I am not a cook. I was forced to learn how to cook because I became a grad student abroad. And when you are a grad student abroad, especially in a university where there are only a few grad students from your country, you are somehow hunted down and asked to represent your country, forced to bring something from your country, particularly food, to a party, to an international festival, or to a picnic. That … and to dance. The bamboo stick dance if possible.
So back in the early eighties when I became a grad student in New Zealand, I also became one of the four Filipino grad students at Massey University who were always invited to showcase the Philippines, a relatively unknown country for Kiwis at that time. And since I was the only male Filipino student at that time, I was always dancing the tinikling, the jotabal, the la jota … or whatever dance we would learn for show.
But it was cooking Filipino food that became a big challenge for me, especially recreating the taste that you remembered in your tongue. Sure I was able to boil an egg, or even cook rice, but to cook some other Filipino dish … I had to learn. There was no Internet then, you can’t just email someone in the Philippines to send you a recipe. (Calling was out of the question, I was a poor student then, New Zealand didn’t give much luxury to its guest students.) Adobo was easy, but pancit was difficult, you need to make sure that you add the ingredients in proper order. I eventually found a Filipino recipe book (Pat Dayrit’s I think) that became my bible. I even learned how to cook siopao from scratch.
Cooking even became a source of pride when I moved to a flat with several other Asians (from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia). They were great cooks. We took turns feeding each other … and everyday became a feast. The Malay Malaysians especially were incredible – they made their own curries and sauces from exotic ingredients that their mothers sent. I learned a lot of great recipes from them although only two stuck with me – the Indonesian beef rendang and a good method of cooking beef and broccolli from my Chinese Hong Kong flatmate without the broccolli turning soggy.
I always dreaded it when it became my turn because I had to dig down deep to the recesses of my mind to present a most authentic Filipino dish to serve to them. I got to be creative especially when substituting Asian ingredients that just cannot be found in 1980s New Zealand. Toward the end of my first year though, I discovered a Chinese store that carried a lot of Asian stuff, it was incredible. In the middle of Palmerston North! And later on, once in a while, a key Filipino ingredient (like patis) would appear in the grocery store. Strange.
Five years later, I had to relive this grad student experience all over again when I became a grad student (again) in Illinois. But this time, I was ready. I knew the basics and there were resources available at my disposal – at least three Asian stores were in Urbana-Champaign at that time – where I can purchase ingredients that I needed (and they ordered for you if they didn’t carry a particular item). And Chicago was just a bus ride – a long bus ride – away but it was there. Indianapolis was even only 45 minutes away. They had several Filipino stores there too.
Now, if only I could have stopped the invitations to dance the tinikling.