Adventures In Philippine Cookery - Episode Transcript
Find the transcript of my interview with Bryan Koh below.
Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.
Today we’re talking with Bryan Koh, author of the book “Milk Pigs and Violet Gold,” a hardcover book from a Philippine university press, first published in 2013 and then re-issued three years later to the rest of Southeast Asia.
The illustrations, artwork and photos in Bryan’s books are BEAUTIFUL. I got to say that off the top. Turning the pages, I’m driven by the narrative, the structure, and the immediacy of his stories – like I feel like I’m there – and I constantly think, because I’m reading the recipes… I mean, “really, that’s all it takes to make that?”
But of course, it’s never just that! It isn’t just gathering ingredients in a bowl, and not even just knowing the right technique – whether you’re making handmade noodles or one of the dozens of kakanin, or rice cakes – that are in the book. What I really love about Milk Pigs is that there’s the sense of discovery, of excitement, like how the food he talks about sounds totally familiar, but at the same time, also really new.
Come along with us for this month’s adventures in Philippine cookery.
BK: My name’s Bryan Koh. I’m a food writer. I’m based in Singapore. I’ve written two books so far, well of course, there’s ‘Milk Pigs,’ and ‘Milkier Pigs’...
NA: That’s ‘Milk Pigs and Violet Gold,’ his ode Philippine cuisine, and its second edition, playfully titled ‘Milkier Pigs and Violet Gold,’ with a few more recipes, extended chapters, and a new layout…
BK: And there’s another one called ‘0451 Mornings Are For Mont Hin Gar,’ and that one is a book on Burmese food.
NA: Bryan completed his bachelors in mathematics at the University of Singapore, then went on to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York for his masters degree. After deciding that life as an academic wasn’t necessarily for him, Bryan went back to school for hospitality.
BK: And right now, when I’m not writing, I’m running a bakery in Singapore called ‘Chalk Farm.’
NA: So how did his book ‘Milk Pigs and Violet Gold’ come about, I asked?
02:46 How the book started
BK: Well, it kind of happened during the interim between my university days and my master’s program. I did a couple of things, Chalk Farm was one of them, that’s why I started it. What else I did? I was a freelance journalist. It was quite interesting because during that time, I’m a bit of a food book junkie, so I did collect quite a bit. I was reading excessively, and I realized there weren’t very many food books – Asian food books, I should qualify – that had this kind of narrative to them. Most of the books you get here anyway, usually are like an instruction manual, or it’s almost encyclopedic.
NA: That is totally true. Every time I go back to Southeast Asia, I always stop into as many bookstores as possible, to check out what kinds of cookbooks they have, and that I can add to my collection. There are definitely some notable books, but for the most part – as Bryan says – this stuff is pretty dry; it can be boring. Informative, but not like the long, winding travelogues of writers like Alan Davidson, who lived in Laos in the 1950s, or even Fuchsia Dunlop, whose memoir about Sichuan food is easily one of my favorites.
BK: So I was trying to have a book that engaged the reader in a really different way. Something I was looking for, from a very personal standpoint. So that’s how it happened. For some reason I thought back then to do Philippine cuisine because it was actually – back then anyway, this was nearly 10 years ago – there wasn’t really much literature about it. There is more now. There’s much more now, but back then that really wasn’t the case, it wasn’t this “hot” subject that it is now. Now we have so many articles, so many bloggers, so many food magazines talking about it as the next big Asian cuisine.
NA: So all this excitement surrounding Filipino food, it isn’t just tipping over in North America and the West, it’s happening in the actual region it’s from. With so much more publicity given to Philippine ingredients and flavor profiles, restaurants in the city that host visiting chefs from Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Spain, Filipino food is legitimately a hot commodity.
05:31 Why write about Philippine cuisine?
BK: The reason why that cuisine floated into my head to begin with was that I had a yaya, she was from La Union and she cooked exceedingly well. I realized very much later on that quite a few people didn't really has that similarly good experience as with Philippine cuisine, and that quite a few of my friends had pretty horrific ones. As I went along, I began telling people what I was doing. I got quite a few raised eyebrows. That didn't really discourage me. If anything, I think it kind of it fortified my stand that I really have to do this.
BK: Around 2009, I was briefly sent on a freelance assignment to the Philippines. This was my first time on Philippine soil. It was in Lipa, Batangas and it was ironic because it was a detox facility that I went to. After my writing stint, I was taken around to eat, and it was an amazing experience. Until then, there were a lot of things I hadn’t know about, and to me that entire trip was an eye-opener. That’s when I kind of realized that this was something I really wanted to do. The very seed was sown during that trip.
