Thursday, May 28, 2009

"A Book of Her Own, Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan" by Leny Mendoza Strobel

A couple of months ago, while attending a book event at one of the tony restaurants in Ports O' Call in San Pedro, I bumped into Leny Strobel. I did not know her, but from the way she said my name ("Oh, Rene Villaroman from the PR Office"), I found out that she really did know me. We had worked with the same company-- San Miguel Corporation -- during the 70s until I left and became a freelance journalist in 1984.

"I worked with Dick Sotelo," she told me. I knew Dick Sotelo (Head of SMC's Human Resources Division), and probably everyone in San Miguel did. Leny said she was one of the correspondents of Kaunlaran, the SMC monthly employee magazine, where I was one of the assistant editors. My heart sank because, honestly, I did not have a recollection of her, but at the same time, I felt flattered that she had remembered me after more than 30 years. But it was downhill for me from that point on.

Leny had always wanted to be a journalist during the time that she was working as Dick Sotelo's executive assistant. I am sure there were hundred others like her in our company that wanted to fill our shoes and show that they had the writing gene in them. We thought then that we were the cream of the crop, at the top of our game in the corporate communications industry, which was partly true. The Kaunlaran is an award-winning employee publication, and at one time, some of its writers, including myself, have been honored by the Philippine Council of Industrial Communicators (PCIC) for our excellent feature articles.

But none of these honors and achievements could approximate, or even come close, to the body of work and various other feathers-in-the-cap that Leny had plucked after she had left SMC and immigrated to the US in 1983. Leny had parlayed her passion for writing and research into masters and doctoral degrees here. She had gotten married to a white American-- an earth scientist from Montana-- and as an assistant professor, she now teaches American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University in California.

I am bowled over by Leny's body of work, and in one of them, her book, titled "A Book of Her Own, Word and Images to Honor the Babaylan," Leny published a compilation of her writings in different forms: poems, essays, musings, journal entries, magazine articles, and letters to fellow writers and artists. It is lushly illustrated with ethnic line drawings and black-and-white photographs. In the book, you will find a list of her favorite writers, and questions asked of Filipinos by Americans. One particularly loathsome question she is asked is, "Did he buy you from a catalog?" or "Do you eat dogs?"

I did not purchase her book during the book event, but our encounter had triggered in me a desire to look deeper into her philosophies and core values. I was silently attracted to the babaylan principles and values. Ours was one of those serendipitous meetings that produced a productive collaboration rather than just a torrent of nostalgia.

The first thing that I asked Leny in the question-and-answer session that followed her 45-minute talk at the book event was the meaning of "babaylan." She explained that "babaylans" were shaman/medicine women who occupied revered positions in the ancient villages of the country. "Historians write that matriarchal societies ended at the beginning of the agricultural era 10,000 years ago," Dr. Strobel said in her speech. "Matriarchal societies are non-hierarchical, egalitarian and deemed the relationship to the universe and all species as sacred; with the rise and evolution of patriarchy, these feminine values and energies were repressed and exited into the narrow spaces of expression under the control of patriarchal institutions and systems."

After hearing her talk about some of her philosophies, and after reading her book, I can see a pattern in Leny's "search" for ways to shake off the remnants of colonization, and she continues that search even after she had immigrated to the US, while studying for her masters and doctoral degrees here, and even now, while moving around her milieu as an assistant professor married to a white man. In her present scheme of things, she still considers herself belonging to the "others" category, and in her book she talks about how she had tried to please some of her white friends early on by trying to mimic them, but admits that her earlier attempts at assimilation into the "white" world were failures.

Her book is also a testament to Leny's undiminished nationalism, advocacy, and reverence for the babaylan spirit and its associated values, among them "Kapwa" (fellow human), "Bathala Na" (God's will), "Loob" (inner self), "Dangal"(honor) and Pakikiramdam (enmity).

Leny talks about her strictly Methodist upbringing in a barrio in her native Pampanga, in Central Luzon. Pampanga is one of the thorns at the side of the Spanish administrators during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, and that province's rebellious streak had coursed in her family's veins. Her grandfather was one of the first Methodist converts in her barrio, and he had kept that faith entrenched in his family, all the way down to Leny's generation, and farther down the line, I believe. She relates that being a Methodist in a predominantly Catholic province was quite a burden to carry, but they kept at it.

