Friday, May 23, 2008

A Heritage of Food Greatness: Tribute to Filipino Chefs Everywhere

There was once a Filipino writer who said that the Philippines is bestowed with a “heritage of smallness”. Small people. Small governments- the barangays. Small islands. Even small shampoo sachets from small sari- sari stores. I haven’t traveled much in the world but I wonder where else on earth do people sell garlic by cloves? In the Philippines, you can go to your friendly sari- sari store and buy two garlic cloves for fifty centavos. A heritage of smallness indeed, according to that writer- I forgot about the details of his essay- but I decide to disagree on one thing. He didn’t mention food. Small food in the Philippines? You’ve got to be kidding. Buy two cloves of garlic, alright, but then those two cloves will be part of one gigantic meal.

Unlike the Japanese we don’t serve rice expertly wrapped in seaweed but spaded from a huge kaldero. Unlike the French, we don’t serve pastries in bite size pieces, rather expect to see whole bilao of rice cakes or kakanin. We don’t drink by dainty sips, but by thirsty gulps. Observe beer sessions. Or the palamig stand. Americans may be the kings of supersize meals alright, but Philippine food can attest of high nutrient contents and much lower calories. Fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, coconut cream. We eat five times a day, but you could hardly see morose supersize people around here.

When I went to China a year ago, our Chinese guide was talking about how large China is, but on the dinner table he joked about how large Philippine plates are compared to the Chinese platitos, tea cups and chopsticks. Filipinos, he said, eat big. I couldn’t agree more.

We are not used to cooking for ourselves. It’s either you don’t cook or you cook for the whole tribe. Cook for one and the family will ask you – “Do you have a problem? Why are you cooking only one egg?”

Try going to a Philippine kitchen. Try observing holidays, birthdays, weddings, family reunions. A rural household will sell a carabao or borrow money just to have “celebration” – simple or large – but will celebrate anyway.

Or just observe family dinners. They are always a sacred daily rite. Try eating hotdog in front of TV while other family members are gathered at the round table, and before you could shift channels, expect your grandmother or your yaya to whack you with a rolled Panorama magazine “Igalang mo naman ang pagkain!” (Respect your food!) Or… am I talking from a childhood experience?

This heritage of large food is the reason why Filipino chefs aboard cruise liners can cook for 2500+ guests every day- breakfast, lunch and dinner- without complaining. They’re used to it. They’re used to feeding the many. It’s part of their essence as small people comprising a larger whole. A piece. A slice. A ladleful. Whatever the portioning is, it’s part of something greater than we are. That is why we see our food banquet extend from our immediate families, to barangays, to cities, to the world.

Kaya sa mga Pinoy chefs, cooks, panaderos, taga- balat ng patatas, taga- tadtad ng sibuyas- saan mang lupalop ng mundo, saludo ako sa inyo. Mabuhay kayong lahat!!

P.S. Para sa inyo ‘to – itong cake!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Secret Ingredient- and Other Sandbox Theories

The knife duel I wrote about a few days ago is actually about a job screening. I think the difference between corporate people and chefs is that the former can blabber their way to the job interview, while the latter has to undergo firing squad. Written tests, oral tests, cooking tests. Besides, the ’gods’ have to prove that your cooking won’t lie. The screening was pretty bloody – not only because I knew that the gods thought I was a little too young for the post, but because I was a woman wrestling with the gladiators. Besides, the position requires, in addition to an impressive resume, an aura of power- because it would be leading a whole battalion of men with knives. Like, who the hell did I think I was? I thought I was going in that war in blindfolds and while the other gladiators had scythes, swords, ax, etc., I was armed with a… toothpick. Perhaps I am still too ignorant on many things of the culinary trade, but I confess that I didn’t have any secret ingredients that made the gods levitate after eating the food. No Santeria. Just go.

Now, strongly I believe that there are certain unexpected things that turn out in your favor. Whether it is Gandalf riding an eagle and swoops you down from the arena or a cloak falling from the sky and makes you invisible- you just don’t even know where these forces come from that save you from getting beaten into a pulp. Things that make possible anything beyond your expectations. On the other hand, if a job is for you, then it is for you. It is only that simple.

Then to get what you want, according to... who said it?(I forgot) - you visualize that it’s already yours- no matter what the odds are. All the other factors to invite the inspiration is entirely up to you. A little childish and awkward, but I do have a private place in my backdoor where I sip coffee while quietly watching the sunrise. And in that place, north of my kitchen, I have a mural drawing of a turtle with bangs wearing a chef’s hat- a happy chef turtle to be exact- in a happy existence with water plants and sea shells, swimming in an imaginary sea. I wake up everyday going to the bathroom greeted by this fat chef turtle.