07:04 Getting by with a little help from friends
BK: Later that year, I went to Cornell where I did my masters and I met two wonderful friends, Bianca and Susanne. They were the ones who actually encouraged me and provided the network for the book to happen. I made it quite plain in the preface of the book that without their assistance, this would have not come to fruition.
NA: And this is an important thing to note; something Bryan and I, and many other people I’ve met while traveling, can confirm about the Philippines. While it’s relatively easy to get around, and really easy to talk to locals – because pretty much everyone speaks English – your chances of “stumbling” onto the best roadside restaurant, or having consistently good bowls of soups and stews, aren’t really guaranteed without someone’s recommendation. Granted, this is so much easier these days with everything being online, but with that comes another problem: how do you trust what’s good? And, you got to keep in mind that this doesn’t really apply out in the provinces where the best cooking often is. For that, for those really regional specialties that aren’t served in restaurants because people don’t even think of preparing it for anyone outside their homes – because it’s either an everyday dish or pegged as the lowly peasant fare that folks in the countryside wouldn’t even think of serving – you got to have the right connections to find that kind of food, the food that you travel for.
08:44 The reality of travel
BK: I think for me it’s more than just the recipes. I quite like the context, knowing a bit about their background – the recipes I mean. The first trip I made for Milk Pigs happened in May 2010. Way back then I thought I could probably complete this in around four trips. I really remember sitting down with my friend – Susanne – she was the one with whom I ventured to the Cordillera and Ilocos. That was the very, very first trip up. I was going to Manila, going to Baguio, going all the way up north to Laoag, and then flying back down. So at first we thought, okay it will be Luzon. Or it will be Luzon covered in two parts, and then Visayas, and then Mindanao. Three round trips around two to three weeks each. So that’s how it started. Very, very naive. Extremely ignorant, because I have never gone that far north. So I knew nothing about road conditions, I knew nothing about weather conditions, and the thing about Central and North Luzon is that some parts are inaccessible. Now it’s getting better, but definitely wasn’t that easy to make travel plans. Just traveling between two towns could take you three to four hours.
10:06 Why guides are crucial
BK: Susanne knew someone who could take care of us, so that’s how we arranged the trips. For the whole of the Philippines, I had a contact in every town that I went to, or at least I knew someone having gone to that town before, so I have some form of guidance, which I think is crucial, especially in the Philippines because I wouldn’t have known any better. Sometimes you need people to direct your attention to certain things. So for every trip, I cross out little towns, I list the regions I wanted to visit along with the local dishes or delicacies from each part of the region. So that was how we planned it out because there were certain things I had to cover.
BK: I still remember that breakfast/lunch meeting. We flew in to Manila and we met with our contact and he starts talking about a few things and I start taking notes, taking quite a lot of those. I was so preoccupied with my own little checklist that I now feel I probably didn’t pay as much attention as I should have. There were a lot of juicy morsels that I actually kind of ignored, I took for granted. I only realized this during my second and third trips.
11:24 “Research is ongoing”
BK: Many people say research is preliminary, but the thing is, research is ongoing. You don’t do research, go to a destination, and it’s as though what you see and what you have read before, it’s not as if they click so easily. You don’t travel to confirm and corroborate and go, “Okay, that’s it. Done!” Actually in this region it’s nothing like that. It’s quite an untidy process where, as you go along, the more you uncover, and the more you travel, the more you’re reading up as well. It’s almost like two tasks that run parallel to one another, and you got to make sure your eyes are on both.
NA: That’s totally right. So I asked Bryan if he could tell us more, give an example to show what he means...and we ended up talking about a place I had also recently visited, the provinces of Ilocos.
12:19 Foods of the Ilocos Region
BK: I do love the north quite a lot and people who ask me about what was my favorite time, it was actually that trip. I knew I wanted to cover pinikpikan in the Cordillera. I knew that I wanted to look at pinakbet in the Ilocos to see how it was done traditionally. Pinapaitan. If you ask any Ilocano what they miss from home, I think dinengdeng is probably one of the first few things they mention. For those who don’t know what dinengdeng is, it’s basically a very light, almost soupy vegetable braise with bagoong being the main source of umami, although sometimes grilled fish is slipped in to give it a little bit of lovely smokiness and savoriness. It has all kinds of vegetables. Very unique dish, it has no oil because everything is simply being simmered. It’s what many an Ilocano has come to love. It’s what many of them miss when they’re overseas, especially when prepared with bamboo shoots and saluyot.
13:31 “You never really know until you travel”
NA: Man, all that stuff just sounds AMAZING! And that’s why, as Bryan says…
BK: You never really know until you start traveling. The first time you set foot on a country – not for a holiday – but with the intention of writing about something in the country, in that place, for me the mood is completely different.
NA: Again, I totally agree.
