Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Filipino American Food for Thought: The Book

I was rummaging through a bunch of old bags in my closet when I came across a tattered sheet of paper. It turned out to be a recipe for empanada that my Grandma Fausta had written for me before she went back to the Philippines. I always loved coming home from school to find her covered in flour, using an empty glass bottle as a rolling pin and a tin can to cut out circles from the flattened dough (for reasons unknown to me she had decided that these made for more "authentic" cooking tools than a rolling pin and cut-outs). That meant the house would soon be filled with the comforting smell of empanadas, with their crisp, flaky crusts and savory fillings. Granted, empanadas are not originally from the Philippines, but they are just one example of the heavy Spanish and Chinese influences over Filipino recipes. Finding the recipe inspired me not only to make a batch, but to dig deeper into the traditions of Filipino food, its evolution as more Filipinos became Filipino Americans, and its possibilities as a healthier -- and maybe even more cosmopolitan -- type of fare.

Of course, there are other motivating factors in this project: In three months I will be turning 40. I picture myself in a fabulous form-fitting dress surrounded by friends and family who can't get over how great I look. But then reality sets in a I realize I'm a good 200-plus pounds beyond what that form-fitting dress can handle (a bit of an exaggeration, but nevertheless..). The reason? Not enough exercise, and my love for Filipino food, made the traditional way.

So why not come up with recipes that are rooted in the same tastes and traditions, but substitute the "comfort" ingredients (those high in fat and even higher in sodium) with more healthy alternatives? And why not experiment with these old recipes, incorporating more flavors and textures that can be found and grown locally?

So, after receiving a string of so-called coincidences from the Universe, my mission is finally clear: For the next year, I will set out to pick up where Anthony Bourdain left off, writing all about Filipino food -- its traditions, and its evolution. I will visit Filipino chefs -- from the common cafeteria-style eateries around the Bay Area, to the more upscale restaurants in San Francisco, to the many grandmothers who cook for their families every day. Then I will document my own experiences as I take old recipes and create new ones for those of us who love the food but can't afford the extra pounds, introducing new techniques and flavors. In the end, I hope to create a book that will contain the answers that eluded Anthony Bourdain as he hopped from one lechon joint to the next -- and unlock the flavors of our culture that Americans have yet to enjoy.

In the meantime, here is my Grandma Fausta's old empanada recipe. It is a bit incomplete, as it only lists the ingredients without any instructions on what to do afterward. From what I recall (as stated above), she would cut out circles the size of a large tin can from the dough, place a tablespoon of the filling into the center, fold the dough over and seal the edges with a fork, as with a pie. She would then brush the top with beaten egg whites and fry the empanadas until golden brown.

Grandma Fausta's Empanada:

Crust:
4 cups flour
2 eggs
1stick butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup shortening

Filling:
1 pound ground pork
1 carrot, diced
1 can sweet peas
2 small boxes of raisins
1 potato, diced
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon fish sauce
salt and pepper to taste

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