I am not much of a poetry reader, much less, a poetry writer. I had enjoyed and understood the depth of Leny's ideas when she laid them out in prose. The poems left me dangling, for lack of a better description. I felt that if she had written them in prose -- like her encounter with a Pinoy couple while jogging in her Sonoma County neighborhood -- the piece would have answered every question in my mind and filled in all the details about the encounter with the couple. But what the heck. Leny had to address a wider reader base with a multifarious reading preferences. I was trained as a journalist. I needed all the answers that a reporter could provide.

Leny Mendoza Strobel's "A Book of Her Own" is a chronicle of the author's early realization that it would be difficult for a citizen to fit in a given societal setting if he/she carries the confounding remnants of a colonized past, as in 300 years of Spanish, and 100 years of American occupation. But her early American assimilation experience, although quite personally disappointing, were no bars to the author's drive and commitment to defeat those demons and achieve her goal of decolonizing herself and as many of her Filipino and non-Filipino friends who had been immersed in a similar national experience. I know she will continue to sing the praises of the principles of the babaylan spirit and the values that it espoused.

At this point, it is safe to say that she has achieved decolonization nirvana? I do not believe so. But she is forging ahead.

"A Book of Her Own" is available at Philippine Expressions Bookshop, a Palos Verdes-based importer and distributor of books by Filipino and other authors writing about their roots and their Filipino experience.

Friday, May 22, 2009

When in Hawaiian Gardens, Do as the Natives Do; Go to J Korean Barbecue Restaurant

There is no denying that all-you-can-eat dining is the most delectable culinary invention during the last two decades or so, with hundreds of these restaurants sprouting like mushrooms in the Los Angeles basin. The early players, which opened their restaurants in the early 80s, have ruled the restaurant landscape and have retained their distinct markets. However, the phenomenon had given birth also to a sub-specialty -- Korean-style Barbecue all-you-can-eat dining. During the intervening years between the early 80s until the late 90s, more and more all-you-can-eat restaurants of different persuasions had been established, some specializing in Chinese, Thai, even Filipino foods, and a combination of these. The Japanese restaurants took a while to jump into the fray owing to the more expensive ingredients required in Japanese cuisine. But a few daring Japanese establishments were forced to join the scramble in order to retain their competitiveness. Years ago, a friend took me out dining at Genghis Khan BBQ restaurant in Alhambra, and that first experience had converted me into a Korean Barbecue devotee, even driving all the way to the South Bay city of Lomita when Genghis Khan opened a branch there.

I'm not your typical all-you-can-eat gourmand, in the sense that my capacity to ingest pounds over pounds of food is limited to the a certain degree by the slowly receding size of my stomach, so I am on the lookout for all-you-can-eat establishments that do not pursue the practice of unlimited dining because it is fashionable and it is what other restaurants do.

My recent meanderings had taken me to the city of Hawaiian Gardens, close to Cerritos, where J Korean BBQ Restaurant was in the thick of introducing a very popular beef barbecue (in South Korea). Andy Moon, the amiable owner, informed me that "kolbi" (barbecued marinated rib-eye steak) is the most popular barbecue item in his homeland South Korea. Not that Andy is new to kolbi, and boolgogi, two very popular and succulent barbecue iterations. It is because he wants to liven up his business and to cater to another segment of diners that prefers all-you-can-eat dining, minus the related excess and unchecked gluttony that are the stock-and-trade of other bigger establishments.

Over at J Korean BBQ, the concept is pursued not with wild abandon, but with a little more restraint. Don't get us wrong here. J subscribes to the concept, the only difference is that his servers, and sometimes Andy himself, would be on hand to serve every customer's pick for as many times as the customer asks for the array of meat barbecues and other delicious entrees, including pork and chicken. Just like in other AYCE restaurants, each customer pays a fixed amount for each combination that he orders.

