Things

Some of the clutter in the house

I need to buy new things for the house. I need to buy new curtains, new bed sheets, a large skillet, something (framed art? fabric? decorative mirror?) to cover unsightly patched-on holes on the wall, made when the insulation was replaced a few years ago.

I should’ve bought this hole-covering something when the holes were made and patched. But what happens to me is this: a purchase of any kind brings about full-blown existential drama, with meaning and purpose and identity scrutinized, analyzed, and questioned. Do I really need framed art? If so, what kind? Why this one and not that one? And do I really need new bed sheets? Is it a need or a want? If I just want new bed sheets, why? Shouldn’t I be paring down things in the house instead of adding to them?

Almost always, it is a want instead of a need. We are, after all, using bed sheets – I’m not making my family loll around on naked beds like a pack of wild dogs (which, now that I think about it, suddenly seems appealing). Our sheets, however, have permanent stains, discolorations, and, to my tired eyes, a general look of dullness. They’ve been in regular use for five years, but the sheets are fine and sturdy, with not a single tear or hole or even fraying edge. Still soft and comfortable, they’re insanely good quality sheets – 800-thread-count long-staple Egyptian cotton bought on sale at Macy’s. Even the cheap Martha Stewart sheets I bought from Target, much older at twelve years, are holding up well.

So here’s the dilemma – and it’s a dilemma that I know I’m only able to experience because of my privileges as a member of the middle-class with some disposable income: I don’t like the bed sheets anymore. In Marie Kondo’s celebrated phrase, they don’t “spark joy” and perhaps I should replace them.

But joy, I’m finding out, is a tricky emotion. I have other things similar to the bed sheets – they’re old, shabby, totally un-chic: a pair of sneakers that I’m surprised to realize, when the ground felt harder than usual as I walked, that I’ve been using every single day for six years; a blue down jacket that I’ve been wearing every single day this winter (and the last one, and the winter before the last one); a leather handbag so beaten up that the lining has separated and is now held together with three safety pins, its weathered condition way past the “character” that leather handbags are supposed to acquire and is now merely frayed, grimy, and old.

These things don’t spark joy; most of the time, they don’t even make me feel or look good. I feel, and probably look, disheveled when I use them. Yet they convey meanings and memories to me that seem more important than joy and my bruised vanity: the ongoing project of my life, the places I’ve been to, the young person I used to be, activities with my children when they were younger, this house when we just moved in, the passing of seasons, the worthy attempt to minimize one’s possessions, the Buddhist practice of detachment, a curiosity as to how long exactly (eight years? ten years?) I can keep using these things, a small contribution to preventing the Pacific Ocean garbage patch from growing bigger.

Like most of the privileged middle-class of the world, I have too many things. Full disclosure: I actually have four pairs of sneakers, but two are only used at the gym and one is a pair of canvas ones that I only use in the summer.

Like many, I have anxiety about having too many things and I find myself in a perpetual state of cleaning, purging, organizing. Marie Kondo doesn’t recommend this, proposing instead one marathon phase of discarding old and unloved possessions, after which, ideally, one enjoys the nirvana of a clean, minimalist, and organized house.

But I’m suspicious of such a process and I know it’s not going to work in my house. What seems more doable is dostadning or Swedish death cleaning, the latest decluttering trend. The phrase means what it says: cleaning in preparation for your death. It seems like a morbid version of all the decluttering methods from Martha Stewart to Marie Kondo, but it’s appealing because, in the words of a Swede who was interviewed by The Guardian, “it is very, very rational and unsentimental.” People who have gone through the process – and many people in their thirties and forties have done it: we don’t know when death will come for us, after all – report feelings of freedom and relief.

So I’ve been going through my things and donating or discarding items like unused clothes, old journals, books and art materials. I’m realizing that (despite the four sneakers!) I don’t have a lot of personal possessions.

My house is filled with things, but they’re things that are communal, utilitarian, and used every day by and for the family – pots and pans, tables and chairs, clocks, lamps, towels, and, yes, bed sheets. I have an adequate number of these things, but I’m always tempted to buy more than necessary: there’s always a shiny new thing out there, there’s always a sale, there’s always a want.

And there’s one big category of items that survive every purge of household clutter I’ve done through the years – my kids’ toys. I have a fantasy of creating a sculpture out of them, one of those conceptual art pieces. I will glue them all together – the plastic dinosaurs, the thousands of Lego pieces, rubber balls and plastic balls and magnetic metal balls, pricey battery-operated ones that chime and beep and play music, cheap plastic animals and games, big cars and small cars, board games, rainbow loom bands, plastic dolls and cloth dolls, stuffed animals, and on and on and on.

