Kain Ka, Kain Tayo! In other words, ‘Let’s eat!’

Finding common ground in the Filipino kitchen.

10 mins read

A Professional Lola is the title of author E.P. Tuazon’s newest collection of short stories, published earlier in May by Pasadena’s Red Hen Press. The title story opens with the author’s mother preparing manok (chicken thighs) for a party.

Tuazon writes, “Even when they came pumped with antibiotics, sterilized twice, prepackaged and freezer-burned here in the States, manok didn’t taste safe to her until it was lemon-drenched and salted clean.”

A few paragraphs further in, the author recounts the eulogy he gave at his Lola (grandmother)’s funeral: “I ended it with the first time she taught me how to eat with my hands. Seven-year-old me seeing her eating her meryenda of salted shrimp, fermented egg, tomato, and rice and asking her for some.  Our kind, wonderful Lola Basilia scooped a little bit of everything and held it out for me with her bare hands. I took it like someone accepting a love letter of twenty dollars to go to the movies. What was dripping from our fingers was her heart.”

A person standing in front of a store
Author E.P. Tuazon’s new collection of short stories, “A Professional Lola,” fuses family history, humor, and the pleasures of Filipino food. Photo: E.P. Tuazon

“A Professional Lola,” thirteen short stories about the Filipino experience through the author’s eyes, is bursting with lasa (flavor). We sip black stewed pig’s blood; we pick bits of crispy salty skin, salty skin like potato chips from the back of a lechon (whole roasted pig), conjure spells with witches using spider eyes that are indistinguishable from ground pepper, snack on cornick (deep-fried crunchy puffed corn snack) and butong pakwan (roasted watermelon seeds), and are wooed with an unexpected love-gift consisting of cans of coconut milk, premade purple balls of mochiko (sweet rice flour), and a bag of uncooked, rainbow-colored tapioca. 

Throughout the pages, Tuazon tethers even the most surreal moments with the forgiving earthiness of Filipino food. He’s first generation, the son of parents who arrived in the USA from the Philippines in the 1970s. And although the Lakers-fan author grew up in Eagle Rock, his lilting speech pattern and easy command of Tagalog underscore the experience among Filipinos of “…the importance of not sounding like you came from anywhere in a country where everyone was from everywhere.”

On May 15, the Feast of Saint Isidore the Laborer / Farmer, we had the good fortune to simultaneously Zoom not only with E.P. Tuazon but also with celebrity Chef Marvin Aritrango, who was born and raised in Manila and now lives in Pasadena. The latter is a glamorous gadfly with Michelin stars who’s frequently spotted on the red carpet.

A person standing on a stage
Chef Marvin Aritrangco dressed to thrill on the red carpet. Photo: Marvin Aritrangco

For instance, recently, at the first-ever Manila International Film Festival, Chef Marvin sported a Piña Barong Tagalog, a luxurious, traditional garment hand-woven from silk and pineapple leaf fiber created by Hollywood’s King of Barong. Aritrango accessorized with Louboutin shoes, a custom-made minaudière by @neilfelipp, who designed similar items for the film “Crazy Rich Asians,” and ropes of flawless, gumball-sized baroque South Seas pearls. In addition to Chef duties at the Hotel Bel-Air, he also directs a corporate catering team in Santa Monica.

He’s also known as California’s Singing Chef, and possesses a pop icon’s romantic tenor with a high falsetto range. “I like to sing love songs and ballads,” he says.

E.P. Tuazon rocks a more laid-back vibe.

The date is auspicious across the Roman Catholic world especially where agriculture is a primary employment. In these settings, Saint Isidore is credited with miracles and is often depicted plowing his fields with a sweat-busting angel on either side of his ox (or a carabao, water buffalo, in the Philippines), honoring the dignity of physical work.

Food, of course, plays into the storytelling. Isidore’s wife Maria always kept a bubbling stew on the fire, especially since Isidore was wont to bring hungry strangers home for dinner. One night, the saint brought in a larger crowd than usual, and Maria was exasperated as she scraped the pot clean. She complained to her husband, who suggested that she check the pot again, and, lo and behold, the pot was full to the brim of savory, warm stew – perhaps a caldereta, which in the Philippines may be made with carabao instead of beef. 

And this observance gives rise to the Pahiyas Festival when households are decorated with kiping, floral wall decorations made from brilliantly dyed rice wafers.

a display of foods
The traditional May 15 Pahiyas Festival celebrates Saint Isidore and abundant harvest. Photo: Marvin Aritrangco

Asked about early childhood favorites, the conversation quickly took flight with lots of giggles and recipe-swapping, proving that food memories are indeed a powerful language, especially for people of a cultural diaspora.