When I dined there one afternoon recently, I was very lucky to find Andy, being that it was close to three in the afternoon, and the restaurant was serving just a handful of customers. There are three big screen television sets tuned to Travel Channel and Animal Planet. It serves liquor and other alcoholic beverage, and it is open for business from 10:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. everyday. The tables are large and can accommodate six to eight diners, and most of them are topped with built-in gas-fired hibachi grills. After he is served with the uncooked, marinated beef, the customer takes things into his own hands and grills the meats himself.

The entire dining area can accommodate around 90 diners at one time. When a customer orders a particular entree, say the newly introduced "kolbi," a server brings a tray of the marinated rib-eye steaks and sidings that include pickled radish with diced red chili; pickled cucumbers, marinated soybean sprouts, potato salad, and kimchi -- fermented napa cabbage. There is also a green salad with vinegar, soy sauce and honey dressing, and steamed rice. This combo is quite substantial: the rib-eye steaks alone weigh approximately two pounds, or one kilo. That's pretty big. Here's the surprise: the whole package is only $21.95 plus tax.

From my point of view, that one combination should suffice to feed me and my family (wife and daughter), leaving just enough space for the desserts (not included). But that is not the coup d' grace. It's the taste and the rib-eye's reputation as one of the most tender beef cuts of all. Andy, in his desire to prove the superiority of his culinary offerings to me, made me taste kolbi that's been marinated for 24 hours versus kolbi that's been soaked in its marinade just minutes before grilling. Well, the difference is like night and day. The beef that's been marinated for 24 hours was the hands-down winner.

Andy tells me that they make the marinade from scratch. He was even generous enough to tell what ingredients went into the marinade. But I will not disclose that information to everyone because I would want you to go to J Korean Barbecue to savor Andy's kolbi barbecue in person. However, having said that, I would tell you that it was one of the best rib-eye steak barbecues I ever had. I also enjoyed the sidings, particularly the pickled radish and the kimchi.

If you are not into kolbi, or boolgogi ($9.99 per person, indefinitely), you may opt for the other offerings, like the thin-sliced beef brisket, sliced pork neck, marinated beef, non-smoked bacon, and marinated short-ribs for $14.00; the thin sliced beef brisket, sliced pork neck, marinated beef, non-smoked bacon, marinated chicken, marinated pork, marinated beef short-ribs, sliced beef tongue, also for $9.99.

J Korean BBQ is located on the northeast corner of Norwalk Bl. and Carson St., in the city of Hawaiian Gardens. It is about three-quarter mile east of the Hawaiian Gardens Casino. "This restaurant has become a regular with casino dealers," says Andy. "They come here to dine after their shifts."

For somebody that routinely drives some twenty odd miles to have an enjoyable dinner, I am not at all discouraged by J Korean BBQ's distance from my home in Glendale. After all, on weekends, when there's relatively little traffic on the freeways, almost every point in Los Angeles County feels like a twenty-minute drive. J Korean BBQ is on 11201 Carson St., Hawaiian Gardens, CA 90716, with telephone number (562) 865-1178.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cuisinero Los Angeles: I missed Chef Cat Cora at the "Vegas Uncorked"Grand Tasting Event at Caesar's Palace

Cuisinero Los Angeles: I missed Chef Cat Cora at the "Vegas Uncorked"Grand Tasting Event at Caesar's Palace

I missed Chef Cat Cora at the "Vegas Uncorked"Grand Tasting Event at Caesar's Palace

I was quite unprepared for the scope of "Vegas Uncorked," a grand tasting event featuring world-famous chefs at Caesar's Palace on May 8th. And I would have missed the opportunity to be a part of that culinary event if not for the generous offer of a Fil-Canadian foodie friend to buy a ticket for me. "Vegas Uncorked" would be for us longtime friends the centerpiece of our reunion (after forty years). We almost missed getting to Caesar's Palace on time, having missed the entrance to the the hotel's parking entrance twice; my friend's husband was ready to burst. Getting off the car, he made a beeline to the restroom. "Let's meet at the poolside," my friend reminded her husband, and she and I headed instinctively in the direction of the poolside. Getting there, we were astounded by a long line of people who were walking slowly towards the venue. I stayed in line while my friend retrieved our tickets. When she came back she had her husband in tow.

