This is a transcript of “Episode 02: How To Fall In Love With Filipino Food” (Click the episode link for the audio!)
Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.
Today I want to talk about what drives my desire to learn as much as I can about the history, traditions, and culture of the food from my homeland, the Philippines. This episode is about how to fall in love with Filipino food.
What always interests me are the stories people share about themselves, when they’re cooking or sitting down to share a meal with someone. If you’ve got a keen eye and an open mind, you can learn a lot about life from these folks, and that’s really rewarding. That allows stories about Filipino food to open themselves up like a glistening oyster. Like you’re saying, “Welcome to the party! Come on in.” You get to enjoy an incredibly delicious, flavour-first cuisine with textures and flavours that run the spectrum.
This kind of stuff sticks with me, and it caused me to fall deeper and deeper in love with it. Here’s how that happened for me.
STEP ONE: UNCOVER THE ROMANCE
The obsession started with Doreen Fernandez. Doreen wrote about Filipino food in ways more eloquent and lyrical than I’d ever read before.
She wrote about Filipinos and their economy with food, making street fare like grilled chicken innards on a stick and soups made with potatoes, cabbage and marrow-filled beef bones that are cooked low and slow for hours.
Doreen wrote about regional Philippine delicacies like pancit – a type of dry noodle dish – and how cooks used the ingredients that grew around them to make this “borrowed” Chinese noodle truly their own.
Like how folks from the seaside town of Malabon took their bounty of mackerel and smoked them to make tinapa – a smoked fish – a topping so iconic to that town’s pancit, you just can’t have pancit Malabon without tinapa.
Or how folks from the farmlands of Lucban realized that banana leaves were nature’s perfect take-out container. They’d rip leaves from a banana tree, cut them into large squares, fold them over like a pocket square, then top that with a mound of noodles and vegetables.
I remember that from when I was a lot younger. We would go to Quezon where my dad had a business at the time. There was this restaurant called Buddy’s Pancit, whose specialty was this type of noodle dish with the banana leaves on them. It was so much fun just walking around town with this little mound of steaming noodles on a banana leaf.
Every time I read an essay by Doreen, I was rewarded with learning about the culture and traditions that I too quickly left behind. Her words made an impact because they got to me in a way that I didn’t even know essays about food could make you feel. I felt euphoria and heartache and longing, often a sense of pride and joy too. I reveled in those lands that Doreen took me to, like my favourite story about a seafood that’s “cooked” in acid – much like ceviché – called kinilaw.
EXCERPT FROM “KINILAW ARTISTRY IN OLD SAGAY” BY DOREEN FERNANDEZ
These are excerpts from a story Doreen wrote, called “Kinilaw Artistry In Old Sagay.”
Sagay, Negros Occidental seemed hours and eons away when I first visited friends there in the fifties. Now it’s only two hours away from Bacolod on good roads and my friends – the Maranions – just this year in kind.
I wanted to talk to fishermen and ask them about kinilaw. It’s six in the morning. They took my sister Dela and me to a town called Old Sagay. New Sagay has the town center and businesses close to the highway. Old Sagay had the fishermen.
Right there on the shore, Felipe and Juanita have their home and the business with three boats, some 2000 meters of fish net, and large catches that buyers came in for.
Felipe spent 18 years working in a rural bank, and then decided to set out on his own. Juanita works alongside him and makes kinilaw. Soured not only with vinegar, but sometimes with Indian mango, and flavored not only with ginger, onions, and chili, but sometimes with salted eggs and mayonnaise.
We boarded the radio-equipped pump boat. It was large, clean, and white-painted. Roberto at the controls, Lorenzo as adjutant, and then Inteng as chief. That’s Inteng Lubaton.
Off we went into a calm, seemingly endless sea. But because there had been no fish at Old Sagay, we stopped. Then it seemed miraculous how we did that, apart in sea lanes invisible to land-lovers. At a tiny fishing village called Siyak, there we found fishermen who had just returned with catches, having set out in the wee hours that morning.
With ₱150 worth of crabs and fish – enough to feed us six times over – Inteng immediately started preparations in the small triangular space at the stern of the boat.
Inteng Lubaton is a master kinilaw artist. As well as a careful and intelligent craftsman, he knows exactly what he’s doing and why. “For every six fish, there’s a different kinilaw,” he declared.
The squid he’s chosen – about six to seven inches in length – was just the right size for kinilaw. Anything larger will be a bit tougher. This he washed first in sea water. At that far out, the water was clean and clear, without a hint of pollution.
Slit on one side to remove the spines, the eyes, the ink, and the innards, then sliced in even strips, and tossed into a basin of salted water, the first step to flavoring.
The large live crabs crawling about his feet, he continued to sort. The liveliest was for kinilaw. The rest went into a well-warmed palayok – a clay pot – to be steamed over wood, split right on the the boat, and some coals.
The bulao, a type of seafood, Inteng scaled and cleaned, and fillet off the back bone. The heads and the roe were set aside for tinola – a stew – and flesh was sliced skin on.
“Why,” I asked and wonder, “are different sea creatures made into different types of kinilaw?”
“Well, squid,” he explained, “toughens when it’s marinated in vinegar, and so it’s only dipped. Some fish like bangus – which is milkfish – and tanigue, cook too fast in pure vinegar, and so salted eggs can be crushed into the vinegar to temper the sourness, or sugar can also be added. Coconut milk, which absorbs some sourness as well, can be added to bangus and tanigue, both firm fleshed fishes.”
Live fish don’t even need vinegar and so fishermen on the sea strip them off the bone and dip them in the seawater right away, to savor the translucent sweetness of freshly-caught fish.
And so for breakfast on that lovely morning, we had bulao, which Inteng first mixed with chopped ginger and sliced spring onions. Sliced tomatoes were laid on top, adding another bit of sourness.
But our peak experience was crab kinilaw. Open, split, and still quivering, the gristle removed such that each leg was a stem with the flower of soft, white flesh at the end, that we dipped into a sawsawan of vinegar, into which Inteng had shaken a few seeds of chili. It was absolute heaven!
How, I wondered, do other mortals fare never having known this?
Everything was done with an economy of motion and a wordless wisdom. Organic matter thrown back into the sea, man-made waste into a bag.
Kinilaw, of course, is food of pristine nature. Healthy because of it. It came about because the sea-going Filipino knew the value of freshness, and the food being left to taste as it was meant to – untampered, an ethos of freshness, a kinship with the environment, has led to one of the best and truest foods of our culture.
And with that, I was hooked on food in the Philippines.
STEP 2: GIVE INTO JEALOUSY (THE GOOD KIND)
I was so jealous of the food people ate and wrote about in a book called “Savor the Word” – a collection of essays from ten years of the Doreen Fernandez food writing award. These writers told stories about food in the Philippines in crazy, lively, descriptive ways. Like you can just taste what they’re eating at the tip of your tongue. It just goes to show the power Doreen had in inspiring other people to think about food in a different way.
I read these stories at a time when I questioned myself and my capabilities a lot. I wasn’t sure what direction my life was going in, and I wondered why other people seemed to be in a much better place than I was a lot of the time.
Internally, I argued the value of getting a post-secondary education in North America – where I’m now riddled with student debt, in an economy where virtually no jobs were guaranteed. Trust me, I was out of work for awhile. It was just tough because I felt like I was downtrodden, and I knew my family moved to Canada to open up these doors for us. I wondered what I could do to pull myself up and work as hard as my parents did, as many immigrant families do.
Flipping through this book, I kept reading about these stories the people wrote. People who could tell lush, intricate tales about food. There I found a real sense of solace and comfort.
People wrote about the pleasure of eating mangoes that were cooled in slow-moving streams, and they brought me right into the crowds of the Pahiyas festival, where rice-based dishes were offered up – with the biggest smiles – to everyone who passed by.
