Words Alex Arellano and Friends
A friend asked me how to cook your standard, everyday Pinoy sopas—creamy chicken soup with noodles. I texted him the ingredients and took him through the steps. About an hour later, he called me while he was having the soup. “It’s good. And I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, and I could be wrong, but I think it’s missing something.”
I reviewed the steps with him.
“Did you sauté the onions until wilted and then throw in the garlic?”
“Add the chicken strips and sauté until cooked?”
“Hahahahaha. The milk’s right in front of me on the table. Thanks for the reminder! What’d I do without you?”
– Louie Aquino
We decided to go potluck one day at the office. My repertoire of dishes was very limited at the time, so I called my mom and asked her how to cook afritada and its first cousins menudo and mechado. I didn’t set out to try and make all 3 for the potluck but it kind of ended up that way. As my office mates were digging in, they started asking me,
“Is this mechado?”
“Is it menudo?”
I smiled and answered with a level of confidence inversely proportional to my kitchen expertise, “Today’s your lucky day. You’re getting three main courses for the price of one.” I decided to master those three dishes (along with other Filipino standards) and when I serve afritada these days, people don’t ask me if it’s mechado or menudo.
– Gigi Villanueva Espayos
Too much of a good thing, Part I
I love sesame oil. So, I thought, if it’s great as a dip (with finely minced garlic) and excellent when you add it to chop suey, gyoza sauce, or steamed fish, why not use it for deep-frying chicken?
Not a good idea. It was expensive. And the chicken came out bitter, it was inedible.
– Jello Tan-Goloy
Super-hot Pyrex dish + damp towel = a terrible idea
I wanted to make leche flan for my kids. I didn’t have a llanera (a tin mold), so I decided to use my mom’s Pyrex dish. I caramelized the sugar in it. I placed a hand towel on the table (I intended to use it as a trivet), not knowing that my mom had used that towel to wipe away some cola she’d spilled earlier. When I placed the very hot dish on the towel…
The good news: not a single scratch from the flying glass shards. The bad news: second-degree burns from the molten caramel that found its way to two of my fingers.
– Louie Aquino
The first time I tried to cook buchi (sesame balls), they came out as tough as ping-pong balls. They rolled on the table and down onto the floor. One of my waiters accidentally sat on one and when he got up, the buchi was intact.
– Mona Alvendia
Too much of a good thing, Part II
I attempted to make homemade pizza. So, what to put on the dough for a luxe taste and look? Methinks “Why not blue cheese?” It’s expensive, it must be good. So, I smothered the pizza dough with blue cheese and for good measure, more blue cheese.
I can still remember the horrible smell. To call it off-putting is like saying Imelda Marcos is a tad batty.
– Jello Tan-Goloy
The first dish I attempted to cook was adobo. I didn’t read the cookbook instructions carefully and put in too much water, so I had an absurdly soupy adobo. Then I remembered something I’d seen on a cooking show. Reduce the sauce! Yes, reduce the sauce.
After boiling the adobo for about two hours, success! The sauce had gotten thicker. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to remove the chicken and pork from the pot while reducing. So, they weren’t just falling-off-the-bone tender, they were disintegrating. It would have been the perfect adobo if I was tube-feeding someone.
I didn’t want to throw away food, so I tried to eat it but after two attempts, I consigned my first adobo to the cats in the driveway.
– Alex Arellano
Cornstarch to the rescue!
I tried to fix a watery adobo by using cornstarch to thicken the sauce. Result—a very gooey adobo. Of course, that was the day my hubby’s cousins decided to visit us unannounced—they’d driven all the way from Quezon City to our place in Las Piñas. My fears about my gooey adobo were compounded by the fact that my husband’s cousins came from a Kapampangan family known for their kitchen skills.
That day, as they politely downed my adobo, I discovered they were also very kind people.
– Cristina Goyena
Blaze of Glory
This happened in the early 80s. My dad asked me to do a very simple, easy task: after x-minutes, turn off the oven and take out a whole bone-in leg of authentic Chinese ham he’d been simmering and fussing over for several hours. Let’s up the stakes some more: it was a ham he’d lovingly and carefully packed in his suitcase, a ham he hand-carried and brought home from Hong Kong.
Believing his precious ham was in capable hands—I loved good food as much as my dad—he went off to take a siesta and dream of nibbling on perfectly cooked Chinese ham for merienda. As soon as my dad left the kitchen, my boyfriend called me from Australia. This was the Jurassic era before mobile phones. Overseas calls were expensive, so I ran upstairs to take the call in my room since I really had nothing to do EXCEPT TAKE THE HAM OUT OF THE OVEN.
Because love makes people do silly things, naturally, I forgot about the ham.