It's a sultry evening; there is a slight breeze very slightly cooling the open-air venue, and we were dressed appropriately for that kind of weather. Several high amp speakers are blaring Motown-era songs. Two beautiful girls with bottles of Avian water met us at as we stepped into the poolside area. I accepted one Avian, which I stashed in my journalist's bag. It turns out later that the bottle of Avian would be very helpful.

Raffy, my friend's hubby shows me a plastic snifter as we plunged deeper into the crowd. I do not know him well enough to say that he was a teetotaler, but it sure looked to me that he is getting ready for a night of getting in the spirits. I am getting worried that we would get separated in the crowd, which I estimated at around a thousand foodies, tourists, vendors and marketing types, and I asked my friend if her cell phone was on. She assures me to not worry, as the venue is not that huge.

I am quite disoriented, or mesmerized, or both during the first 15 minutes. I take a long look at the arrays of liquors, wines and food samples around me, not picking anything up until I have made one full circle around the pool, jostling, dodging and appreciating the beautiful ladies who were already in the thick of the culinary event. In my limited and unscientific count, I estimate that the wine and drinks people equal the number of dining establishments that participated. Caesar's Palace outnumbers the other nearby hotels with as many as ten restaurants, including Mesa, Rao's and Beijing Noodle No. 9.; Valentino Las Vegas at The Venetian; Wolfgang Puck's Spago and Chinois at Caesar's, Postrio at The Venetian, CUT at The Palazzo, Lupo at Mandalay Bay, and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at MGM Grand; Strip House at Planet Hollywood are participants too. So is Table 10 at The Palazzo; Society and Botero at Encore, and Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay, and many others. Or to tell it another way, the foregoing represents the number of business cards that I managed to collect while taking notes, pictures, and grabbing what I can in a mildly chaotic scene.

The first drink that I pick is a vodka. At least that's how I remember it. I am not sure whether that was a good idea, as my mother had always admonished me to not drink before eating. I make another circle, this time in a counter-clockwise direction, looking, sniffing, and deciding what to try first. The venue is redolent with the scent of grilling meat. Primerib, I wished. I stop at the Beijing Noodle No. 9 table and pick up my first food sample. It is a shrimp tempura-like preparation that the person at the counter describes to me is coated with a special batter. It is delicious and crispy. I picked a second.

All that time, I am wishing and hoping to see in person two of my favorites chefs, Bobby Flay and Cat Cora. But no luck. On my fifth or sixth full circle, I finally spy Bobby Flay at the MESA booth. He is very handsome in his immaculate white chef's coat with his name in stylish letters on the chest. I also notice the beautiful girl at his side. She is spreading kosher salt on the table where Bobby Flay's offerings -- shrimp ceviche ensconced in a half-coconut shell -- are laid out. It is a work of art. I pick up one of the ceviches, and without so much fanfare, I begin eating the crustacean. There are two shrimps in my sample. I know Bobby Flay's southwestern style, having watched him in the Food Network all these years. But I have never dined in any of his restaurants. So what follows is a wake-up call. That ceviche is hot. I mean it is nuclear hot. If I were to write about it years down the road, I would still remember its being very spicy hot. I remember the bottle of Avian water in my bag and I pull it out to douse the fire in my mouth.

I saunter to Wolfgang Puck's table at the northern edge of the pool. He is not there but three chefs representing his restaurants are. They are serving desserts, and I pick one up. It is a chocolate mousse that slightly cooled the ceviche's embers in my mouth. All in all, I have probably tasted more desserts than entrees. The mini-burgers being served to a long line of people at the BLT booth hold no attraction to me. The pork chops and steaks grilling at Botero's beckon, but I can't stand the wait, so I move on. By about 8:30 p.m. I am walking aimlessly, just taking in the other sights: ladies in fashionable dress, in animated conversation with their equally fashionably garbed companions. The crowd is generally friendly. Maybe it's due to the relaxing effect of the spirits, which is flowing in unending abandon. Raffy offers that it would have been a better deal to eat at a restaurant with a targeted menu, and I tend to agree with him. I mean I am good for ten Beijing Noodle No.9 crispy breaded shrimps. But to sneak that many times would have attracted the attention of other foodies who are in line, if not the chefs at the booth themselves. There are other entrees that I tasted, whose names and descriptions have escaped me. They are not as memorable as the crispy breaded shrimps at Beijing Noodle No. 9, and the fiery ceviche at MESA. And I missed Chef Cat Cora.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Kulinarya," Claude Tayag's Other Book, Puts Philippines in World Culinary Map

