layer and layer the vegetables in a crock pot, they don’t mix it, they don’t stir it, they just layer and layer and layer the vegetables with the bagoong (shrimp paste), a little broth, onions and garlic, some seasoning, and that’s it. That’s the way. As simple as that.
BQ: We had something that was like malunggay – moringa – we had that and it was… Wooh! Now I’m getting hungry. It’s just basically malunggay simmered in fish bagoong. Yes, it was delicious!
BQ: I also brought home a lot of pasalubong – gifts from the travels – to my family in Tarlac and to friends in Manila. I brought back Vigan longganisa – the cured pork sausages – because they were very garlicky and potent. I brought back a lot of cornik, which is fried corn kernels, they were full of garlic, full of adobo spicy flavors. The native pastries, the Vigan bibingka (rice cake) is different from the bibingka that we know. It’s more like a cassava type of coconut cake. It’s very delicious. I have the recipe. I have yet to make it here in America. I’m afraid it won’t turn out the same.
BQ: You know why? Here’s what I also learned. The humidity contributes a large part of the success of the recipe. Here in North America, on the East Coast, we cannot replicate the heat and humidity of the Philippines. But therefore, there are a lot of dishes, even if you have 99.9% the complete line of ingredients ready on your counter, it’s not going to be the same. Our water is different and the heat is different. It’s not going to be the same.
BQ: The Vigan empanada was legendary food I was trying to taste. I tried it a long, long time ago and I haven’t had it in a long time. The Vigan empanada is different. It’s a half-moon-shaped large empanada. From Ilocos, the ones they have there are almost orange in color, but that’s because they put achuete or annatto seeds in the dough. The dough is spread out so thin, it’s almost like a wafer, it’s almost like the lumpia wrapper. That’s what the texture is like of the Vigan empanada. The filling is made up of grated papaya and vegetables, some meat, some pork, and then they put a raw egg inside it. They seal the filling, so imagine it’s a half-moon orange empanada, and then they deep-fry it. And it’s best eaten when it’s warm and crisp.
NA: Mmmm. That really makes me want a Vigan empanada!
BQ: I know, me too, I’m drooling at my own description. Can you imagine how shameful that is? I have a recipe for the Vigan empanada which I got from the family cook at the Qurino-Syquia mansion but I’m still going to kitchen-test it. Like I told you, the heat and humidity of Vigan is different from Flanders, New Jersey so I’m afraid it’s not going to be the same but I’ll do my best.
NA: The way you were describing the Vigan empanada where it’s wafer-thin, half-moon pastry, with a fried egg inside, all these delicious, really yummy fillings, it’s the kind of stuff that people love posting about online these days. A part of what I really want to do with this podcast project is tell the stories of Filipino food from different perspectives. From the story that you shared of actually going to the province in the Philippines where this particular empanada is born, it reminds me and it reminds us that we can almost associate the Latin-American-like Spanish thing, and then it goes back to what you were saying again earlier of you have to remember the origins of something.
NA: There’s so many different things you can almost learn about, like the history of the Philippines through the different foods we offer. These kinds of recipes and dishes kind of make their way through time because even simpler dishes like sinigang or adobo, those are very everyday dishes most people make. Like you mentioned earlier, the three things to make a successful recipe are that, you have the ingredients, it’s easy to make, and it gives you a really delicious result. All of those three things are checked off everyday from meals like sinigang and stuff like that, and it also gets checked off with really special kinds of things that you eat like Vigan empanada, stuff like that, that you go on a trip for.
46:27 Food traditions are priceless
BQ: You know for this article I wrote ‘Holiday Dishes With Ilocano Flavors,’ aside from asking cousins and aunts and people and strangers about the different kinds of dishes I tasted, I also asked my aunt – I have to give credit to Atty. Aleli Quirino, or Tita Nila, she’s the daughter of Judge Antonio Quirino who was a brother of President Elpidio Quirino – and Tita Nila had to go through the family diary of her parents to look up some of my questions. She took the time from her work – she’s a lawyer – and I was pestering her about this. I said, “Tita Nila how do you make this and how do you make that, and what do you do during Christmas? Do you serve this or that?” and she said, “Let me go look at mama’s journal.” These are priceless memories really, because they are family journals. They are family diaries that are kept and a lot of them are confidential. But food is meant to be shared, so I guess it wasn’t a problem to ask.
