Japanese night

It was Thursday night. Straight from a make-up class and student consultations, I passed by my place to change my jeans to a comfortable pair of shorts and hopped on a bus to Ayala. We met in front of Smart, and took a bus to Glorietta to get the camera we bought online. Thinking we still had time, I offered to cook dinner and so we went straight to SM Makati and bought ingredients for our Japanese-themed dinner.

We cooked mushrooms and noodles.

Ingredients:

1 cup of any edible mushrooms, 3 cloves garlic, 1 medium-sized onion, butter or olive, 2 small tomatoes, 8 squid balls, 5 crab sticks (optional), 2 cups water, 100 g vermicelli, pepper, salt.

Saute garlic in butter or olive until slightly browned. Add coarsely chopped onion and tomatoes. Put in squid balls and mushroom and stir until cooked. Add water and let simmer for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add vermicelli and crab sticks. Cover and remove from heat.

And experimented with California Maki/Sushi which did not turn out as planned–a mouthful was redefined to mean a little bit smaller than a good-sized fist.

But generally, it was too easy to make, anyone who has an imagination, regardless the lack of richness, would know how to make it without me having to write down the recipe here.

Dinner for one

After I said good-bye to two of my students who did their final presentations this afternoon, I left consultation room number eight of the English Department feeling and relishing that freedom. I am at last unbounded by deadlines, deliverable, and to-dos. The sunset was strikingly beautiful and the leaves of eucalyptus trees along the path to Leong Hall were very graceful as they swayed with the cool late afternoon wind. I walked with insouciance, unhurried for the first time in ten months.

From Katipunan, I made an unplanned trip to the grocery for dinner. I bought a kilo of fresh salmon belly, some greens, and fresh spices. I waited for Babe’s text, but it seemed that the SMS wasn’t anymore coming so I went on with my plan and cooked dinner for one at eight.

I am considerably adept now in the kitchen, able to move around quickly minus the spills, burns, and splatters, unlike before when I would take out all the content of the fridge and the cupboard before I can produce a turd-looking, mangled sunny-side-up egg. Since I bought my pans and cooking utensils, I make sure I cook daily. I’ve been doing this for almost two weeks now.

The evil of fast food has never been more emphatically pilloried as when I compare it to my cooking. (I am not in any way trying to imply that I am excellent at it. No one, though, has expressed abhorrence to my cooking yet. My brother enjoys free meals and has not said any word about it.)

In a matter of 30 minutes, or less, I came up with salmon cooked in butter and a lot of garlic and a gorgeous-looking salad in olive and toasted basil dressing.

I have gotten so used to always having dinner with somebody that I thought I already forgot how it feels to dine alone. But like anything that we have grown up having and eventually ‘losing’, we still often catch ourselves surprised whenever we find out that there are things that tenaciously glued themselves to us, things we can never fully let go of or live without even though we thought all along that they’ve been long gone, deserted us for forever.

For how can a man so used to solitude all of a sudden declare his inability to have dinner by himself?

I must have gotten scared of being alone again, thinking it was impossible to revert to those dinners where I faced a blank wall while eating my plate of unpalatable unknowns, being seated next to a stranger while I was toying an overdone beef with my fork, or unsuccessfully keeping myself from hearing garrulous undergrads while I force-fed myself with pork swimming in its despicable grease.

It’s impossible to tell whether this is mere routine or a vestige of some pre-human instinct biologically wired in us through evolution. This recently learned (conditioned) desire to eat with somebody felt oddly good, not better than eating alone, though, as they each exists on different planes of pleasure.

While I was having dinner this evening, I knew I was my old self again–enjoying a simple meal, but this time I cooked the dinner myself, not feeling any remorse, as I should have been spending this time with somebody too special I’d ask a random customer questions as unimaginable as ‘Is salmon better than cream dory?‘.

To some, loneliness means eating alone. If I were younger, if it were three years ago, then I would agree with them. But I guess, years of living alone and spending countless dinners with so many somebodies and even more dinners by myself taught me that however you look at it, a good dinner is a good dinner regardless of whom you’re eating it with, or whether you’re having it quietly in a room where the only sound you hear is the sound created by your tongue smacking your upper palate as you masticate that delicate pink salmon or with somebody while whispering sweet nothings to each other.

And of course, how can I forget, a good meal is never complete without a nice cup of tea after.

Cooking curries

There is something about cooking for you that brings me to levels of spirituality beyond my human faculty’s capacity to comprehend. And only through writing about this beautiful experience am I able to at least grasp it in my hands, delicately clasp it, only to escape the moment I thought, at last, I have fully understood it.

We’ve traveled the world through our Friday night’s experiments, and along the way we’ve discovered things about each other that are as amusing as the different fusions of flavors we concoct, as interesting as the texture we produce, and as colorful as the polychromatic ingredients we use in our every recipe.

