Carlo Javier // Columnist
“Take me to that special place where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts,” – Anthony Bourdain.
The ambiance is familiar.
Loud motor tricycles, colourful Jeepneys, and rickshaws roam the streets with little regard for pedestrians. Chinese-inspired red lanterns adorn shop ceilings, and vendors with fresh produce and onsite mobile kitchens populate the streets and alleyways.
This is Binondo, an area of Manila, Philippines that Spanish colonizers established in 1594 as settlement for Chinese migrants who had converted to Catholicism. Today, Binondo still stands as the world’s oldest Chinatown. Many of the vendors sell deep fried squid balls. Some sell local delicacies like battered quail eggs, grilled pork and chicken intestines, or betamax–grilled coagulated pork blood. Some sell taho, a sweet tofu pudding mixed with tapioca pearls that many Filipinos eat with breakfast.
There’s Ivan, a tour guide wearing a simple tee-shirt with the word “Adobo” printed square across his chest. He’s quite tall for a Filipino, but Anthony Bourdain’s lanky 6 foot 4 frame comfortably towers over him. Bourdain’s vibrant floral shirt would make him stand out in almost any environment, but he doesn’t need aid to draw attention to himself amid the bustling crowd of a busy Philippine city.
For the uninitiated, Bourdain is somewhat of a culinary demigod. One whose legacy easily exceeds most household celebrity chefs. If only because, for Bourdain, food was never really just food. As many read in his best-selling books or saw from his television shows like A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, or Parts Unknown, for Bourdain, food was life.
I spent my own childhood just hours away from historic Binondo. Seeing it through a YouTube copy of the No Reservations episode doesn’t spark much recollection from my nascent days. Instead, the wave of nostalgia brings back fragmented memories from my teenage years when I first began to cook, and the first time I watched Bourdain visit the Philippines.
In retrospect, initializing his inaugural Philippine adventure in Chinatown may seem misguided, but by the end of the near hour-long episode, Bourdain had made his way to Pampanga and even further south to Cebu. He had tried and devoured Filipino classics like Adobo, Sinigang, and Sisig. Sometime later, he would even proclaim the Filipino Lechon to be the best pig roast he’d ever had.
I started cooking a little over 10 years ago. I was in my Grade 7 Home Economics class and the teacher made us fry eggs. I did it well and from there, I very slowly and steadily made my way around the kitchen. I started with breakfast; frying eggs, sausages and bacon seemed intuitive. Eventually, I started making sinangag–a Filipino dish of garlic fried rice. It was a simple enough recipe that involved day-old cooked white rice, several cloves of garlic, salt, pepper and some oil. I was proud of my fried rice.
YouTube changed culinary education with its mass production of cooking tutorials. I learned how to roast and carve a whole bird, how to pan sear any cut of steak to perfection, how to make different varieties of mac and cheese, and even build and cook a complex beef wellington. It might be insulting to the millions of people who learn to cook in culinary schools, but I really did learn how to cook, and cook well, from YouTube.
Then I saw that No Reservations episode set in the Philippines and I realized a fatal flaw with my kitchen adventures: outside of my fried rice, I only knew how to cook western cuisine.
It seems ironic that a white American man with a French last name would be the indirect motivation for a Filipino like me to learn and connect with my own culture’s cuisine. I’ve been eating Filipino food my entire life, but it wasn’t until No Reservations that I consciously decided to learn not just the methods, but also the stories behind each dish, the meaning behind why something is what it is.
Take for example the sisig. Arguably the most beloved dish across the Filipino Diaspora, sisig is simply chopped parts of a pig’s head–jowl, ears, cheeks–mixed with onions, chili peppers, and lemons. It’s often served hot on a sizzling plate, alongside alcohol. But behind the dish is a story of colonialism and about making the most out of what was given. It is commonly accepted that sisig was born after American soldiers either sold, or gave away unwanted pig heads to locals, taking the conventional cuts of pork back to the army bases. Having only the heads to work with, Lucia Cunanan, a local restaurateur made the most out of what they had.
Every day, a colleague of mine eats the same cauliflower rice and baked salmon dish for lunch and/or dinner. It’s a seemingly monotonous repetition that I’ve grown to admire. As someone who prefers the luxury of variety, seeing another person maintain an incredible level of dedication to a strict diet can be a source of both confusion and inspiration.
One day, I asked this colleague how they did it. How do they manage to eat the same thing, multiple times a day, every day? Their answer was so simple, but baffling all the same: “It’s just calories, man.”
Food isn’t political, it shouldn’t be, but as much as food may be full of precise quantities of nutrients and calories that we like to count, food is also filled with meaning.
In another episode of No Reservations, Bourdain visits Kerala, India and interviews Mammootty, a Malayalam movie star. The two meet at the set of Mammootty’s film, Pokkiri Raja, where they congregate in the compact, yet cozy space of the movie star’s trailer. As their meal is served, the two partake in a quick, but profound exchange that still resonates with me to this day:
“You need a spoon?” Mammootty asked his guest.
“How are you doing it?” Bourdain replied.
“I use my hand.”
“Then I will also. I’m learning, I’m not so good, but I’m learning.”
It is the very thesis of the Bourdain experience, and a simple, yet powerful reminder about the meaning behind the meals we often take for granted.
Food is both the gateway and the gatekeeper. It is the most universal of all universal languages and much of the values and virtues we uphold as people can really be applied to the principles and philosophies of cooking. With this column, I hope to share the little life lessons I’ve picked up while finding my way in the kitchen.