There was one story of this church a lot of people made a pilgrimage towards. Apart from the church, the other thing about Antipolo were cashews. Reading this story took me right back outside that church where there are easily ten or more hawkers with these little paper bags full of freshly-roasted cashews. They were salty, freshly-roasted… ohh fantastic! Frankly, they put all other nuts to shame.
In the story about sharing breakfast with her family in Surigao, one writer brought me right there with her at the table. I savored every bit of this big Filipino breakfast, despite being oceans away. There was milk, bread and coconut jam, hot chocolate, garlic fried rice and paksiw – a ginger- and pepper-laced stew of freshwater fish and vegetables.
There are so many stories in this book about everyday life, how food plays such an important part, how we relate to others, and how we establish our relationships with other people.
One writer wrote of the sadness of losing a loved one, and trying to fill the spaces they occupied with bowls of fermented rice pudding, called binuburan.
All these stories over time embedded themselves in my mind. Because they were so richly described, visually – through the words printed on the page – they were the kind of experiences I really longed for.
With that, I had to go back.
STEP THREE: PUTTING YOURSELF OUT THERE
So, what do I do? I plan a trip to the Philippines. I got on a plane in Toronto and found myself – 26 hours later – further south of the equator than I’d ever been. I had a list of dishes I wanted to try and ingredients I wanted to taste in the province of Mindanao.
Once I got there, I made friends with a chef who burnt mushrooms until they smelled and looked like firewood, that tasted like the charred, crispy bits of a pot roast. I sought out a dish of grilled pork belly and tuna that was dressed with a citrus in a hardwood fruit available only in that region – the suha and the tabon-tabon fruit.
I visited farms where they grew coffee and chocolate, and ate durian fruit for days. I remember having durian candy when I was little, but I don’t remember ever having hand-fresh durian. So, when I got to Davao City, I hooked up with Mel of Mel’s Food Tours. She took me around town to where the durian shops were.
So at this point, I’m struggling for words to describe this fruit. It’s like slightly sour and savory, and I use the Tagalog word malinamnam. The texture of this fruit justifies the tastiness of that thick, creamy durian pulp that surrounds this big seed. It’s hard to describe. And there’s a lot of different kinds of durian.
I remember my guide, Mel, who was really amused with me because I kept trying to figure out ways of describing this thing, but I couldn’t come up with the right words. It was the texture was kind of soft, its taste was complex and kind of smoky, but also fruity at the same time, and it definitely did not taste anything like it smelled like.
While I was there, I shared meals with some really interesting people: some cattle ranchers, had dinner with a couple of farmhands, where we had this simply-braised fish. First it was roasted over coals, then lowered into a simmering broth of garlic, ginger, some peppercorns and a wild-growing weed – a kind that look like dandelions.
EATING PAKO (FIDDLEHEAD FERNS)
That’s me and Henry Binahon, one of my favorite people in the world. I wanted to visit Henry in his farm in Bukidnon, that specializes in agro-forestry. I learned so much about nature and the ecology of things, just by spending a couple of days at the farm.
A VISIT TO A MONASTERY
I shared a meal with some adventure guides who I went whitewater rafting with. I spent a night at a monastery and had breakfast the next day with a group of 50 or so people who were there for a retreat.
For breakfast at the local market, I tried something called puto maya which is a type of kakanin. That’s a rice delicacy. Kakanin are typical breakfast items. The Filipinos have very clever, tasty ways of preparing rice. This kind, flavored with coconut cream or gata, first pressed, is left to cook for a least an hour. The lady I spoke to said she goes through a whole sack of sticky rice every morning to make her puto maya.
AT THE BANKEROHAN PUBLIC MARKET
At the Bankerohan Public Market in Davao City, Mel and I go visit the fermented food stall.
A BEVVY OF BAGOONG (FERMENTED SHRIMP/FISH) AT A MARKET IN DAVAO
There were fermented fish, beans, shrimp, mussels, all kinds of funky fermented pastes and sauces out in the open-air market, displayed neatly in three staircase-like rows of brightly-colored plastic pails. I wanted to try everything, even the ones that look like unpalatable goo. People have been eating this stuff for ages and there must be a reason why.
In the City of Golden Friendship – Cagayan De Oro – I met people from the local hotel and restaurant association who welcomed me and sent me off to places where I was greeted with the unbeatable hospitality that Filipinos are known for.
EATING LATO (“SEA GRAPES”)
At Kagay-Anon Restaurant, I had this kind of seaweed called lato. They look like little sea grapes.
That’s a little dip in spiced coconut vinegar.
That’s Russel, the restaurant’s manager and my guide, Tita Noli. Considering I just met them, they didn’t hesitate to share stories about local food culture, what balikbayans look for when they came into the restaurant, and how the availability of the ingredients – especially seafood – has changed over time.
It just fascinated me to see how much we all had in common when we sat down to eat. Any lines of social class, ethnicity, or apprehension melted away in the presence of sharing food in good company, exchanging these stories about my life, their life, and often about the food.
CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN
Slowly, perhaps as I descended the peak of the mountain I’d just climbed – literally, an actual mountain – I realized there was nothing more I wanted than to keep telling stories about food, the people that surround them, and how it shapes ourselves and the communities we live in, regardless where we are in the world.
STEP 4: INDULGE YOUR DESIRES
It’s easy to dream of the life you want to live. To have that sweet place downtown where you can walk or bike to work and have this nice view of the city, be in a great neighborhood. Or to save up every paycheck, so you can jet off and wander through Europe, doing a bunch of regional beer tours across Germany or Switzerland. Those are my dreams anyway, but everyone’s got something that drives them, some kind of journey they want to take.
Desire is defined in the dictionary as “an unsatisfied longing or craving.” Coming into contact with Filipino food triggers that current of desire like a jolt of electricity right through me, through all of my senses. Like, when I enter a room with a spit-roasted pig on the table – the classic lechon – my eyes immediately turn to the roast’s caramel-smooth complexion that’s got to have it. It’s like looking at a great painting; you need to stop and appreciate. Then I breathe in the scent of the pig that’s been roasted over coals for 12 hours, mixed with whiffs of charred bamboo that’s at either end of our dear friend.
When someone finally takes a cleaver to hack the lechon’s skin, I get close to the lechon and pick up a piece. Then I take a bite. A well-done lechon has one layer of fat that shatters when your jaw clamps down to chew, and another layer of fat that just melts into the roof and crevices of your mouth, coating everything in this delicious slow-roasted goodness. The meat is perfectly succulent. I can dip the next piece of lechon into a chunky liver sauce, or into a condiment of soy sauce, shallots, chilis and vinegar.
I can’t help but be aroused by this kind of food.
“PHILIPPINE CUISINE BEGAN AS OTHER CUISINES DO”
To take another word from Doreen, “Philippine cuisine began as other cuisines do,” she says. “With the weather, the seasons, the sources and the particularity of place. From the food of the islands and waters come the cooking processes: the steaming, boiling, stewing, roasting, that local knowledge saw as natural and logical for food so proximate, so abundant and incredibly fresh. From these ingredients and cooking processes came dishes that vary per cook, per town, per region, but have many similarities because they grow from the same landscape and seascape. That constitutes the country’s cuisine.”
So really, you can’t ask for a better reason to indulge in Filipino food.
Theme music for this episode is by David Szestay, Eric and Magill, Blue Dot Sessions, Gillicuddy, and Squire Tuck. Thanks to Jacklyn and everyone at her Birds for Feather Writing Workshop for helping shape the script for this episode.
Any my sincerest thanks to you, dear listeners, for spending half an hour with me. I’ll see you soon!