13:57 On locals’ generosity
BK: I was actually very, very fortunate that people were so generous with their time. The first market I went to outside of Manila was Tarlac, and then we went to Cordillera. So that entire leg for me was a huge eye-opener, and I do recall coming away from it quite overwhelmed. There were so many things I had to take note of, I mean smells, tastes, sights, and in addition to everything that you are experiencing yourself in terms of the senses, you also have to bear in mind that you have to record information about the food and about the recipes of course.
BK: I did worry that people would be a bit thorny with me in giving their recipes away, but I was quite fortunate in the Philippines because I didn’t really have that. People were mostly very, very generous. There’s this joy, really, and it was overwhelming, peoples’ warm generosity. And of course the information they shared with me, to me that’s a gift.
15:05 A Filipino approach to cooking
BK: Sometimes you can kind of tell people’s personality based on how they cook. So to me it’s more of like a window into their psyche. There are some people who take up the pains of making something simple into quite something quite complex by giving you a whole list of steps and there’s some people who’ve taken that same recipe and they just put everything in the same pot and boil the thing up.
NA: I asked Bryan how, exactly, he went about writing recipes for the book. Were they strictly recreations of dishes that people shared with him? Or were they more of a springboard to create versions that most people – in Southeast Asia at least – could make at home with ingredients from a local grocery store?
BK: Well, I obtained a lot of them through very, very casual conversation. Just talking to people where I didn’t really expect to get recipes. But these cooks often insisted that I take note of how they did it. So, with that amount of pride, I felt that I had a lot to answer for, simply because I was a strange Singaporean boy that’s collecting recipes. At the end of it, these recipes do belong to other people, and I wanted to make sure I took good care of them. I guess that, for me, there was a sense of accountability that I wanted to explain myself and I wanted to tell people why I made some changes.
BK: Also, the ingredients here are quite different. For example, even the vinegar you get in the Philippines is so different. You’ve got nipa palm vinegar. In Ilocos, you got the beautiful mahogany colored vinegar from the sugarcane. We don’t have that here. If you go to Lucky Plaza, which is where most people get their Philippine ingredients, you’ll be met with the most basic, which is sugarcane vinegar, just a very clear solution, very clean solution. It’s very good to use but it lacks a lot of nuance that you get from a vinegar you probably would get in the Philippines in a market. You can even pick your bagoong and your fish sauce. So, while people have the luxury of saying, “I want this kind of vinegar for my adobo. I don’t want to use the run-off-the-mill sugarcane vinegar. I want to use something from beneath the palm.” To be able to make that choice is a luxury!
NA: Oh I know Bryan, pretty much everyone outside the Philippines has the same problem! It’s one of the things we totally miss about home.
17:49 How much rests on the quality of ingredients
BK: When you look at a cookbook on Philippine food, it doesn’t take a lot to realize that a lot of the dishes are very, very simple. I mean Philippine cooking on the whole is extremely simple. Very, very few things are complicated and for me, going to the market and seeing the variety, of course vinegar is just one of them. Bagoong, patis, rice. The variety of rice you have over there, and full of fresh produce, vegetables, is amazing! Amazing stuff. For me everything just clicked. You realize how the quality of these dishes, how much of that rests on the quality of the ingredients.
NA: This is one of the great things about Bryan, and one of the best parts of talking with him. Remembering that he is – as he calls himself – this strange Singaporean boy - as much as I cannot wait to explore Singapore’s hawker stalls, and much as many Filipinos would jump at the opportunity to visit, it’s worth remembering that for all the culinary delights of Singapore, we have so much to be proud of in the Philippines, for the rich history and variety of our foodways. As he describes, there’s so much to see and eat and sample here! Singapore may have flourished with so many food traditions from Southeast Asia mingling in the heat of their woks – contributing to an exquisite, greatly, greatly delicious cuisine that is uniquely Singaporean – but in the Philippines, with the variations in our topography and landscape – these dense, mountainous areas jutting out of endless fields; the seas with species of fish too many to count – we got a lot to be proud of.
NA: This is why I feel, kind of like a bit of a broken record saying that to TRULY appreciate Filipino food – stripped of any pretension or fusion or adaptiveness – to understand why our palates have developed in such a way, and evolved to accommodate all these shortcuts that many contemporary cooks turn to, you’ve got to go back to the source and taste what those different types of vinegar, those fresh vegetables from the market, and loads of live seafood taste like. I know, it can be a lot to plan a trip to the Philippines, but I assure you that for someone who is anywhere near interested in those nuances and the real flavors of Philippine cuisine? It’s totally worth it!
20:29 “No wonder people feel so strongly!”