The moment I saw "Kulinarya" during the "authors' night" event at the Philippine Consulate last Friday, I knew I had to have it. I am a book junkie, and I particularly cannot resist picture books. "Kulinarya" is a guidebook to Filipino cuisine, but I called it a picture book because, well, the illustrations in the book are superb photographs taken by Japanese photographer Neal Oshima, who had made Manila his home in the last 30 years or so.

It is amazing how the Philippines can run neck-to-neck with the West in almost every endeavor (except in car-making) including in the publishing industry. Well, I am being naive having professed my surprise. We are probably the most Westernized country in the world, next to the United States itself. And that is meant not in a derogatory way, but was meant as a compliment.

If you displayed "Kulinarya" with other American-published books, say, in a display case at a Borders or a Barnes & Noble bookstore, you would be hard-pressed to not believe that it was a book written and designed by Filipino culinary writers and designers. The only non-Filipino involvement were the inputs of Japanese photographer Oshima. But having lived in the Philippines for so long, I would venture that Oshima himself should be a big fan of adobo after all these years.

As mentioned in my first blog of Claude Tayag's culinary books, he is one of six culinary writers responsible for writing portions of this guidebook. But being the painter and artist that he is, Tayag also is the book's food stylist. His culinary perceptions and Oshima's photographic expertise have combined to give this seminal piece of culinary literature a stamp that spells E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T.

Tayag said that many foreigners who have been to the Philippines and tasted Filipino food were wondering, how come, Filipino cuisine has not been launched to a higher level in the gastronomic arena. The reason, according to Tayag, is the way we Filipinos present our cuisine. Tayag said that foreigners who have sampled Filipino cuisine invariably left Manila with a lackluster impression of our foods.

One of the reasons "Kulinarya" was published was to address the Filipino cuisine's lagging popularity when arrayed with, for instance, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese cuisines. "What we need to do is create a strong branding for Filipino cuisine," Tayag told book lovers and foodies who trooped to the Philippine Consulate last Friday. "We need to brand Filipino food in such a way that when one sees it, he recognizes it as Filipino cuisine," he postulated.

"For instance, in Japanese cuisine, you are given a plate of tempura; you know it's tempura, not camaron rebosado," Tayag said. "You, right away, know that its crumbly batter is very different from the camaron rebosado's batter. And the number of pieces (of shrimp tempura) is always three; and three pieces of vegetables, and its always like that," Tayag said.

"Kulinarya" seeks to establish that branding practice, or a more exact definition and standardization of cooking and preparation practices, like uniform cuts and sizes of the ingredients; standard cooking times, and standard measurements of other ingredients and seasonings; and the meat cuts, too.

"For example, adobo; you would find adobo in so many styles -- a different version in the north, and other variations in the south. This book tries to establish the correct procedures, and at the same time, the right ingredients; the best ripeness of the fruits, the correct maturity of the vegetables, and the correct cuts of the meats," he said.

Explaining his role as stylist, Tayag said, one of his responsibilities, was to make the dishes look appetizing and mouth-watering, "so that when you see it you want to eat it right away."

Showing a color photograph of pinakbet in the book, Tayag said it was a new take on the famous Ilocano vegetable dish. "Here I used a modern, not nouvelle, image of pinakbet. The traditional pinakbet, as Ilocanos prepare it, is overcooked; the vegetables are wilted," Tayag observed. "We are not saying it's no good; that's how the Ilocanos want it. But in the modern kitchen, you want your vegetables looking fresh, crunchy, and not overcooked."