NA: That’s one of the things that I would really hope. It’s kind of a little spin-off project I would like to do with these podcast recordings, to hopefully kind of encourage people in the Philippines and people anywhere who want to start recording their recipes. Especially now more than ever, it’s so easy to have a copy of these types of mementos and recordings whether you write it down or upload it to your own personal blog or record it on your cell phone and save it as an audio file. It’s so important to me to be able to get these stories about the food and about your family and about certain regions and places in the country because I am looking forward to going back to the Philippines so much because there’s always a new province I want to visit every time because there are so many places to visit and so many things to eat.
48:40 Advice for home cooks
NA: So, what’s Betty Ann’s advice for a curious cook like me?
BQ: Let me tell you this. I used to be in your shoes. I used to be young and nervous and afraid of being scolded for doing the wrong thing. Don’t be, alright? I used to hate it when someone hovered behind my back while I’m cooking, breathing down my neck and face. “So what are you making? Oh, don’t do that. Your fire’s too high. Noo…” Okay, block that all out. If that makes you nervous, get away from that moment. If it makes you nervous that your mother is watching you when you’re cooking, that your aunt is screaming at you for having a high fire, then don’t cook in front of them. Do it by yourself in your own time, at your own place, with ingredients you bought yourself. Then you’re not accountable to anyone.
BQ: Number one, get away from what makes you nervous. First you identify, “What makes me nervous? My mother? Okay. She should not be around me if I’m cooking,” but don’t tell your mother that; I’m sure she’s nice. I’m telling you, eliminate the factors that make you nervous. Number two, don’t experiment when you’re about to serve a humongous amount of people. If you’re going to have a party, serve recipes that you are used to making even if you’re asleep. So, that means going back to practicing, until you learn how to make the biko properly, until you learn how to make the puto properly and you’re confident. The self-confidence comes with practice. And most of all – don’t forget this – learn and know what you do best and keep doing it. Nobody else is like you, Nastasha. Nobody else is like me. We’re all unique people. We all have our differences…
NA: And with that, like a magically timed flourish, the power went out in my apartment building because of a heavy snowstorm that was barreling outside. Talk about pulling out of the tropical paradise we almost felt like we were in, remembering trips to the Philippines and the heat of the countryside! Total contrast. It was the middle of winter, the middle of February for both of us on the east coast and everything outside was buried in at least a foot of snow.
NA: Anyway, Betty Ann ended with some valuable advice that I’ve definitely taken to heart – do what you want to do, do what you love to do, travel to the places where you know you’ll get to taste the real deal, and don’t be afraid of translating recipes in ways that you feel comfortable doing.
NA: That follows my personal take on cooking sous-vide Filipino recipes. I got a couple of them up in my blog. They’re definitely not traditional, but I love the precision of sous-vide cooking too much not to at least try and to see what a 24-hour oxtail peanut stew is like. Man, it’s delicious! It’s my super modern, slow-cooked version of kare-kare. I gotta say, the ligaments around those oxtail bones were the perfect bite. There’s no other way you could get that with regular cooking, they’d melt right into the sauce. Absolutely worth it. Anyway…
NA: So as a take-away, Betty Ann’s philosophy on cooking is something I appreciate and totally relate to. And I hope it’s encouraged you to cook a Filipino dish, maybe tonight or if not, sometime soon. At least look up a recipe, pick up a few ingredients that you can work into your own take on a particular Filipino dish. Forget about everything other than your desire to make something good, because, with a little bit of research and prep, it’s really not that hard to create a memorable Filipino meal, whether it’s a weeknight or special occasion, to share with others.
My warmest thanks this episode to Betty Ann Besa-Quirino. Please visit www.asianinamericamag.com for recipes – it’s a good time to try one out – and follow Betty Ann on Instagram and elsewhere online as well.
Music for this episode is by David Szestay, Eric and Magill, Squire Tuck and Blue Dot Sessions.
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Maraming salamat and thank you, for listening.