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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Soul Food

2011 so far has been a year of transformation and letting go.  Re-establishing a consistent meditation and yoga practice have been key, as well as making incremental modifications to how I eat and what I cook.  Beyond the initial rush of a new year's resolution, I feel like the lifestyle changes I have adopted will slowly but surely will lead to optimal health.

My husband and I now start our day with a green smoothie made with organic produce. I do my daily meditation after drinking this slightly sweet and refreshing drink. The emerald green color is nice and gives one a sense of wellness just by looking at it.

Below is the very simple recipe and a few helpful notes:

Green Smoothie ala Mom (kudos to her for this recipe)

1 bunch kale ( organic dinosaur or Russian, leaves trimmed from the ribs and roughly shredded)
1 Fuji apple (core and quartered)
1 banana
1 cup water (more if a more liquid consistency is desired)

1. Start by putting the apple and half a cup of water in the blender in Grind mode.
2. Add kale in handfuls, careful not to clog up the blender. Add more water as needed.
3. Add the banana at the very end.

About two hours after the power liquid breakfast, I head out to take my vinyasa yoga flow class. The green smoothie has replaced coffee for that morning pick me up and I believe has led to more energy and focus in an often times vigorous and physically challenging yoga practice.

I am adding this to my definition of soul food: simple, nourishing both for the body and spirit. Of course, having candied yams and fried chicken or pork belly and roasted bone marrow, when done mindfully and in moderation, are soulful in their own delicious and decadent ways.

Here's to a new year of good food and mindful eating.