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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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On cooking and culture [20100831|11:36]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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[the weather today is |hungry now]

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.

[User Picture]From: ursarctous
2010-08-31 10:47 (UTC)
This is an exciting post. Good luck with it all. Will there be lots of photos of these amazing sounding dishes?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:40 (UTC)
Thank you for the luck. Yes, I'll take photos - I'll take some of the suman when we eat some more tomorrow!

PS Could you please send me a link to your Amazon wishlist?
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[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2010-08-31 10:59 (UTC)
Yay! I look forward to hearing more.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:41 (UTC)
I'm hoping to prise a few more recipes out of my parents' brains when they arrive next week!
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[User Picture]From: cataragon
2010-08-31 11:45 (UTC)
Chemists are supposed to be good cooks? I never heard that. Dan is, though, so from a sample size of one, I shall decide it is accurate (what can I say, I trained in the social sciences, statistics confuse me ;-P)

I think sometimes I became a cooking kind of person precisely because of the washing up - if you cooked, in my family, then someone else had to do the dishes.
When I'm being even more cynical than that I think it's because I'm a such a crazy perfectionist, and food is such a limited time art. I never get to go back and judge judge judge an edible item, because it's already been eaten.

I'm glad you are enjoying making things that make you feel more connected to your heritage. I have to admit, despite my obsession for other cuisines, to knowing nothing at all about Filipino cuisine.
Please share more, it's very interesting! :-)

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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:44 (UTC)
That's funny, it's one of the assumptions about chemists that I've heard the most. That, and the one about all of us knowing how to brew beer and make drugs.

The bloke & I try to follow your family's method of dealing with the washing up. It works pretty well. The trouble starts when you're only cooking for yourself and you have to do it all.

I'm going to try and prise some recipes out of my parents when they come to visit, so will share my experience as I try to follow them - and probably make lots of mistakes!
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[User Picture]From: alice_mccoy
2010-08-31 12:35 (UTC)
Excuse me but lumpia is not a Filipino dish. It is English. It is a glutinous yellow vanilla flavoured concoction that is poured/ shaken over apple pie.

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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:46 (UTC)
HAH! To be honest, if I ordered one version and received the other, I don't think I'd be all that upset.
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[User Picture]From: cosmiccircus
2010-08-31 13:30 (UTC)
You should ask your family for favorite recipes and create a family cookbook for yourself! It's a nice way to preserve family history and it would be a good way for you to have recipes to cook from. We did this for my niece, and she loved it!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:47 (UTC)
Ooh, that's a good idea, thank you. I should add in lychee almond float and leche flan. Most of my favourite dishes from my childhood, unsurprisingly, were desserts, so it's going to be a bit of an effort to recall more of the savoury ones.
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[User Picture]From: seismic
2010-08-31 13:47 (UTC)
Yay! I'm glad you're doing this and finding layered satisfaction in it. I look forward to hearing about your cooking adventures!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:48 (UTC)
"Layered satisfaction". What a perfect description. Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: bowtomecha
2010-08-31 14:01 (UTC)
Chicken adobo, caldereta and sinigang are my specialties. and i'm not even filipino!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:50 (UTC)
Strangely, I don't remember eating much caldereta. Then again, I don't remember eating much beef as a child. I suspect it was really expensive. Meat generally was in Hawai'i - I remember eating a lot more seafood than meat or poultry.
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[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2010-08-31 14:34 (UTC)
Um. I may have teared up a bit reading this. Perhaps.

Also, I often eat a bowl of popcorn and half an avocado with some kind of dressing in the hollow for dinner. With a beer or Diet Coke. It is the dinner of kings, in my opinion.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:51 (UTC)
Hooray, we are two! Ooh, avocado with balsamic and olive oil. Yes yes. Mmmm.
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From: pbristow
2010-08-31 18:56 (UTC)
Sounds tasty. =:o}

And now I'm nostalgic for bread'n'dripping, and pink "frummery"* in two layers, like Mum used to make. [HAPPY-CHOLY SIGH] =:o}

*(Does anyone else on the planet know what this is, or what it would more commonly be called? Google doesn't, apparently.)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-08-31 19:51 (UTC)
What's in frummery? Is it a dessert? It sounds like one.
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[User Picture]From: sanat
2010-09-01 02:33 (UTC)
Sounds delicious and fulfilling! Have fun making all those!

Hmmm, I wonder what happened to my spaetzle maker...
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-09-01 21:59 (UTC)
I will, thank you!

I hope your spaetzle maker didn't end up in the same place as my pizzelle maker. It gave up the ghost rather dramatically - the power cord fried itself.
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[User Picture]From: painted_dreams
2010-09-01 03:34 (UTC)
I feel the same way about my Portuguese. All of my identity with it has been from growing up in Hawaii... And you know Portuguese in Hawaii is different from Portuguese in Portugal (and the Azores). I've been learning a lot about my ancestry and the cuisine. Granted me learning the language is probably unlikely to happen considering I'm trying to learn Spanish for my move to Spain. I think its good that you are exploring your roots through food.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-09-01 22:02 (UTC)
Hopefully once you've picked up Spanish, Portuguese will get easier. Supposedly it's easier to gain a third language than a second.
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[User Picture]From: sadira42
2010-09-08 20:50 (UTC)
It's totally not too late to learn to cook! All it takes is some motivation and it sounds like you have plenty of that. Good luck! Be prepared for some disappointments. I personally can't make food look good, but it generally tastes pretty good.

Also, I figured chemists would be better at baking than at cooking because baking to me is already mad science. Or rather, very precise science. While cooking takes some time, practice and confidence. With time, you figure out what goes together and how to adjust things.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2010-09-09 09:53 (UTC)
I like the distinction you're drawing between baking and cooking. I think that's why I preferred baking before - the important thing is to keep very carefully to the correct proportions of the ingredients and monitor things like temperature and mixing times. Cooking is much less precise.
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[User Picture]From: taische
2010-10-07 04:26 (UTC)


This is great! Did you manage to document some additional recipes while your family visited? Halo-halo sounds intriguing and delicious. Had a chance to make it yet?

It's funny- I've long enjoyed cooking but haven't really made much time for it in years except in fits and spurts. I think part of the problem has been that I've tended to live in apartments with kitchens that were just-acceptable at best. That said, I realized a few months back that there were a number of recipes for Spanish and Cuban food that I'd grown up consuming that represented variants that were unique to my aunts cooking. She's getting up in years and after two decades of promising myself that I would learn to make (and document recipes for) the dishes that had become family traditions, I finally did it. If you ever decide you'd like to try your hand at Arroz con Pollo a la Chorrera con Chorizo or her version of Fricase de Pollo let me know! They're both easy and very tasty.

Ironically, slow cookers are worth a look when time is a factor. I've found that I've been able to adapt a number of recipes to greatly reduce prep time (say, the arroz con pollo) without any loss of flavor or overall quality, and have found myself cooking more often since my very kind downstairs neighbor gave me one out of the blue (I live in the upstairs apartment in the building behind the main house pending the completion of a smallish project or fifty). If you have a recipe for adobo that you really like I'd love to try it out!
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