A little boy that is sitting in the grass
Author E.P. Tuazon as a child in Eagle Rock, savoring family recipes as a love language. Photo: E.P. Tuazon

Tuazon: “I have a lot of favorites, but my favorite favorite is my parents’ Beef Caldereta. They don’t do anything too crazy to it. It’s got your usual beef, potatoes, red bell pepper, beef broth, olives, and Mama Sita’s Caldereta Mix. But, growing up, I remember it changing all the time. Before, they used to use liver spread with that deviled meat on it, I think it was the Underwood brand.

Once, my dad had the idea of marinating the beef cubes in pineapple and putting the pineapple in it, worst idea ever. Whenever they wanted to get fancy with it, they just exchanged the beef with freshly slaughtered goat. When I was a kid, whenever there was a party at the house, my parents always slaughtered a goat in the backyard. The worst part about it was my window opened up right to it. Ask me how I know a goat screams like a human being.” 

A child looking at the camera
Chef Marvin Aritrangco, here as a toddler, grew up in Manila. Family trips to the Quezon Province sparked his interest in traditional foods. Photo: Marvin Aritrangco

Aritrangco (laughing): “When I was a little boy growing up in Manila, all of the other kids were really more Americanized, you know? They would have a Spam sandwich every day for lunch, but my mom would cook up eggs, chicken and leftover pork in a garlicky adobo with a lot of vinegar, and you know, I was so embarrassed by that strong smell around the other kids! But it was so delicious. I also loved our really bright red hot dogs, the Tender Juicy Hotdog we call it, they’re so bright red the dye comes off on your hands! But they’re really good with special banana ketchup!”

His go-to comfort foods today include arroz caldo (rice porridge with chicken wings, seasoned with fish sauce, onion, garlic, ginger, sometimes topped with hard-boiled egg, green onions, lemon wedges), and sinigang na baka (sour tamarind-based soup, with fork-tender beef ribs and crisp veggies). “With rice. When in doubt, eat rice!”

Tuazon: “My parents liked to cook together. They’re cute like that. But growing up with a big family, everyone cooked. Everyone had something. As a kid, I used to stay up all night with my mom and lolas rolling mochiko balls to make Bilo Bilo for a party the next day. One of my aunts has a hopia (bean paste-filled moon cake) recipe she won’t teach anyone else, even her kids! She said she’s taking it to her grave! One of my uncles always brings a portable bar to make his family famous cocktails.”

Both the author and the chef also confess a devotion to Filipino chains Max’s Restaurant for the fried chicken, as well as Jollibee Chicken Restaurant. Aritrangco says, “The secret is to boil the chicken before they fry it. That crispy skin…”

And we three let out a collective sigh.

Asked about American food, Tuazon says: “My parents were always making Filipino food and ‘American food’ was somewhat of a luxury in our home. Lunchables and McDonald’s were expensive. It wasn’t until my parents got a Sam’s Club card that they realized they could save money by buying American food in bulk rather than buying imported groceries from the Filipino market. Now, eating Filipino food feels like the luxury! I eat it every chance I get!”

The author loves to cook and adds, “The dish that I have really made my own, and I wrote about in one of my stories is Bilo-Bilo. It’s basically a dessert stew.  You use coconut milk and sugar as the base and use it to boil hand-rolled mochiko balls, tapioca balls, and fruits like bananas and jackfruit. My version just has the mochiko balls, colorful boba, and ube (the brilliant purple yam of the Philippines). As a kid, I always picked out all the fruit. Actually, I still do that when somebody else makes Bilo-Bilo.”  

Filipino food qualifies as comfort food for its generous use of carbs and fat and its love of sugar. For instance, a goofy kebab popular for children’s birthdays in some Filipino communities crowns a neon-red hot dog with a melty marshmallow, generally explained as a memento of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines from 1898 until 1946. Other common ingredients, including margarine and canned, sweetened condensed milk, are further reminders of that time. 

Many Filipino food rituals are, in fact, literal rituals.

Today, this dish time-travels into the realm of extreme cuisine because the dog is super-salty, not to mention a color never found in nature, and the Philippines-made marshmallow is even sweeter and gooier than those made in the States, a perfect troika of sodium, red food coloring and refined sugar. Asked if he tries to make dishes that are more compatible with cultivating an eight-pack, Tuazon merrily laughs, “No. Fat is flavor. Fat is life.”

Aritrangco explains that many Filipino food rituals are, in fact, literal rituals. These include minukmok, the preparation and serving of nilupak, a traditional dessert from Quezon Province, where Aritrangco spent much of his childhood.