Such as last Friday night’s Indian Curry:

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
  • 1/2 teaspoon white sugar
  • salt to taste
  • 2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves – cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 3/4 cup coconut milk
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Saute onion until lightly browned. Stir in garlic, curry powder, cinnamon, paprika, bay leaf, ginger, sugar and salt. Continue stirring for 2 minutes. Add chicken pieces, tomato paste, yogurt, and coconut milk. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.
  2. Remove bay leaf, and stir in lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Simmer 5 more minutes.

While sauteing garlic, onions and grated ginger for the Curry, I would randomly glanced at the mirror and see you looking at the dancing minced bulbs in hot oil as I flipped them briskly, doing my best to keep the garlic from turning brown and bitter. Because of that look of glowing curiosity from your eyes, I had to make sure I handled the spatula like an expert chef, with calculated spontaneity, lest you’d think your boyfriend is a novice in the realm of the kitchen.

And it was obvious I am. Only that I am learning each time, committing fewer mistakes, relying more on my instinct, and getting helpful cues from your every reaction.

Then I added the other-worldly smelling curry powder, aromatic cinnamon, and paprika (the stress, I stood corrected by you, should be in the second syllable). You ran to open the door and windows. The smell of the spices drenched in olive oil was arresting; the paste was scary. The entire room “smelled like  KL,” I said. “Not India?” You asked. “No, I’ve never been there, I wouldn’t know,” I answered.

And I wanted to go visit it someday, to get lost in Calcutta, Delhi, and Agra, with you.

I dunked in a bowlful of haphazardly cut up chicken breasts, poured in the coconut milk you extracted, and added in plain yogurt. The salt was to your taste.

But you complained it was a bit too salty. As I added a pinch while you excused yourself to smoke in the bathroom.

The brown rice wasn’t too bad, but needed a little water to allow it to swell a bit.

We served our Curries (chicken and potato) with chilled sweet white wine, which was perfect. But I insisted on drinking a bottle San Miguel’s Cerveza Negra made from roasted malt which was a more perfect partner to our Indian Chicken Curry.

And the simple meal and the evening was over.

But the memories of the experience shall remain here. For good.

How to cook nem rán (Vietnamese spring rolls)

I can eat nem rán (pronounced /nem zan/) at breakfast, lunch, and dinner straight for one week without ever getting sick of it. This Vietnamese dish, very popular in the entire of Vietnam, is best eaten with Nước mắm, a special sauce which can be bought in any big grocery in Manila.

Last night, after a long day at work, and after having made a promise to cook this dish to somebody very dear to me, I and this person very dear to me cooked our version of this quintessential Vietnamese dish. I passed by SM Makati after my work at AIM to hurriedly buy the ingredients. I already had a Plan B, that is, to cook a simple pasta dish in case majority of the ingredients are not found, but I did find almost everything, except for Nước mắm, which, if my understanding is correct, is the Viets’ version of patis or fish sauce.

I also found rice plates which were excessively thick and brittle for the nem rán I had in mind. Good thing, this person very dear to me suggested to dip the plates in water before rolling them with the filling inside. The idea worked.

Here’s how we made our nem rán (actual picture posted above):

Ingredients (as any decent recipe will commence with this boring one-word cliche):

1/2 kg ground pork (I used the one with lots of fats, which is several pesos cheaper than the leaner one, but many times tastier, if not deadlier)

1/4 kg shrimp, diced (no need to buy big, expensive tiger prawns)

1 cup bean sprout (the shorter the stems the better as longer stems mean bitter-tasting sprouts)

75 g vermicelli (this is the transparent rice noodle Filipinos call sotanghon)

1 big carrot, diced finely

1 cup mushrooms (or any type of edible [yes, many are inedible e.g. fungi that cause athlete’s foot {lame attempt at humor}] fungus)

1 big egg (this will serve as binder; although the temptation to use many eggs is strong, resist, as you’ll end up having an omelet instead of austere spring rolls)

2 tbsp  Nước mắm (patis will do)

salt, pepper, and sugar (to taste)

Maggi magic sarap (this is my super-duper secret ingredient)

20 rice plates cut in half

Procedure

1. Combine all the ingredients together, except the rice plates, in one bowl and mix them well. (The picture that follows may look gross but this is the cheapest and the best, if not the only, way the ingredients can be integrated into a fine mixture, without the cooking falling into the danger of becoming grossly pretentious.)

2. Wrap a spoonful of the mixture with the rice plate. (This may sound deceptively easy, but as we both found out, this is the most challenging phase of the procedure. We have much to learn in the area of quality control.)

3. Deep fry for 4-5 minutes or until brown. You may have to make holes in the casing using a fork to allow steam to escape.

4. Serve hot. Makes 40 nem.

It is best to use Nước mắm pha or an odd admixture of nước mắm, sugar, lime, and salt. Now if you do not want to bother yourself with concocting this sauce, your good, dependable ketchup will do just fine.

Nem is best eaten with sticky rice and outrageously cold beer. And love, lots of it.

In all fairness, our nem tasted…nice*.

*(My apologies for the use of the very erudite ellipsis).