Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Rebel Noodles

In the basement of Lucky Plaza, at the heart of Singapore’s shopping district of Orchard Road, thrives what could be considered a Filipino hawker food center. Here you will find Jollibee, Lutong Pinoy 1, Lutong Pinoy 2,  Kamayan Pinoy, Tapa King and Lechon Pinoy. Six out of a total of sixteen food stalls (the rest are regional food that have some commonalities with Philippine cuisine as well) meld indigenous Austronesian ingredients and cooking methods with those of a revolving cast of traders, settlers, colonizers and dreamers. These are the foodways that make us who we are: our complex national and personal histories served up on a plate or a soup bowl.

One can happily spend the whole day going from stall to stall. First stop would have to be Jollibee, the Filipino’s answer to McDonald’s: fast, cheap and consistent. It looks like any other fast food joint:  fried chicken, burgers, French Fries. But then there’s this: sweet spaghetti with slivers of hotdog and melted cheddar cheese. It’s a hybrid that perhaps only a child could love, which is why this dish is a hit at Filipino kids’ birthday parties.

Any noodle dish can be traced back to China, though I’m sure the Italians will put up a fight for the pasta’s origins story and would probably scratch their heads at Jollibee’s interpretation of spaghetti. What you can be certain about is that when the Chinese, who had been trading with the Philippines since the 9th century, began to settle and intermarry with the native population, noodle dishes multiplied. Pancit is the catch-all name for Philippine noodles made from rice, buckwheat, wheat flour, or monggo bean starch. Stirfried with a variety of meats and vegetables, pancit is derived from the Hokkien word pain i sit which means “convenient food.” And pancit is indeed food for the masses. Pancit palabok, pancit Canton, pancit Miki, pancit bihon, pancit Miki Bihon, pancit luglug …  to name but a few.

Lutong Pinoy 2 makes a mean pancit palabok. Unlike the other variety that uses thick noodles to absorb the sauce, their version is made with thin rice noodles. The gravy sits atop like an insouciant orange shrug. Colored by crushed shrimp shells and achiote, the sauce makes pancit palabok the stuff of guilty and squeamish pleasure. The word palabok always makes me cringe: it brings up images of slime and other malapot, or sticky sludgy stuff. But the bright orange gravy has the right consistency and flavor, and they don’t skimp on the toppings either. When all combined, each forkful is a savory and creamy blend of slick noodles, crispy chicharon, savory pork, poached shrimp, hard-boiled egg, green onions with the citrus tang of kalamansi squeezed over to finish the dish.

(For more on my pancit palabok obsession, please check out

Once broth is introduced, what was once pancit is transformed into something else: a noodle soup dish. Along with pancit palabok, Lutong Pinoy #2 serves batchoy (a noodle soup made with offal, lard and other bits of goodness) and chicken mami (springy yellow egg noodles in a flavourful golden broth, topped with sliced chicken and shredded napa cabbage). These are favored as late afternoon merienda fare.

There’s one pancit dish that isn’t served at Lucky Plaza and it’s a rule-breaker. There are no noodles in this dish, and yet it carries the pancit name. It’s also broth-based. Behold the pancit Molo: a glorious rendition of wonton soup. Molo is a town in Iloilo City and it lends its name to this special pancit. I’m Ilonggo on my father’s side, and this is a near sacred dish in our family, legendary among relatives and friends who were lucky enough to have a bowl (or several) of my Lola Mary’s famous pancit Molo.  My grandmother, who passed away five years ago last month, continues to be our family’s beloved matriarch.  Tributes have poured into my Aunt’s Facebook page honoring the anniversary of Lola Mary’s passing. Several comments revolved around not only how loving and wonderful she was, but also how much her pancit Molo is missed.