I was jolted back to reality about an hour later when I heard my dad shouting. That’s when I noticed the burning smell. I banged down the phone and rushed to the kitchen to see the oven door open, flames shooting out, close to touching the ceiling. I have no idea or recollection of how my dad put out the fire—I was in a guilt-ridden daze. To make matters worse, my dad didn’t get mad at me or give me a lengthy YOU-HAD-ONE-JOB!!! lecture. But his disappointment came through loud and clear as I saw him trying to salvage a few slivers of ham from the smoldering disaster I’d caused. If he’d made me eat the charcoaled ham as my penance, I would’ve without hesitation, and with a healthy helping of over-the-top Kris-Aquino-level food commercial acting.
– Gina B. Pertierra
The pan that loved eggs
I’d just moved into an apartment. I couldn’t afford a Teflon pan, so I made do with a cheap pan whose metal was of unknown provenance, a pan I’d borrowed from (and never returned to) my mother. It did a serviceable job when frying meatloaf, bacon, hot dogs, and corned beef—all the key food groups of single guys living on their own. But I could never get a good-looking fried egg out of it. Whenever I tried to ladle out a fried egg, the pan seemed to hold on to the egg and it would tear, and I’d have half of the fried egg on my plate and half an egg in the pan.
One day, I had what I thought was the most brilliant idea of 1988 in the art of cooking—why not put the ladle in the pan and then put the egg on the ladle? The egg never got stuck to the ladle and always slid off effortlessly.
I quickly learned how dumb my idea was when I saw the egg seeping through the slots in the ladle and starting to set and stick to the pan. When the egg was done and I lifted the ladle, I had fried egg strips on the ladle and egg strips stuck to the pan.
I gave up on frying eggs at home for a few months. When December came and I got my bonus, the first thing I bought was a Teflon pan.
– Alex Arellano
Ma, ma, ma, my tinola
I had all the ingredients except for the green papaya. I ordered one from an online grocery app, but they delivered a very ripe, very yellow/orange papaya. I hesitated for a moment and then decided to push through, thinking “Eh, what’s the worst that could happen?”
After a few spoonfuls of my bright yellow-orange tinola, my husband, a man who believes in looking at the bright side of life, said, “This is a great idea if you’re swamped with work, and you need to speed-eat. You get a main course and dessert in every bite!”
– Jello Tan Goloy
A whole new boilgame
Twenty years of living in the USA haven’t changed my love for rice. Just as the French must have their baguettes and Italians must have their pasta, my stomach, my soul, and my Pinoy DNA scream that I must have rice. I can’t go two days straight without it.
Craving rice is one thing. Preparing it is a different boilgame. It continues to be a mystery to me how bigas turns into kanin. To complicate things further, my husband and I have irreconcilable differences on how we want our rice. He likes his soft and yielding, the kind you can mash with your fingers into a ball, but never soupy, oh no! He’s crystal clear about that: he doesn’t like lugao.
I like mine firm, buhaghag as my Tagalog ancestors say, grains almost tinkling on the plate. No matter how much I love the entree I have with my rice, if it’s mushy, I’m unhappy. Of course, I’ll eat anything in other people’s homes—soft, firm, brown, purple, yellow, black—I don’t expect others to cater to my taste in rice.
To solve the firm-versus-soft issue at home, we have his-and-her rice cookers. I cook Milagrosa, Calrose, or Jasmine, or any of the usual grains that cook soft for my husband. For me, it’s always Basmati.
During our first years in America, I committed countless hate crimes against rice, to use the words of comedian Nigel Ng. I made rice that ranged from semi-puto to congee-like (too much water) and pseudo-rice-crispies to “al dente” (not enough water) before I was able to consistently cook rice I could put on our dining table.
– Lucy Bigornia
The plan: Yang Chow fried rice. The result: machang.
Mistake number 1: I didn’t do my homework and didn’t read the recipe the day before I was going to make fried rice. Which led to mistake number 2: I didn’t have day-old rice. But that didn’t deter me as I went for the hat trick and made mistake number 3: I put too much water in my rice.
My mutant rice creation had the consistency of machang but with fried rice ingredients like scrambled egg, peas, onions, sliced Chinese sausage, and shrimps.
– Alex Arellano •
Louie Aquino is a freelance video director/creative director who lives in Las Piñas. Jello Tan Goloy is a marketing and advertising consultant from Mandaluyong. Lucy Bigornia is the author of Now The Bed’s All Mine and is a resident of Desert Hot Springs, California. Gigi Villanueva-Espayos of Calgary, Alberta, is a records supervisor and a former video production manager. Gina Pertierra is a businesswoman from San Juan City. Cristina Goyena is a retired marketing executive of the San Miguel Corporation. Mona Alvendia was a PETA actress and operates a small business in Morong, Rizal. Alex Arellano is a freelance writer and lives in Pasig City.