Day 81: Philippines
A desire for loneliness is a strange phenomenon. It can stem from any number of conditions; social discomfort, general mistrust or plain old self loathing. But “alone” is not a terrible thing to be. I’ve wanted it, even craved it ever since I was a kid. You go to functions and immediately realize that you’d rather be at home, by yourself, doing just about anything else. You don’t want to get pulled out of it and think everybody else is an idiot— and in many cases they are. But things can change. The right people, the right setting, the right reason— and you slowly find yourself turning into someone that actually likes company. Not any company, mind you. But you start finding scenarios that you do enjoy and then start trying to surround yourself with the people that make you feel better as opposed to worse. It’s not something that I saw coming, but it’s something that’s managed to happen all by itself anyway. That, for me, has been one of the most dynamic and mindset-altering developments of this entire Personal Food Project in Blog Form. The sense of community that food has created, the number of people that have happily welcomed me into their circles and even become my friends— is staggering. When you enter a place with that sense of community, you can tell right away. It’s comforting. So when Yuri Shimoda, the managing editor of Campus Circle magazine, wanted to do a story on these edible escapades and invited me into her home to cook me Filipino food, I agreed, but didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. It turned out to be one of those gatherings that— regardless of the fact that you’ve never been there before, never eaten the food, and don’t know a single other person involved—makes you feel like you genuinely belong.
I arrive during the late afternoon in a hilly area of Echo Park where hipsters still ride bicycles, have band practice at four in the morning and where race, sex and personal hygiene seem to have very little, if any, social bearing. I find Yuri’s home, which she shares with her son Trey and boyfriend TJ, and walking toward it, with all its windows and doors open, I can already smell something delicious brewing. I step inside to find Trey and TJ playing Guitar Hero while Yuri is in the kitchen with her sister Yoko, entrenched in the birth den of these mouth watering aromas. “Hey, Noah! Great to meet you! Have a beer.” She gives me a sneak peek at the almost finished dishes, as she tells me that she’s read every single post in preparation for the day (a truly daunting feat), and, finding in her research that GFB doesn’t eat beef or pork, even prepared some chicken dishes to accommodate her. sadly, GFB, is unable to join due to work, but the incredible gesture of hospitality is not at all lost on me. More friends come in (bearing a bounty of the Filipino beer, San Miguel) and I’m introduced to Sandra, who sent Yuri the info on Man Bites World in the first place. We all huddle near the kitchen over lumpia Shanghai, the addictive pork spring rolls, fried golden and served with a sweet chili sauce. I consume at least ten, already feeling like I’m relaxing with old friends. Once everyone is assembled and the food is ready, we each grab big serving bowls and walk in a long line up through the back yard to a table set up on what looks like a large wooden stage. “This stage was here when I bought the place,” says TJ, “and I have no idea what it’s for. I need to get rid of it.” But for the moment, it’s perfect for a nice early dinner in late November in Los Angeles, when the air is just starting to get crisp.
Everyone packs in happily, with little mention or care as to why this dinner came about, or who I am. They’re here because of each other, and I get the distinct feeling that even if it weren’t “Philippines Day” for me and my silly world, they’d still be hanging out and having dinner together anyway. “I always cook on Sundays,” says Yuri, and I’d like to think that if I lived down the block, I, or anyone else, would be able to just wander in from the street and feel welcome. An impressive number of big serving bowls are passed around family style as we each start piling food on our plates. Adobo is maybe the most well known dish of the Philippines, and after one bite you know why. Today we’re having chicken leg adobo, which has been braised in garlic, vinegar and soy sauce, and has an uncanny taste of familiarity to it. Pancit bihon, which Yuri called “Filipino chow mein”, is a corn starch based, stir fried noodle dish served with vegetables and tiny slices of sausage.
We eat kare kare, oxtails braised in a spicy peanut sauce (a wonderful combination of fatty proteins), and afritada, the Spanish influenced stewed chicken with bell peppers and potatoes, reminding me of a lot of South American cuisine, which often mixes similar elements. Then there’s a tamarind based soup with whole shrimp, antennae and all, which leads Trey to say “Do they have eyeballs?” I get a few style points for chewing them up head, brain, exoskeleton and all, as Yoko says “I don’t even eat the heads” and I start rambling about how all the flavor is in the brain. But it’s the fruity, sour tamarind that really makes this soup interesting. Tamarind is used primarily in Asia and Latin America, but really finds its way just about everywhere in the world, even as an ingredient in basic Worsesterchire sauce. Everything is spectacular, but like every other white person who eats Filipino food, I keep going back to the adobo, even pouring the braising liquid over my rice and letting it do its thing.
With the sun setting, we head back inside to escape the cold, and Yuri makes me a cup of tea while we start getting ready for dessert. I try hopia, which is a small round pastry made from mung, the small green beans which are used all over Asia (including India, which many people, myself included, sometimes forget is a part of Asia). The hopia are crumbly, buttery, beige and really pleasant, but my favorite desserts of the night are unusually purple and made primarily from ube. Ube is a purple yam and gives both the ube ice cream and ube macapuno cake a distinctively bright and vibrant, deep purple coloration. The cake is rolled up with a whipped cream and bits of macapuno (a Philippine coconut which has no water, but has a gelatinous consistency) inside. Both desserts have a wonderful, earthy flavor which is really unlike any I’ve had before. The ube almost tastes like what would happen if you cross-bred a sweet potato with a blueberry— and is definitely worth trying.
Time has just been flying by, and the three hours I’ve been here feels like forty five minutes. There’s a closeness to this group that, once combined with a plate of wonderful food, starts to seem an awful lot like family. So go to restaurants, cook at home, have a picnic or do whatever it is you and the people around you like doing together. I for one, even after this project is long over, will be throwing a heck of a lot of dinner parties for the great people and friends I’ve collected since this all began. I guess the company of others can be pretty darn nice after all.
Food Breakdown: Beer, tea, 6 dishes, 3 desserts
Distance From My House: 13.1 miles