As October speeds into the holiday season, I look forward to being back home in California with my family to honor Lola Mary in our own way. Soon I will leave the humidity of Singapore and the numerous food stalls of Lucky Plaza. Instead, I’ll be shopping for ingredients at 99 Ranch in Gardena with my Mom, for the type of home cooking that I only get to experience once a year since becoming an expat in Asia. During the holidays we gather around the table: Mom, my siblings and our own families, cousins, aunties, nieces and nephews with a single task: hand-wrapping each wonton so that it looks like a bishop’s hat, the special way that Lola Mary had passed down to my Mom. Meanwhile the “mother broth,” a luxurious soup-base that takes three days to make properly, will be simmering on the stovetop. The wontons are boiled in the broth and whisked away as soon as they float to the top. Finished with fried garlic and sliced scallions, we will have our own bowlful of personal and national histories to warm us after Christmas Eve mass. This is the noche buena I look forward to more than anything else during the holidays.

Doreen Fernandez Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture
Jason Tastes Asia, Episode 7: Philippines Panciteria and Panaderia

Pancit Palabok from Lutong Pinoy 2

Preparing wontons for Pancit Molo

Homecooked Pancit Molo

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Reheat and Serve

I’ve been asked to join White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, among others, as a contributing author to “My Food Beginnings: A Filipino Food Anthology.” http://www.myfoodbeginnings.com/  And so I’ve come back to my own on-line food beginnings here http://anilokanainparis.blogspot.sg/ , to see what’s in the larder. Which of my existing short essays on food and memory could be re-heated, transformed into something more substantial to explore what it means to be a hungry Filipino in the diaspora? It appears that 2016 is the year when Filipino food has reached the mainstream https://goo.gl/35OoDh  “Filipino food is hot right now” according to Yahoo! Style, flashing ube ice cream as proof that what was once relegated to the “Oriental” stores in Carson, an LA suburb, no longer deserves the cultural cringe https://goo.gl/Djh6xs

My last entry here was from 2011, an entire lifetime ago.  That was before I gave birth to my son, when my husband and I lived in a walk-up apartment in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond district. Since then, we have moved to Singapore for work and regional adventures. I have focused my creative energies on writing and getting short stories published, a first foray into food videography, editing my novel and leading writing groups for expats and locals.  And it’s been crickets here, but that changes today. I have stories brewing from my travels to the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Japan and Hong Kong, as well as an extraordinary culinary experience in Paris (my inspiration for this blog), Cognac and Versailles. And of course, as a four year resident in one of the world’s top food destinations, I have many sweet and savory Singapore tales to serve up. Come visit again to sample what will be on offer.

Bistek Tagalog en papillote

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hainan Chicken with low-carb Shirataki Sotanghon

I have started to wean myself from my lifelong love affair with white rice, not just for health reasons but also as a political statement of sorts.  Below are links to an interesting article and an amusing video on the cultural and socio-economic roots of Philippine dependence (or some may argue, over-dependence) on that white stuff.



Onwards to the next meal.  This week I will be creating several recipes that will replace white jasmine rice with a more nutritious alternative. My husband, who has become somewhat obsessed with researching all things no/low-carb in our ongoing household quest for optimal health, told me about Shirataki, a Japanese noodle made with yams as opposed to the typical rice or wheat-based noodle and pasta. I found these Shirataki noodles in the refrigerated section at Nijima Market in Japantown. 

I am a little skeptical.  They look like thin, gelatinous strands of dubious origin suspended in liquid. The more expensive variety looks only slightly more appealing. I shuddered a little when I held the cold plastic package, the noodles sloshing around in a non-appetizing way.

We might have a textural issue here but I will do my best to infuse these yam noodles with a rich chicken broth redolent with flavors of ginger, garlic, scallions and chili. I will cook them sotanghon style with a nice saute of aromatics, Chinese celery (kimchay) and shitake mushrooms. Served with velvety slices of Hainan chicken along with the traditional chili dipping sauce and garnished with cilantro and cucumber, Shirataki Sotanghon will replace the traditional Chicken Rice in this cross-cultural experiment where Hainanese-Singaporean, Filipino-Chinese and Japanese flavors will hopefully meld in savory harmony.

A more detailed recipe will be posted after I perfect this dish. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Goodbye, Milagrosa. Hello, Silvana!

Those blood sugar spikes that must be tamed!  This will be a foreign concept for most but for those in the know, it is a fact of life that can either be ignored or befriended.  This year as part of my quest for optimum health, I have become more conscious of foods that have sugars. There are the obvious ones and among my favorites: crème brûlée with that crackling skin of pure molten sugar;  leche flan glistening in its own caramel sauce,  crème brûlée's Filipino cousin via Spain; and my all time favorite, Filipino silvanas, a more decadent version of Parisian macarons.

These are no brainer foods, ideally consumed on occasion and easy enough to modulate for the most part, barring those occasions that call for no food restrictions and a complete surrender to all that is hedonistic and carnal, otherwise known as a typical Friday night dinner with my husband.

But sugars in everyday foods? This is harder to identify.  After meeting with a nutritionist I am armed with new and yes, disappointing knowledge. White rice, fragrant jasmine rice steamed or garlic fried for breakfast, that staple of all Filipino households, is a simple carbohydrate that the body treats as though it were a maple cruller donut. Life is unfair!  So for now I must say goodbye to my favorite type of jasmine rice, the beautifully named Milagrosa. Miraculous rice of my youth.  Or perhaps instead of taking an extremist stance, Milagrosa white jasmine rice will join the pantheon of treats: a perfect, steaming mound the equivalent of the occasional one or three silvanas. Especially the buko pandan and mango flavored ones.

So indulge for all of us! This might tempt you. I know my resolve is slowly corroding so I must stop reading over the descriptions on the website: http://www.houseofsilvanas.com/dalycity.html

Delightfully crunchy, creamy and delicious! A layer of buttercream sandwiched between two cashew-meringue 
wafers, coated with cookie crumbs.

Now available in seven flavors:
Original (Regular Buttercream), Ube, Buko-Pandan, Mango, Mocha, Strawberry, and Chocolate

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I had a mad craving for that peculiar taste that offends most Western palates: pungent bitterness.  Perhaps it was the storm last week that made me want to serve chicken tinola (stew) with lots of ginger and thin slivers of bittermelon, a steaming fragrant soup eaten with jasmine rice, fortified by the warming qualities of ginger and the immunity-boosting benefits of bittermelon.  Food to strengthen our bodies and nourish our souls as many around us literally went under the weather with week-long flus and colds that lingered on for months. 

On Clement Street I wandered in and out of Asian grocery stores in search of this notorious vegetable, also known as pomme de merveille, pomo balsamo, balsamini longa, muop dang, tsuru reishi, bittergourd, balsam pear, sopropo, arsorossie, ku gua foo, pare, peria, karela, balsamina, balsamapfel, mara (Source: http://www.tropilab.com/momordica-cha.html )

Over the years I have discovered from co-workers who are either themselves immigrants or have roots in another country outside of the US that bitter is also a taste they crave and that bittermelon is considered soul food in their grandmother or mothers' kitchens.  In dim sum carts I have seen halved bittermelon stuffed with ground meats and steamed until tender.  Bittermelon sauteed with fermented black beans and pork slices are common fare in most Chinese restaurants.  I was happy to find stewed bittermelon on the menu of one of our favorite Burmese places on Clement. A friend of mine talks about how his grandmother in Surinam used to prepare a dish of bittermelon that he still craves to this day. He goes on his own bittermelon hunt in Oakland Chinatown. An old college friend who now lives in Las Vegas saw my post and said too bad I was not local because he kept a stash of ampalaya in his refrigerator. 

I did not find bitter melon last week on Clement Street, which makes me even more determined to resume my search again.  At one store the cashier looked at me as if I had asked for caviar. "What? You want bitter melon? Bah! Too expensive now. More than $3 a pound."  Feeling a little indulgent, I went to another store where my request was not understood by the barely English speaking proprietor and I was shooed away. At the last place I checked there was an empty bin and a sign that made me smile: better melon. I could not have misspelled it any better and arrived at the heart of this culinary wonder.