I will probably never do this sculpture, but the sliver of possibility that I will, when the children have left and I have time on my hands – the nightmarish monstrosity of such a towering heap of plastic, the bittersweet wonder of remembering how small my children were a long time ago – makes me hold on to them.

Our things tell the story of our lives. Our things are that important. On the other hand – please, enough of this – I just want new bed sheets.

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Rappler License Revoked

So now the SEC has revoked Rappler’s license because of Rappler’s alleged violation of the regulations concerning PDRs and ownership of mass media companies. With all the confusion surrounding the issue of what constitutes “foreign” ownership, Oscar Franklin Tan’s essay calling for the use of clearer legal terminology to untangle the issue should be heeded. There’s nothing a macho-man like Duterte hates more than having his Macoy-aping windbag rhetoric, flawed logic, and murderous policies exposed by the knowledgeable, intelligent, and brave women of the dream team running Rappler. This “sorority blog” has far more brains, courage, and integrity than most people, including the Chief Executive of our country. It’s an honor and point of pride for me to have worked with my sisters (and brothers) at Rappler.

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A Day in Granada

A view of the Alhambra from the Albayzín

Two years ago, at around this time of the year, we visited Spain. We spent our first full day in the country in Granada, the famous storied city in the southern province of Andalucía.

And Granada is famous because of the Alhambra, the complex of fortress, gardens, fountains, reflecting pools, and palaces built by the Moorish princes at the height of their power in Andalucía in the Middle Ages.

I have kaleidoscopic images of our visit that afternoon: the tall cypresses forming an allèe towards one of the palaces; the perfect cube and starry domed ceiling of the throne room; the courtyard of the lions, the marble snowy white and the gurgling water of the fountains musical;

Stucco in one of the palace rooms

wall after wall and ceiling after ceiling embellished with exquisitely intricate stucco or mosaic tiles or both, in delicate creamy shades or in vivid blues, reds, and golds; and, before leaving one of the palaces, a shadowed hallway with large windows overlooking the Albayzín, the historic quarter of the town, its whitewashed buildings clinging on the opposite hill, blasted by the afternoon sun.

When evening fell, we exited and walked along a quiet path bordered by the high wall of the fortress. It was a beautiful winter evening, and the sky was a dark sapphire. Street lamps were lit. We exited from that narrow path into another path and, after some more walking, into Plaza Nueva with its midweek crowds, traffic, benches, fountains, and, in front of it, an imposing courthouse.

We found a traditional tapas bar nearby and had braised oxtail, eggplant with tomatoes, an array of different kinds of jamón and chorizo, a carafe of a thick, inky local wine. We left the restaurant in high spirits, adrenalized by the good food, and returned to Plaza Nueva where we found a churrería from which we ordered the last churros they had for the night.

Writing it like this, it seems like a perfect day. It wasn’t, of course. In his book The Course of Love, Alain de Botton says that perfect happiness can only come in five-minute bursts. I’m sure there were moments during the day when one daughter had a cranky outburst, another one whined, my husband annoyed me with some absent-minded comment, and I responded with impatience and lack of grace. But even our imperfections seem fragmented, unimportant that day, included here only to present a more complete, more truthful account. Because if de Botton is correct, then that day in Granada was filled with those elusive five-minute bursts—they’re mostly the only ones I remember.

A view of the Albayzín from the Alhambra

We were in Spain for two weeks and I have many images of beautiful sights and joyful moments, like photographs in my head that I shuffle when I want to remember them: another afternoon in Granada, walking up the Albayzín and stopping at one of the numerous teterías for mint tea and pastries, the divans and pillows, purple silk curtains, and shapely gold-tinged lamps transporting us to Morocco, the tip of Africa so near, a mere bus ride from where we were, yet still a world away; another evening, this time in Córdoba, outside the monumental Mezquita after we had visited it, strolling lazily around and looking at souvenirs in the shops, the peaceful evening punctuated by a distant old-fashioned siren of a police car, so mild and unthreatening, so different from the obnoxious sirens in New York, that we looked at each other in bemusement and wonder; an afternoon visiting the magnificent Seville Cathedral, my memory of the place now a mashup of that happy afternoon and the previous afternoons years ago when I lived in the area as a young adult full of trite, but nevertheless excruciating angst.

And the food in Spain! The callos, cochinillo, jamon serrano, jamon iberico, tortilla española, pimientos de padrón, calamares, and pulpo, all washed down with glasses of tempranillo or manzanilla.

These other memories are, however, snapshots of various days. It’s only that first day in Granada that I have a memory of almost everything we did—where we went and what we had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; the whole afternoon in the Alhambra; the walk back to town; the tapas bar; the last churros of the day. I even remember minor characters in our drama: a middle-aged white American tourist at the entrance to the Alhambra, her face stunned when she learned that all tickets for the day were sold out, that she should have reserved her tickets weeks before visiting; the young woman in a black coat, a resident of the city, upon whom I inflicted my first tentative attempts at speaking Spanish again, after many years of not speaking the language, when I asked for directions to Plaza Nueva; the tall young man standing by himself at the bar and reading a book in the midst of the cacophony of the tapas restaurant, the only other Asian besides us in the place.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, wondered about how we love places but also how places love us back. She says: “And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite. The bigness of the world is redemption.”

The world is vast and there are so many places to explore. But part of me also just wants to go back, again and again, to Spain.

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Christmas Cakes 2017

A delicious sampling of this year’s Christmas cakes from Japan:

This Louange Tokyo bear emerging out of a chimney is on the cover of Daimaru Department Store’s Christmas cake catalogue this year. The bear is made of white chocolate, while the chimney is layered with white chocolate mousse fromage, rosemary-flavored feuille gelée, raspberry cream cheese, pistachio ganache crumble, and biscuit pistachio.

Ezaki Salon Prestige’s fruit cake is in the shape of a teapot with a miniature cup and saucer fashioned out of sugar paste and marzipan paste.

This Rose Madagascar from Gateau des Bois’ chef pâtissier Hayashi Masahiko is jam with framboise spread over Madagascar-sourced chocolate mousse over a chocolate sponge cake sandwiched between rose and framboise gelée and pistachio bavarois. Available from Takashimaya.

Pâtisserie Au Grenier D’Or’s starry cake rests on a sablé base, heaped with layers of  white chocolate, strawberry and blackberry gelée, cheese sablé, and mascarpone, with a final coating of white chocolate glaçage.

From Christophe Adam’s L’Éclair de Génie comes this raspberry-, marshamallow- and white chocolate-topped cake made of ladyfingers, chocolate, Bavarian cream, and strawberry syrup, with a framboise and strawberry confiture.

Star Gate Hotel’s Christmas offering features marron glacé nested in pipings of murasaki-imo or purple sweet potato atop layers of chocolate cream, sliced chestnuts, and chocolate sponge cake. This cake is part of Izumiya Supermarket’s Christmas catalogue.

The eight-fruit tarte from Flo Prestige Paris is composed of slices of mango, peach, mixed berries (strawberry, blueberry, red currant, raspberry), orange, and pink grapefruit, with custard cream and almond pastry. Available from Seven-Eleven.

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A Writing Nook

William Faulkner’s writing desk. Note the can of Scram Dog Repellent next to the Underwood portable typewriter.

For a long time, I dreamed of having a writing nook. Not a room of my own, which I would never have been able to afford anyway, but a nook of my own, a space big enough for a table and chair, preferably next to a bookcase big enough to hold the dictionaries, books, and file folders I needed.

All through high school, I shared a desk with my three sisters in the small bunkbed-lined bedroom we all slept in. The desk, darkwood and glass-topped (with red felt under the glass), was the type commonly seen in offices, and may indeed have come from my parents’ office back when they had one.

We had a time-share system in which one sister studied while the other did chores. Following the practice of our neighbors and friends, we arranged our baby and family photos on the red felt under the glass, only to find that the photos could no longer be peeled off the glass without ruining the pictures.

In college, my parents bought two conjoined bureaux des dames, which sounded a lot fancier than they looked, being constructed entirely out of plywood and fake leather and devoid of marquetry. The good news was that two of us could now use the writing desks at any one time; the bad news was that the other two sisters still had to await their turn between chores.

I wrote my first publishable short story at the age of seventeen on one of the writing desks during my time share, but I never felt that the desk was mine to use, to sit at for hours on end, scribbling away happily. I couldn’t even leave notes and paper on the desk because the sister closest to my age was a stickler for tidiness.

In graduate school, I finally had the chance to work at a desk. The one I liked best belonged to my friend Andrew, who was away doing archival research in Spain and Holland the year that I was writing my dissertation and who lent me his desk, among other things. The desk was huge and gray-black modern, and could accommodate a computer and printer, with room to spare for piles of notes and open books.

My bedroom in the apartment I shared with two other graduate students was my first solo bedroom. It had a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that looked out into a patch of woods, green in the summer, brown and white in the winter. But I remember very little of the time spent writing in such a nice room. Finishing the doctoral program was the imperative, and slogging through tons of readings and papers and a dissertation on a series of deadlines was not my idea of fun. By then, writing (and even reading novels) had already begun to feel more like a chore than a vocation.

Once in a while, I wrote short stories, but they were written largely during the odd break between hours and hours spent spewing out academese that even then I was already starting to hate. These bouts of fiction-writing were intense, invariably brief, and as the academic-writing period became more and more protracted, particularly after I started working in the university, the urge to write fiction flickered, grew fainter. There was a six-year stretch during which I wasn’t able to write any fiction, and I despaired of the thought that the trickle from the faucet had been shut off completely.

Instead, I trawled the internet for pictures of writers’ rooms, fantasized about the perfect writing nook. I envied Charles Dickens his book-lined Victorian study, majestic rosewood desk, and windows that afforded him a vista of trees and rolling hills; dreamed of the white-frame windows next to Hilary Mantel’s desk that showed the straight line at which the blue of the sky became the blue of the sea; and imagined myself seated at Virginia Woolf’s plain wooden desk, grain visible, in the middle of a room in a rustic cottage, mere steps away from the door that led to a green field.

Jane Austen’s writing table

But the pictures I was most drawn to were those of Jane Austen and her tiny table, fit only for an ink pot and sheet or two of paper, and Roald Dahl and his brown wing armchair, the scroll arms of which held up the writing board on which he composed his slyly subversive stories for children.

In Austen’s Persuasion, the protagonist Anne Elliott speaks of women living “at home, quiet, confined,” and it was a source of wonder for me that Austen could delve with grace and precision into the lives of these women on the twelve-sided table she worked at next to the window that opened out onto the outside world. As for Dahl, cramming himself and his writing ledger into the cushiony depth of an armchair was exactly what I thought someone like him would favor over a standard desk.

William Faulkner’s desk wasn’t big, either. A gift from his mother, the table held a lamp and an Underwood typewriter and whatever book he needed at hand, plus a can of Scram Dog Repellent that Faulkner used to drive dogs away from his climbing rose bushes. Faulkner taped the outlines for the chapters of his books onto the walls of his back office. Faulkner modestly called his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi his “little postage stamp of native soil,” and created a map of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County–a little postage stamp that delivered such a capacious, expansive understanding of the world.

Kerima Polotan memorably painted a portrait of herself turning a baby over her knee as she hit the typewriter keys and strove to meet her writing deadline.   There was Shirley Jackson, too, who came up with the idea for “The Lottery” while toting child and groceries up the hill to her house, and wrote the story in one sitting.

I ended up making a nook out of the dining table of the apartment and, later, house, I moved into. On that corner of the dining table, next to the sliding doors, the concrete, carless garage, the garbage bin, and the planter that screened the house from the street, I spent a feverish summer writing twelve of the stories that now make up a second collection called Demi-gods and Monsters: Stories, to be published by the University of the Philippines Press. In contrast, it had taken  more than twenty-five years to collect the stories I had written into my first book, Recuerdos de Patay and Other Stories.

None of the new stories was written in the perfect writing nook I was finally able to create for myself. We now have a study upstairs, equipped with an old narra desk with side drawers a tad too low because it had been constructed for people who were on average shorter than we are nowadays. There is also a bookcase where I can finally put my dictionaries and file folders and books. And yet, all the stories I have written this past year were begun and completed at the same dining table downstairs, the laptop computer having to share the space with toast in the morning, grilled fish and miso soup at lunchtime, and hot pot, stirfries, and boiled vegetables at suppertime.

It is a cliché to say that people write when they want or need to, that they will write in whatever space they find themselves. I finally had a perfect writing nook, only to realize that it wasn’t a nook I was yearning for all these years, but the will and courage to write.

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A True Ghost Story

My favorite real-life ghost story is the one recounted by veteran activist Cesar Hernandez Lacara (1910-2000) in his memoir Sa Tungki ng Ilong ng Kaaway: Talambuhay ni Tatang [On the Tip of the Enemy’s Nose: Auto/Biography of Tatang] (Metro Manila: Kilusan ng Paglilinang ng Rebolusyonaryong Panitikan at Sining sa Kanayunan, 1988). This incident occurred in the early 1940s, around the time of the Japanese Occupation.

“May isang kwento akong di kapani-paniwala laluna sa mga Marxista at Leninistang materyalista. Isang gabi noon sa gubat na yaon sa Cabiao, marami kaming naroon sa daang papasok sa kinalalagyan ng aming mga kasama. Makitid ang daang ito, talahib at mga punungkahoy ang nasa magkabilang tabi. Siguro’y mga ala una na ng umaga, nakagwardya kami sa daan, na ang distansya naming sa isa’t isa ay mga 10 metro lamang. Nakatayo kaming lahat, bawat isa ay may baril. Kung bakit nakita ko na sa mismong harap ko ay dumaan ang isang malaking tao, parang Amerikano ang laki, maputing-maputi, na nakasuot-pari na itim ang kulay. