Thursday, June 10

In Praise of Food

There is no love sincerer than the love of food.
George Bernard Shaw

I am not a good cook thus I content myself on appreciating what is served on the dinner table. I am no certified gourmand either so I cannot claim to be a reliable source of opinion on culinary fares. I wouldn’t possibly even identify what’s in the food that I indiscriminately stuff into my mouth, just that if it’s not spoiled, then it’s a go; but if it’s laden with cyanide and I suddenly fell  stiff on the floor , then it’s a bit late to do some complaining, ain’t it?  And try as I might to whip up something good in the kitchen,  I do so with very little success. It’s a relief, hence, to have a husband who is skilled with his meat and herbs, like he is with his graphic designs. My only critique about Oliver’s cooking is that he gets homicidal with the pepper, and dashes it like there’s no tomorrow, that everyone in five feet radius of him gets crazy with their sinuses. I am a living victim of that.

Over the years , I’ve done the rounds of  Italian, French, Thai, Mediterranean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, American, and of course Filipino restaurants---not frequently as I would have liked to, but thanks to our company dinners, I get introduced to these different cuisines in my lifetime, something which I wouldn’t even possibly have come across, had I relied entirely on my own pocket.

But like all fundamental human cravings, there are particular food that don’t really have to be chef -anointed,  or labelled  “cuisine” for us to appreciate and hank for it. That is why there is such a thing as comfort food.  In fact, I discovered early on, that I am just a girl with simple carenderia taste. Not that carenderia food is something to be mortified about.  Filling one’s stomach with home-cooked meals, no matter how common or simple, brings a sense of nostalgia, and yes comfort--- a feeling of being in a warm, comfortable place, of being a child again, wandering through a kitchen full of cooking women, of waking up in the morning, the aroma of coffee and newly baked bread wafting in the air, of your first taste of wine and t-bone steak,  of  easy days when the sunshine is bountiful and pretty, and everyone is dressed in summer clothes, drinking lemonade, taking turns on the barbecue grille, dancing merrily across the lawn, looking fondly at the rowdy kids joshing each other by the poolside, just being happy  knowing you are a part of that beautiful memory. I know I am just dreaming some of these up, but one will get my drift.

I found out that most of the food that had left a lasting impression on me, and have in the long run become my  favourites, are actually those associated with recollections of my childhood. The fact that they were all humble family recipes and that I will probably never taste them again unless I spent a fortune dining at an authentic Spanish restaurant, makes me respect my roots all the more.  And even now that my gastronomic experience progressively stretches to much broader horizons each time I eat out with my work bosses, my strong desire to indulge in what I would call my  happiness food is becoming more and more homeward bound.

Cabbage Rolls—one of my most beloved Ilonggo dishes. I say Ilonggo because I only tasted this from my  grandmother who called her version “meat in blanket” . It is seasoned ground meat wrapped in cabbage leaf, and tenderized by pressure cooking it in tomato sauce and spices. Even some of my aunts, who took after my grandma’s expert kitchen skills, have never tried this recipe. Save for a friend’s New Year dinner I once went to in Baguio, I have not tasted this dish again after my grandma passed away. The cabbage rolls in Baguio was of a slightly different variation, it tasted good, but there was perhaps an ingredient missing to remind my palate of the special blend I so treasured as a child. One day I’d like to get my culinary flair working, if there is one hidden at all, to whip up this dish for my family. Until then, I’d have to keep imagining it in my head and on my taste buds. Sigh....

Lengua Estofado
—again another Ilonggo cooking I grew up into. This was a staple on special occasions like fiestas or birthdays, and has become a conversation piece among the foodies in my clan. Years ago, when my son was baptized and we threw a dinner party for family and friends, I asked my aunt to cook this dish for us. I went with her to the market to pick up the best ox tongues, but little did I know that these things, when raw, looked, and quite honestly, smelled disgusting. It takes a lot of scrubbing and cleaning before the dirt comes off, it’s a tongue after all, and I firmly saw to that until I was mentally convinced it was clean enough for cooking. The moment one sees and tastes the finished product though, one forgets all her skivvies and eeew moments.

Pancit Molo and La Paz Batchoy
—I’ve tasted a few variations here in Manila, but nothing comes up at par with the authentic ones I’ve had as a child in Bacolod. Even the sweaty fat Manoy who  cooked and owned the batchoyan across the street at the mercado in La Castellana had more appeal to me than the well-groomed crew at the pricey air-conditioned Ted’s restaurant in Filinvest. Again, it’s the secret ingredient, which my cousins would teasingly tell me was Manoy’s kili-kili power. But could I care? If it was, then I certainly loved me some of Manoy’s power.  But that was long ago, and last time I checked, standing in the batchoyan was now an internet cafe. My only consolation at Ted’s here in Manila is their soft puto manapla, which makes me sorely miss my hometown each time.

Paella Valenciana
—I prefer valenciana more than seafood paella because of its more subtle taste. Like any paella dish though, it’s a meal in itself and one could get generous helpings. I love it when the pork liver and peas and bell pepper and boiled egg are fused together in the mouth ,that creates an interesting texture.  If cooked very thoughtfully, the paprika flavour surfaces and the nice saffron coloring on the rice makes it all the more delectable.

Drunken shrimp—aka nilasing na hipon. Don’t care much whether them shrimps imbibed beer, or wine, or just plain Sprite before their lives passed on, right smack in the pan, perverse though it may sound. The mere pleasure of peeling off their shells, eating them with bare hands, dipping them in a mean mixture of sinamak (spiced vinegar) and  soy sauce, and wolfing them down with a palmful of steaming hot rice, leaves me in one word----delirious!

Softdrinks Chicken—or Coke chicken, to be more exact. This is a simple dish I stumbled upon when my sister in law came to visit one day. Her chicken was wrapped in foil, stuffed with whole bulbs of onion, cloves of garlic, lemongrass, and carefully turned over in the fire, in a mixture of coca-cola and soy sauce which serves as its basting. The steam on the pot cooks the chicken to the tenderest bit .It tastes pretty much like the local lechon manok and to borrow Max’s byline, is sarap to the bones. I have since tried cooking  this on my own, and somehow I would never get the exact same taste again. Gah, now I’m reminded of the spicy buffalo wings I used gobble up every night at Jollibee when I was working on a  graveyard shift. It was the kind of food that leaves one finger-licken and happy as a clam in butter sauce, to put it quite literally.

In brief, my other "happinesses" are:

Peach and tangerine yoghurt
--- I can have it every day of my life

Dark Chocolate
—any kind. The darker, the better (translation-60% cocoa and above)

Blueberry Cheesecake
---makes me cry , because it’s so delicious and expensive.

Barbecued Chicken Ass
--alright, you can now laugh your ass off at me....

There are several other dishes that are incredibly too mouth-watering for words, and which  for sure I have hugely enjoyed and make me smack my lips with gusto and say, mwaaah!

La vie est belle!
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