Mad Scientess Jane Expat (nanila) wrote,
Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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On cooking and culture

I’ve never been a good cook. I know chemists are supposed be good cooks, but other than the occasional spate of crazed baking, I’ve never been very interested in making food. The preparation-to-consumption time ratio always galled me. You spend three hours chopping, stirring and waiting. It takes five minutes to hoover up the food. To top off the indignity, you then have to do the washing-up. If, when I was a postgrad, you had offered to hook me up to a dextrose/saline/caffeine IV, I would have agreed immediately. As long as the occasional bit of chocolate were allowed.

Since I moved to Cambridge, however, I’ve taken more of an interest in cooking. There are three factors playing into this. One is money. Between my train fare and my mortgage, I’ve experienced a considerable reduction in spare cash. If I make my own lunches and take them to work, I save money. The second factor is the bloke. While I might be happy to eat an apple and a bowl of popcorn for supper every night because I’m lazy, he isn’t. He is quite a good cook. Since we try to share cooking duties, it isn’t exactly fair if he whips up a lovely venison stew and chocolate cake for an evening meal and the next night I present him with a microwave dinner. (Even if it does come from M&S. And then I run into the first problem: those are expensive.) Or with the only meal I knew how to make until recently: grilled fish and two types of steamed veg atop a bowl of rice.

I’ve been through cooking phases before. They didn’t last. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. I’m certainly not inventive. I just follow recipes that sound nice in cookbooks. There’s a difference this time, however, and it has to do with the third factor: culture.

Although I’m genetically Filipino, I’ve never felt I could assert much of a connection with Filipino culture except through my childhood. Once I moved away from Hawai’i, most of my links with it were cut. It didn’t help that I never learned Tagalog or Ilocano, my dad’s two dialects. He always spoke English with me. The only time I can recall hearing Tagalog past the age of eight was when he was on the phone to his sisters. However, since I started cooking, I’ve suddenly remembered that my mother used to make a lot of Filipino dishes well after we moved to the mainland US. I remember chicken adobo (marinated chicken) and pancit (seafood noodles). I remember lumpia (deep-fried pork eggroll) and chicken malunggay (herbal chicken soup). I remember halo-halo (shave ice, coconut milk, sweet beans and fruit) and suman (sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf).

I’ve been thinking for at least a decade that it’s too late for me to do much to reclaim my Filipino identity. I don’t know many Filipinos, as there aren’t exactly a lot of non-white people in the physical sciences to begin with, let alone ones from specific East Asian countries. Certainly there isn’t much impetus for me to learn the languages. Additionally, “It’s too late” is one of my least favourite excuses, so naturally I only recently realized I was using it myself. It’s by no means too late for me to learn to cook the food I used to love. Since Cambridge has a significant minority East Asian population, I can get the ingredients for most of the dishes listed above at shops about a mile away from home on Mill Road.

This weekend, I made suman. I overcooked the sticky rice a little bit so it was difficult to roll spoonfuls of it into the banana leaves. My first few suman were a bit wonky in shape and size, and the leaves split during cooking but the ones in the top of the steamer turned out well. The bloke thinks they’re delicious. I want to make pancit next.

It probably sounds absurd, but learning to think of myself as “Filipino enough” to be allowed to cook Filipino food is a big step for me.
Tags: family, identity, navel-gazing
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