The dish is symbolic of martial compatibility and figures prominently in the courtship tradition, where the future bride and groom prepare the dish and serve it to their parents, who observe the process. The man uses the pambayo (large wooden mortar and pestle) to mash the starchy cassava, while the woman uses a wooden spoon to blend sugar and condensed milk into the mixture, which also may contain banana, sweet potato, and boiled peanuts. 

If the wooden implements clash, and especially if the wooden spoon breaks, the marriage may be off. Aritrangco slyly adds, “And, since the lady is in charge of the sweetening, she sends her message that way, too.  If the finished nilupak tastes sweet, that’s a good sign. But if it’s bland, she doesn’t really love him.”

A group of people posing for a photo
Aritrangco’s parents follow the tradition of minukmok, preparing nilupak together as a test of their compatibility. Photo: Marvin Aritrangco

Aritrangco adds, “The mixture is typically shaped into small cakes or molded into banana leaves for a traditional touch before serving. Overall, nilupak is a delicious and comforting Filipino delicacy that highlights the natural sweetness of cassava, sweet potatoes, or bananas, combined with the richness of coconut milk and sugar. This a picture of my parents doing the ritual.”

In the Philippines and the Pinoy diaspora – census numbers confirm that Los Angeles County represents the second largest Filipino community in the world, second only to Manila – food is, of course, a vehicle for transmitting culture through a shared domestic activity.

To many non-Filipinos, Filipino food may seem like a giddy, festive, wonderfully wonky and Wonka-ish storybook cuisine, perhaps served on Pleasure Island, where bad boys Pinocchio and Lampwick were sent for their mischief. A paradisaical premise – eating without utensils from a banana leaf – is offset by the fearless use of artificial colors and synthetic, processed ingredients, many imported and adapted from the West. Little to nothing seems forbidden here.

And yet, to both E.P. Tuazon and Marvin Aritrangco, this is not the food of fantasy: it’s the poignant perfume of a life both remembered and forgotten, identity and home.


A person sitting at a table with a plate of food
Chef Marvin Aritrangco loves to dish. Photo: Marvin Aritrangco

Recipes Exclusively for Local News Pasadena Readers

Perfect for summer: Enjoy an easy, vibrant backyard BBQ recipe of tangy pork belly with sweet-sour green papaya from Chef Marvin Aritrangco. 

Filipino Atchara (pickled papaya relish)

Ingredients:

– 2 cups shredded green papaya
– 1 medium carrot, shaved
– 1 red bell pepper, julienned
– 1 small onion, thinly sliced
– 4 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 cup white vinegar
– 1 cup sugar
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
– ½ cup raisins (optional)

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, combine the shredded green papaya, julienned carrot, red bell pepper, sliced onion, and minced garlic.

2. In a saucepan, combine the white vinegar, sugar, salt, and whole peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.

3. Pour the vinegar mixture over the vegetable mixture in the bowl. Let it cool to room temperature.

4. Add the raisins, if using, and mix well to combine.

5. Transfer the atchara to a clean, sterilized jar with a tight-fitting lid.

6. Let the atchara marinate in the refrigerator for at least a day to allow the flavors to meld.

7. Serve the atchara cold as a flavorful and tangy side dish or condiment with your favorite grilled or fried dishes.

A bunch of food sitting on a table
Aritrangco’s dish hits all of the pleasure centers of the brain: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, floral, crunchy, sticky, and creamy in every single bite. Photo: Marvin Aritrangco

Inihaw na Liempo (Grilled Pork Belly)

Ingredients:

– 2 lbs. pork belly, sliced into ½-inch-thick pieces
– ½ cup soy sauce
– ¼ cup vinegar
– ¼ cup Sprite soda
– ¼ cup banana ketchup
– ¼ cup brown sugar
– 4 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 4 pcs. calamansi (This citrus hybrid is beloved in Filipino cuisine as well as the fragrant and elegant cooking of Indonesia, Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra, southern China, and Taiwan. Look for it in Asian markets.)

Directions:

1. In a bowl, combine soy sauce, vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, soda, minced garlic, calamansi, black pepper, salt, and banana ketchup to make the marinade.

2. Place the pork belly slices in a shallow dish or resealable bag and pour the marinade over the meat, ensuring all pieces are coated. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least two hours or overnight for best results.

3. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat.

4. Remove the pork belly from the marinade and grill each piece for about five to seven minutes on each side or until cooked through and charred.

5. While grilling, baste the pork belly with the remaining marinade to keep it moist and flavorful.

6. Once cooked, remove from the grill and let it rest for a few minutes.

7. Serve the grilled pork belly over hot steamed rice, and side with atchara.

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/t9r0

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

2 Comments

  1. Incredible article, VT. You captured the ritual and culture of Filipino food so profoundly and succinctly. I grew up with this comfort food and I eat it to this day. You summarized the experience better than anyone (including me.)

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