He then pointed to a red cherry tomato (on the pinakbet), saying that the addition of that ingredient was for the purpose of adding a bit of bright color to the dish. He notes that Ilocanos never use squash in their pinakbet. "It's a very simple dish made up of leafy vegetables, like the slimy saluyot, but it is a succulent, complete and nutritious dish," Tayag observed. The Tagalog and the Kampampangan versions use diced lechon kawali (fried pork), and other variations that I have eaten -- and cooked -- used grilled fish, more likely, mudfish and hito (Philippine catfish).

"These are the things that you'll discover in "Kulinarya," Tayag explained. "The most special thing about Filipino cuisine is that it is flavorful and diverse," he said. "There's the Chinese influence; the Spanish, even the Mexican; and of course; the Malay, which was native to the country."

"Everything in this book was cooked in a regular kitchen. Kulinarya is an easy-to-follow manual. More than a cookbook, it's a manual because it describes and talks about the dish itself, and how it can be served better," Tayag commented.

"I hope that this book will promote a Philippine culinary revolution," Tayag offered. "An American friend of mine, the wife of a high-ranking American Embassy official, once commented to me: 'Filipino food is so emotional.'" "Why is that? I asked her. "

"Look at us. I am going to have dinner by myself, probably a plate of salad, and at my house, I hear the (Filipino) staff giggling when they are sharing a meal," she told me.

"This is how we are as Filipinos; the meals are always to be served, not eaten like a sandwich by yourself in a corner. Our meals are always shared and eaten family-style, the same as in other Asian countries," Tayag said.

If you enjoyed, or hated, reading this blog, please let me know by e-mailing your comments to: Thank you and bon apetit!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Claude Tayag's Book, "Food Tour" is a Delicious Read, Indeed

As I read the first twenty pages of Claude Tayag's book, "Food Tour," I couldn't help laughing out loud, to the extent that my daughter, who was using my desktop computer a few feet away from where I sat, would give me a look that said, "is he off his rocker?" It would be patronizing to say that the man could write. But I will say it anyway. Claude Tayag, the chef, sculptor and artist can write. And he is very engaging, funny and witty to boot. Many, many years ago, I got into a reading habit because I was very fortunate to begin with the novels of Nobel Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck. I particularly loved his novel, "Cannery Row," which was about a coterie of middle class Americans who lived and worked in the town of Monterey, near Salinas, Steinbecks' birthplace. But what made this novel more unforgettable to me was the fact that the storyline would have passed for a Filipino's own story. John Steinbeck was a down-to-earth kind of novelist and he had a simple, tongue-in-cheek writing style that readers found very engaging. If you had read his memoirs, "Travels with Charley," you would know what I am talking about.

But, let's get back to Claude Tayag and his equally gifted wife, Mary Ann. Claude calls her darleng, and, given the opportunity, as in the article that she wrote in "Food Tour," titled, "She Said, He Said," she held her own versus her husband when she defended the culinary traditions of her side of the family from the ribbing that it got from Claude in his article, "He said, She Said."

The journalistic jousting between husband and wife could be compared to a poetic duel, an ancient Balagtasan tiff, if you will, in which the protagonists brought each other down with words in stead of swords and pistols.

The other thing that enamored me with Claude Tayag's book is that it opened up in me a bulwark of nostalgia, (which I have a lot of) and it tweaked my journalistic fervor to continue writing about food. This blog has been dormant for about two months, and a foodie friend who had encouraged me to write this blog in the first place had chastised me recently for slowing down. Thank you, Claude for your book. It gave me the tap on the wrist that got my creative juices flowing again.

While I was reading the first article in "Food Tour," I was reminded of parallels in Claude and Mary Ann's partnership with my own family. My wife too is a writer, although she never tried writing about food and cooking. She assistant-edited the Life and Style section of the defunct Philippine Daily Express with Tere Orendain, but the closest she got to writing about food was to make the headlines and captions for some of the "packaged" food and cooking feature articles that their section printed weekly. Which reminds me, she caught my attention, when she called me at my office in the public relations office of San Miguel Corporation and asked me for a recipe that used some of the SMC products.

I took that call as an invitation to get to know each other better. During those years (early 80s), I was just one of her many corporate contacts; one of the "glamor boys" of the SMC PR department. I usually came into their office in the Port Area, press releases in hand. After I had paid homage to Pocholo Romualdez, the paper's editor-in-chief, I made a beeline to her desk and handed her a press release. She dutifully printed most of them. We PR writers were careful not to make the press releases blatantly commercial. Back then we called the practice product publicity. In reality, they were designed to sell more San Miguel food products, sans advertising costs.

At any rate, after I sent her the recipe that she requested, I asked her for a dinner date. To my surprise, she took the lead, and we dined at Josephine's Restaurant along Roxas Boulevard. That was the first surprise. The second surprise was that she offered to pay for our dinner. Those were the women's liberation years. I called it beginner's luck. I still remember to this day what we ate at Josephine's: inihaw na baboy (grilled pork) and corn soup and rice.

The first time I visited her at her family's house in Pasay City, she cooked dinner, and one of the entrees she prepared was camaron rebosado. She was unaware that I cooked. She obviously used too many eggs and very little flour in the batter, so it was very thin. The rebosado looked like an omelet because the batter formed around the shrimp in a large thin circle.

The second time I visited, I readily won the approval of her dad when I cooked a fish dinner for the family. I can't recall what particular fish entree I prepared. But his father took the bait, hook line and sinker. He was an avid fisherman and a cook too. I may have impressed him as a rare bird.

Needless to say, that from the time we got married, a little less than one year after we began dating, I assumed the role of the family cook. Having seen her initial attempt at the kitchen (the failed camaron rebosado), I knew that I would be the dominant cook in the family.

In their family yard there is a kamias, a guava, and an alagao tree. But I remembered the alagao, a rare tree (in the city) that sprouts fragrant leaves. My mother used alagao leaves as an ingredient in pinais na pagi (skate) when we were living in Samal, a coastal town in the province of Bataan. I had learned to cook pinais na pagi by watching my mother prepare them when I was a high school student. The public market was a ten- to fifteen-minutes walk from our house, and she would buy the fresh skates, already cleaned, but the liver, which was made into a sawsawan (dipping sauce) with patis, was still in the cavity. But the slimy outer membrane had been scraped off by the tindera.

One day, my girlfriend and I --her name is Tet Santos -- took the jeepney to nearby Baclaran market, where we were lucky to buy a whole skate the size of a bandehado (serving platter). I cooked the pagi, using some fresh leaves of alagao that I plucked from their tree, and that cemented my preferred status in the Santos household. Tet, who is citified, did not eat the pinais na pagi, but her father, an avid fisherman and cook, was quite impressed at my culinary demonstration. (Please search past blogs for my recipe of pinais na pagi).

Unlike Claude and Mary Ann, Tet and I did not duel very much over food and how they are cooked. I pretty much made the cooking and marketing decisions. We both loved to eat the same things: Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese food, especially sashimi, which, when we could not afford the prices in the Japanese restaurants, we would buy one to two-pound chunks of fresh tuna at the Baclaran market; grab a pound of fresh seaweeds for salad, and we would feast on sashimi to our heart's content. Our only luxury were the large bottles of Kikkoman soy sauce that we bought from the Cash and Carry store in Makati.

When we moved to California in early 1986, we readily found the same foods and produce that we used to buy in Manila markets, and in bigger sizes: the largest bangus (milkfish), white shrimp and prawns, even bisugo (golden thread), that I cook into paksiw, with slices of talong (eggplant) and ampalaya (bitter melon). Hasa-hasa (mackerels), pompano, bacoco (goo) and large and small pusit (squid). We moved from cooking camaron rebosado to cooking tempura.

Nothing has changed much since we got married in 1983. I continue to be the cook, and she has stopped cooking camaron rebosado, and most everything else. Except the occasional dessert. She makes an excellent fruit and buco (young conconut) salad.

I do crave feedback. Please e-mail me at if you liked or hated my blog. Thanks. Rene Villaroman