Since the day I painted that, I felt like a kindergarten kid again playing in the sandbox. And like a mixed bag of muesli, came up with my own assorted theories conjured from that drawing: believe that fate is smiling at you. Believe that you’d wear a toque with a happy smile on your face. Believe that you’d walk through hot kitchens with the same coolness of head as though you just bathed in the sea. Believe that no matter how chaotic the kitchen becomes, you will be steadfast with your direction. Believe that you are never homeless, never naked, and that you are destined to live a great long life. Believe that there’s plenty of undiscovered things out there in the sea… and all you have to do is swim towards them with grace and an open mind. Believe that there are many wine bottles that will be opened for you; popping corks and someday when it’s your time, the universe will eventually disclose its champagne supernovas.

Believe. Believe anything! Hope on anything- for hope always triumphs over experience.

In cooking as in life, I don’t think there are any secret ingredients to success or to happiness– but that which is already yours. And whether you are armed with a few things and little experience, your faith on things unseen and your love for almost anything that comes your way wins over any impassable barrier imaginable.

So, how did the screening go? Did the Foodhuntress make it? Perhaps this photo will speak a little.

Smoke a hand- rolled cigar at the backdoor among the wine bottles, and surprisingly, no one in your family will protest, but instead take a photo of you because they know that you only smoke once in your twenty nine years.

And by the way, as a rule, you can only enjoy this cigar privilege if you got the job.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Which Gets Killed First, the Chicken or the Egg?

I think culinary arts is the only profession where “killing” literally is allowed – out in the open- and the cooking people can get away with it without going to jail. Physicians? Nope. Lawyers? No. Artists? No. Cops? Case to case basis.

Because when you hold that sacred knife and slit the throat of the chicken and let out its blood, and scald with hot water to remove the feathers, you are actually becoming an instrument to serve mankind. Nature provides chicken, you, the talent. The talent for... “killing”? Probably. And I will not argue. In the professional kitchen it’s called “dressing” live chicken. It’s eviscerating a struggling catfish. It’s butchering a hog. Hanging the carcass on the ceiling. Chopping the neck. Pulling the intestines. Sucking the eyes. Frying the liver. Eating the heart. When we see Hannibal Lecter doing the same thing we cringe in horror. But when we do just exactly the same thing to chicken… we think of… ah, roast chicken, stewed chicken, liver pates… etc.

And when I myself see pre-mature eggs on freshly dressed chicken, I will be hypocritical to say “This is madness! This is murder!” For when I see chicken freshly dressed at the organic market, I think of chicken soup and arroz caldo with the young eggs. Tasting the life of the free- range chicken as they go about the field, breathing fresh air, eating organic grains. The tasty stock flavored by the highly mobile bone marrows and the delicious neck. If chickens of the world are not meant for consumption, then what is their part in the ecosystem?

I respect animal activists and vegetarians, but whether I am a cook or a nomad, I would still be praising nature for giving us such creatures to feed on. Now at least I am honest. And I honestly believe too, that not all animals are meant to be cuddled nor taken in as pets. And I too strongly believe, that some animals would fulfill their destiny better when they are eaten on a feast than safely tucked under the sheets. I think if nature didn’t love mankind enough, then it could have produced green- blooded alien creatures not suitable for the dinner table. It shouldn’t have given delectable things in the first place. Why, nature knows better!

Eggs, for example. When you see them, do you honestly think of baby chicken that could have hatched? Because I… I think of… sunny side- ups with gooey yolks for breakfast.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Delicious Dirty Torture

This is the reason why a week ago I stayed in bed on a soup and water (and coffee) diet for six days suffering the longest running flu I had in years: Because after cooking in a very hot kitchen- getting too occupied that I even forgot to take a few sips of water – I went out in the hot urban streets and, with a dry throat and no lunch (I really can’t find the appetite to eat the things I cook- this is a personal psychological confusion too), I pigged out on ice cream. For God’s sake how can you resist ice cream?!

What I had was double Dutch and hazelnut – I forgot – in a shopping center at a hotel basement. That was actually the culprit of my sore throat. Delicious, alright, but I am not going to write about the highly popular commercial ice cream. The manufacturers of that ice cream, by the way, had a case with our culinary school some time ago. One of the students, a Korean, found a shard of hard plastic (we thought it was glass) and she almost swallowed it. Of course we forwarded the complaint to the company authorities and the head of the school… the process, you know. But that company wouldn’t admit that it was their fault. Why! I was expecting them to provide us at least one year supply of ice cream! What if the student swallowed it and had surgery? Oh, business, business… that’s why I sometimes find companies a little ironic- they declare to the world corporate social responsibilities and yet can’t address sensibly small complaints like this.

So I will feature the classic ice cream whose essence carves a poignant experience to people rather than mass- produced slobs contaminated with broken plastic...

In the Philippines, street ice cream (a.k.a. dirty ice cream/ sorbetes) has its own proud identity. Why called dirty ice cream is… you don’t want to know how it’s made – that’s the secret of the makers. This ice cream is consumed in many ways: in a cup, on a cone, and… in a bun.

Many things have been placed in between a split bread – from fried oysters to ground beef to alfalfa sprouts to pickled olives to peanut butter and strawberry jam, but hey, why not try something really different? No, no, not the dainty ice cream sandwich we see on nice photographs – but the ice cream sandwich sorbetero style: The pack of soft buns the ice cream man carries around (that when walking in the streets and hunger gnaws at him, he eats some of them too); the sharp knife (that looks like a steak knife from restaurants) and the ice cream straight from the cart.

Hamburger bun, split into two, then filled with three flavors: coconut, purple yam and mango ice cream- voila! – a no -fancy ice cream sandwich! It’s good!

Bite through the soft buns. Allow the cold creamy texture play on the roof of your tongue, your gums, your saliva melding the three flavors harmoniously. The coolness of the ice cream joins the rush blood through your head… and that’s when you start getting a high. (That feeling also seemed to signal you of what the elders said about the anatomy of a flu: hot against cold make fever). You decide to get lost in that luxury anyway. You cant believe such goodness is found in the streets.
Late that night, your throat is parched. Doesn’t matter. Whether it is ice cream from a blood- sucking multinational or ice cream sandwich from the streets, all fingers point to you. It’s ice cream. Torturing you deliciously. You enjoyed. All is fair

Friday, May 9, 2008

Take Time To Smell The Flowers

“People from a planet without flowers would think that we must be mad with joy the whole time we see such things about us.” – Iris Murdoch

When I was I child I found the name “May” very feminine, and had been secretly wishing that I was baptized with it instead of the French second name that I now have. Then when I was in the early grades I hated my Spanish- French names even more not because they were a bit lengthy but because people had to read them twice to get the correct pronunciation. I just wished that I’d rather have something familiar and short, like April or… May.
Now, grown up, I see May as a wonderful month of Flores de Mayo – reminiscent of those days when me and my sister, carrying baskets of flowers, would walk from our house to the church in white dress, and white stockings, and, gulp!… white veil. We did that everyday for the whole month of May: praying and singing Spanish songs to the Virgin. And shower flowers afterwards.

I hardly see flowers in bloom around these days, specially in this gray city where I live- except of course in the market when I buy fish. On the other hand, there are also flowers from everywhere like flower shops, but wow, are they expensive! Why do we always have to pay for things beautiful? Aren’t they meant to be free? Once while arranging the set of my best friend's wedding, I forgot to splash on cologne. I picked a white gardenia on the road side and tucked it in my hair, and everyone was wondering where that sweet smell was coming from. Yes, beautiful things should be free indeed! Those were among the best flower memories I had in years.

Then one good thing I like about the cooking life is that it always draws me to the innately beautiful things of the world- the flavors, the tastes, and the flowers. Before an orange becomes fruit, flowers come first, bringing to mind the wonderful smell of papaya blossoms that wafted from the garden to my mother’s bedroom and hypnotized my sister to sleep. Then after the dark alley of slaughtered animals in the market, I exit to the strip of the flower sellers and life is new all over again. Once in the back market streets of a foreign country on a cold night, food was a little strange – the soup was composed entirely of fish eyes-and even if I hardly understood the language the people spoke, at least the roses and carnations in their flower stands were just perfect. I was happy enough.

It’s May. Take the perfect time to smell the flowers :)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Knife Duels, Firing Squads and the Flu

Three weeks and no entry. What got me quiet these days were those three above.
Knife duels with old, err, experienced veteran male chefs - we were fighting over a signature toque, for godssake! French knives vs. Chinese cleaver. Experience vs. drive. Ego vs. enthusiasm. Display of flamboyant skills vs. sense of fun. I swear, I felt like one of those gladiators in the arena that the lions really find tender and tasty, yes, like a rare steak smothered with garlic gravy. Ergo, they could finish me off anytime.
And if knife duels were not enough, we were under firing squad- to test the doneness of our pasta... or rather, to test the doneness of our stewed brains. Oral culinary mathematics. Food costing. Cost of goods sold. Profit.
I finished with a torn chef's white, bloody apron, and left the gods feasting heartily on the dish I created during the duel. What a fate.
Meanwhile, I stepped out in the afternoon heat and devoured ice cream. The ice cream sealed all traces of barbarism from the knife duel and firing squad. Who invented the ice cream? Because suddenly I was levitating, over the streets and rooftops of the urban jungle, eating ice cream.
That night, I had a flu that lasted for six days.