BK: And so when you see things in such variety, for me it makes a lot of sense. How people can be so bubblingly enthusiastic about it, or how they could feel so strongly about it. Because – this is what I could perceive anyway – a lot about Philippine cuisine, even on the palate, it isn’t extraordinarily complicated. It’s not like Thai where you necessarily have sweet, sour, salty, at those volumes, because the thing about Thai food – glorious as it is – it’s also quite loud in that sense. I mean, some of it in the flavor profile, it’s quite loud. You have a taste of a papaya salad and you know what’s there, you know the sweet is there, everything hits you.
BK: In the Philippines, if we’re talking about a lot of soups, a lot of it comes down to nuance, and this delicateness is in quite a lot of the food. So something like vinegar, I couldn’t begin to understand why just simply changing the vinegar will result in a very different dish. I might not have understood it before, just reading a recipe book, or why changing an ingredient, just one or two ingredients in a dish, would produce something that deserves a different name. Just seeing how much variety there is over there. It really made me really quite appreciative of it. For me, it simply made more sense after seeing everything like that.
22:16 On food terminology
NA: On the subject of food terminology...
BK: The real bug me was having to explain it to people. I mean even something like suman, for example. God the sleepless nights, because we used to make a lot of nonya kueh at home, “kueh” being local rice cakes, if you like, or snacks. We would always have an excess of glutinous rice.
NA: And Bryan shares that their housekeeper – who was Filipina – would always find a use for this glutinous rice.
BK: I do know that this is not the traditional way of doing it, but what she would do is that she sort of resuscitates this cold rice in a bit of gata or in some coconut milk or coconut cream, and she would swaddle them up in a banana leaf, these tapering locks, and then she would steam them. That was my first encounter with suman. She called them suman anyway, I think most people would.
BK: Even something like that, how do you explain to people how suman is... on one hand, it’s the name of something very specific and something very, very generic, because suman is simply a rice cake. And to also explain to people that, “Well you know, in some ways the bibingka can also be called a similar rice cake.” So, for example, suman in the Visayas is budbud. If you spoke to any Visayan, they would do well to tell you that, “No! You don’t call it suman here!” and the difference is that budbud has got ginger inside, and maybe a bit of pandan. I find that quite fascinating, only because of where I come from in Singapore and of course, in Malaysia, how most times you won’t even bother with it with a different name. Of course people probably will say it’s a language difference, blah blah blah, and I get all of that. I completely get it. But for me it’s fascinating because I have to explain why this particular item wants a completely new name, and it’s just one small ingredient change.
NA: I love this and find it really interesting as well. Honestly, people can be FIERCE when it comes to what regional foods are named. And you don’t even have to wait until visiting the Philippines to see that. All you gotta do is lurk around a couple of Facebook groups, I’ll have some links in the show notes, about regional Philippine cuisine and you’ll see people argue – or at the very least – have some really animated discussions about what certain foods, ingredients or snacks from their respective hometowns are called. Like upwards of 83 comments worth.
24:58 Feedback from readers
BK: One thing a lot of people told me was, “Oh I did not know that it’s something in this region,” that there’s some delicacy in another town, in another region, on a different island, that’s quite similar to something they have at home. I mean, I don’t really see myself as an authority. I see myself as someone who’s learning as he goes along. Something else is that, people often say, “I did not know that there’s so much to explore, there’s so much to eat.” For people to say that after reading the book that’s written by a foreigner, I find it quite moving and I’m grateful.
NA: Well, we’re pretty thankful too that Filipino food has made such an impression and become such a significant part of Bryan’s life. Even if many of us never actually get to go to the towns he’s visited, or ask the empanada makers of Ilocos what exactly goes into that beyond-tasty sausage and papaya filling in the famous Vigan empanadas, reading about it gets my taste buds going, and piques my interest to find out more about those delicious foods that I can attempt to make at home. With the recipes, photographs and kitchen notes in Bryan’s book and many others, this definitely counts toward my own journey of Exploring Filipino Kitchens.
Many thanks to Bryan Koh for recording this interview with me last year, and if you find yourself in Singapore, head over to “Chalk Farm,” Bryan’s cake shop on Orchard Road. I’ve been drooling over this pandan and adzuki bean cake they make and wish I could have one shipped over to me!
Also coming up this year is Bryan’s third book called “Bekwoh: Stories and Recipes from Peninsula Malaysia’s East Coast.” That’s coming up in August and I can’t wait to get my copy.
Our theme music is by David Szesztay, segment music is by Eric and Magill and Squire Tuck, which you’ll find on fma.org.Visit exploringfilipinokitchens.com for past episodes, and if you’re listening to this through a podcast app, please go ahead and click that subscribe button, so we can continue Exploring Filipino Kitchens together!
Maraming salamat, and thank you for listening.