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The Theoretical Cook


Sunday, August 27, 2006

An Episode of Francophilia

I spent the weekend cooped up inside my room reading up on France. I didnt intend to waste my weekend this way: I intended to go to market and prepare a nice lunch for the housemates but the books got in the way. I read Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon (with an excellent section on 'The Crisis of French Cooking'; this guy claims friendship with Roland Barthes so you can imagine the writing style), parts of the biography of Celine by Frederick Vitoux, and Ruth Reichl's autobiographical "Comfort me with Apples." The last one isn't really about France, its mostly about Reichl's life before she became ed-in-chief of Gourmet, but there's a delicious, steamy section on "Paris". I was expecting to read stuff about food but Reichl discussed, in sordid detail, her 'adulterous' liaisons, including a Parisian affair with one of her food editors. It was pretty compulsive reading, and I found myself drinking green tea with milk at the Le Japon cafe, ALONE (naturally), reading the last few lines and recipes under the strong light. I couldn't put the book down. I was deluged with France this weekend, and I had a Baedeker France guide book with me to boot.
See, a month ago, I decided to learn another language seriously, and I decided that I was going to learn French. In college, I spent a few semesters learning German, earned a few units in Spanish and Latin. Nothing really stuck since I was more interested in other things, things that interest impressionable college freshmen in state universities: justice, good government, etc. Learning another language, at that time, reeked of bourgeois-ness. What's the use of learning a European language, don't we have enough dialects around? I avoided French,in particular, for various reasons.
Many years later, having shaken off the Socratic mask that didn't quite fit me (and made me feel phony);, all language units forgotten, I would spend a few months in cooking school, faced with a language problem. For the first time, I rued not having studied basic French. All the ingredients in our recipes were in French. It was ridiculous: this cooking school was a trade school masquerading as a serious culinary institution. In fact, the school policy was unabashedly OFW-oriented - how to support the official national manpower export policy. They did this by churning out cooking certificates. But what this school seriously lacked in vision (we had a f-ing institutional prayer before each session), it more than made up with its formidable faculty. One had a masters degree in gastronomy at the Cordon Bleu (who never made you forget it), another was executive chef of a popular Asian fusion resto, another one was faculty member of The Cooking School - and they all acted like this stint was their idea of 'serving the country'. They all insisted on one thing: that we study the recipes in French. So the first few sessions were devoted to French phrases that had found their way into mainstream culinary vocab. We also had copies of Escoffier's books on the walls to remind us of the origins of this entire cooking brouhaha. And so I learned, very reluctantly, some French words: mise-en-place, mirepoix, bouquet garni, pommes de terre, the bain de marie, and so on and so forth.
That was over a year ago. A month ago, I decided I wanted to study French. I thought, if I am going to choose the alternative path, I might as well learn that language seriously. Nevermind D Sedaris funny stories about (the impossibility of)learning French in Paris. I dug up an old French book by the Berlitz grandson, read articles online (the expert said it took her over 8 years to acquire fluency), unfazed. I downloaded all of Sebastian's podcasts (The French Podcast). Every morning on my way to work I listen to the podcasts and the cheesy French songs: Ne Me Quitte Pas, Capri, C'est Fini, Je Reviens, etc. I bought a visual French dictionary. After office hours,I loitered at Booksale looking for anything French. I also enrolled myself at the Alliance Francaise for their intensive classes, and I have not missed a single class. Given my attention span, I don't know how long this episode will last.
Ah, but there is comfort in learning new things. Other people learn from their life experiences, I merely take lessons. How long will this episode last? Long enough to overcome la vie quotidienne. The eternal student that I am,I don't mind the years it takes to acquire fluency. In fact, I don't think I even desire fluency. I just need this French episode to get by.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Eating Pollo Rosco at Piadina Italiana Alone

Passion food - that's their (Piadina's) blurb, not mine. Piadina is the chapati of Romagna, its the Italian flatbread. Pita: Middle East, Piadina: Italy, Roti: Malaysia and environs. Piadina is what happens when you sit on a focaccia and then put the flattened output inside the oven. The nearest thing to a piadina that we have would be the Visayan piyaya - which is as flat as any bread can get - except that you stuff piadina with ham and cheese and piyaya - well, piyaya comes stuffed with molasses and sesame seeds, ube, and recently, durian jam.
This isn't really about piadina the flatbread but about my dining experience tonight at Piadina in Manila. Lately, I've been having trouble eating, not because I'm dieting, but really because I can't think of anything to eat (see previous post). Also, I don't have anyone to eat dinner with, and there's nothing as sad as having dinner alone. I don't feel the urge to cook because I have no one to cook for these days and cooking for one can be a waste. Part of the joy of cooking is watching other people enjoy the food you prepare. So I've been eating ALONE inside the mall lately: Mangan (adobo, grilled eggplant, buro!), TokyoTokyo (I hate TokyoTokyo I wonder why I return at all), Kaya (bulgogi again and again), and Max. Today I decided to go to Piadina. I didnt eat piadina though, the Filipino that I am, I ordered rice and chicken. I asked the waiter what their bestselling chicken dish was and he said "Pollo gorgonzola." I chose the other chicken dish. Breaded chicken with gorgonzola sauce, tsk. Cheese, as you know, isn't really a Filipino ingredient - at least, as far as peasant food is concerned. When I eat rice, I dont want cheese with it. My Filipino taste buds dictate that cheese is for flour-based stuff: pasta, bread, etc. You know how taste buds are, it takes forever to 'educate' them.
So I ended up eating an uninspired pollo rosso dish alone at Piadina. I felt sad eating alone. Lately, my schedule has gotten so tight, by the time my language classes or my teaching sessions end, everybody else is done eating dinner. At first I thought it was a good thing, eating alone means you eat like a little bird and you can stick to a healthier diet. The other night, I ate arugula salad at Cafe Caruso along Riposo St. The salad was just literally leaves and balsamic vinegar and parmesan shavings - plus piadina on the side. I felt hungry all night. In fact, I've been feeling hungry for so long. It's like I have a constant craving that nothing can satisfy. And the feeling reminded me of the strange comment of the hunger artist: he would've quit his fasting drama had he found the food he felt passionate about.
The pollo rosso, unfortunately, didn't arouse any passion in me. Any cuisine, when taken out of its cultural context, is only an approximation of the original. That's why mall food never tastes half as good as freshly caught fish grilled in the beach, or my grandmother's vegetable soup concocted from 'weeds' in her garden (saluyot, kulitis, malunggay). Traditionally, we ate our 'edible' landscapes. In this urban landscape, nothing seems edible.
Well, there's always streetfood.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Hunger Artists All

Many days went by once more, and this, too, came to an end. Finally the cage caught the attention of a supervisor, and he asked the attendant why they had left this perfectly useful cage standing here unused with rotting straw inside. Nobody knew, until one man, with the help of the table with the number on it, remembered the hunger artist. They pushed the straw around with a pole and found the hunger artist in there. “Are you still fasting?” the supervisor asked. “When are you finally going to stop?” “Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the spectators the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food which I enjoyed. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast. - A Hunger Artist

Monday, August 07, 2006

Tuna Garlic Steak and Chop Suey

I love Sundays: sleeping until late morning, going to the market for fresh fish and produce, and preparing lunch. Lately I've been hankering for my mother's cooking, and this weekend I decided to ditch the cookbooks and cook from memory. My mother's secret magic ingredient is garlic. Among my favorite dishes is her tuna fish steak - with plenty of garlic chips on top. She would marinate the fish over night in soy sauce and calamansi, enhancing the flavor of the fresh tuna. When the fish is marinated this way, there's no need for sauce on the table.

Of course, I can't eat fish without vegetables. So spying fresh prawns in the market, I bought a quarter of a kilo, made stock out of the shrimp shells, sauteed the shrimps until they were pink, and created chop suey (with red/green/yellow bell peppers, chinese cabbage, pechay, cauliflower, broccoli, beans, and sayote). Note to self: Add more green leaves next time.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


The consolations of food- ate the cheddar ensaymada of Must Be Mom's yesterday for the first time. As a rule, I shy away from cheddar cheese in ensaymada, I like my cheese dry, thank you, and the moistness of cheddar within plastic wrappers is something I'd rather avoid if I can help it. For some reason, the other option, the drier queso de bola ensaymada, my favorite ensaymada to date, has lost its appeal to me. Food and memory - Proust and his remembrance of things past triggered by eating madeleines. I suddenly thought of a new advertising gimmick for MBM: Must Be Mom's - the Heartbreaking Queso de Bola Ensaymada, it's so good it will leave you in tears!!!!! Cheddar ensaymada, free of any such baggage, seemed the more rational choice for the time being, though the cheddar left me gagging.
This is a plug for Must Be Mom's queso de bola ensaymada, truly heartbreaking in its fluffy cheesy goodness.