From Surinam to India, Vietnam, China, Burma and the Philippines, to my own kitchen in San Francisco, bittermelon is a vegetable not to be scraped off the plate as offensive to the palate but obsessively sought after, maybe even slightly revered.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Soul Food, Part II

A community organizer/academic friend of mine currently based in Iowa posted something on Facebook that caught my attention: a website dedicated to Asians/Asian Americans and our oftentimes complex relationship to food and body image called http://www.thickdumplingskin.com/

I started to think about an Ilokana in Paris. Why am I writing? Who is my audience? What am I writing about?  Why Paris? What is an Ilokana? I have described it to friends as a food/memory/travel blog, with my first entry back in 2009 entitled "Embracing Multiplicity of Selves" http://anilokanainparis.blogspot.com/2009/06/embracing-multiplicity-of-selves.html 

That sounds a little "Three Faces of Eve" in retrospect, but it is also an Ethnic Studies terminology about the different spaces we occupy: whether that is because of our gender, ethnicity, age, country of origin and other socio-economic factors.  Or in spite of it and sometimes even transcending it for more universal truths.  We are all human after all, with bodies that need nourishing and care. Food is another universal truth, one that I feel passionate about and would like to continue to explore in a dreamy and what I hope in a literary sense.

But I think the specificity of lived experience is important as well, and it is powerful especially when shared with others who have a similar path or can relate on some other level, maybe not visceral but as a person who knows what it is like to be excluded or feel "othered". I celebrate the creation of thickdumplingskin.com because any forum where a multitude of voices can be engaged in a healing dialogue as well as for posting delicious pictures of steamed dumplings, soup dumplings, all kinds of  stuffed bundles of goodness and love, for what is food ultimately but an expression of love, this type of shared space is food for the soul.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Soup Weather

It has rained everyday this week and even the early blooming cherry trees, so vibrant not too long ago in the unseasonably warm weather, droop down as if ashamed to have burst into life too soon.  Nevertheless, I am not letting the storms keep me indoors. I still go to yoga everyday, meet girlfriends for lunch and to wander around Clement Street hunting for donabe pots and silkie chicken, and head out to my favorite cafe in the Fillmore district to work on my novel. One of the blessing of rain and wind is the chance to feel cozy in winter wear and to walk into the Grove, glance thankfully at the fireplace and those hovered around it with laptops and newspapers, then breathe in the spicy warmth of fresh-made hot apple cider.  

Soup is on my mind.  Last night's oven-braised short ribs (with wild mushrooms, fresh oregano, canned San Marzano tomatoes and Prather Ranch ground beef) that I used as sauce for bucatini pasta, will be skimmed of extra fat and re-repurposed tonight as some type of soupy stew made with collard greens and soaked crusty Italian bread.  To counter the richness of the soup, I found beautiful butter lettuce, thin-skinned baby red potatoes and blue lake green beans from my corner organic green grocer, Village Market,  that I will combine with nicoise olives and imported Italian tuna for a salad nicoise. The dressing will be made from Dijon mustard, macerated garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and patis, a staple of the Philippine pantry and is the equivalent of other fish sauce from  Vietnam and Thailand. Patis is my substitute for anchovies and will add that pungent, salt component to cut through the heat of mustard and raw garlic and acidity from the lemon juice. Salad dressing made from scratch is always a delicate balance of flavors.

Tomorrow I plan to make ginataan, a warm Filipino dessert soup made with coconut milk, cassava, yams, plantains, mochi balls and palm sugar. This is labor intensive and it is at times like this that I wished I lived in a household much like my mother used to run in Manila, lively with her sisters, relatives and our maids, so many extra hands to form the mochi balls, peel the cassava, dice the yams, grate the fresh coconut and squeeze it out of cheesecloth for kakang gata, that first and ultra rich yield of pure coconut milk.

But for tonight there is an equally comforting soup to make for my own household for two. My husband will come home from the stormy weather to an apartment made warm and fragrant will the scent of homemade soup.