Friday, August 14, 2009

Clue No. 2: Can you make Filipino food?

A few weeks ago, Melissa, a co-worker-turned-Skype-buddy of mine requested that I make her Filipino food for her last day of work. Usually, I wouldn't hesitate. In college when I shared a townhouse with six other girls, I became somewhat of the den mother, cooking vats of Filipino food every night. But this would be much more complicated. Our little office with 20 or so staff members has a lunch program where we each sign up and take turns being chef. Our kitchen, complete with two burners, an array of pots and pans, utensils, spices, produce and variety of starches, is replenished by the $3 we each pay to eat every day. When lunch is ready, the chef rings a bell and we all gather at a long table in the middle of the office. Yes, it all sounds very nice -- except for one thing. About one-third of our staff is vegetarian so to keep it simple, we all prepare healthy, vegetarian dishes.

Filipino food -- the popular dishes, anyway -- is seldom healthy and almost never vegetarian: lumpia (fried eggrolls stuffed with either a ground pork mixture or ground beef with vegetables), adobo (a vinegar and soy sauce based stew usually with chicken, pork or both) and pancit (noodles mixed with an array of chopped meats and vegetables sauteed in vegetable oil). "Well, what do you want me to make?" I asked Melissa. "Ooooh, I love adobo...and lumpia .. and what are those noodles? Pancit?" she responded.

My hesitation prompted her to say: "Oh, but only if you want to." "It's not that I don't want to," I said. "I just don't know how to make vegetarian Filipino food." And it's true. Other than side dishes, the Filipino dishes I was raised on consisted of meat and fish. Party food -- which is what she wanted -- was always greasy. Tasty, but greasy. In fact, in most of the Filipino eateries in the Bay Area, many of the dishes you'll find should come with warning labels for those with high cholesterol, namely: diniguan, kare-kare, lechon kawali (more on these later).

I decided to cook the food anyway. I made a big pot of chicken adobo the night before, the grease rising to the top the next day. I brought in a tray of lumpia, the paper towel I had placed below them was saturated with oil. The pancit noodles were less artery-clogging, though there were little fatty pieces of pork that my grandmothers always said gave it that extra umph.

I was reminded of Anthony Bourdain's quest to unearth the meaning of Filipino food.

Why is it that among all the Asian cuisines that have become mainstream in America -- Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. -- Filipino food remains, for the most part, a mystery? And why has this lumpia-adobo-pancit trio emerged the token dishes for Filipino fare? Like the Bourdain episode, I had stored the question away in the back of my mind -- until the next incident occurred.

Oh, and my colleagues did enjoy the meal -- two-thirds of them, anyway.

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Blogger Mittens said...


10:14 PM  

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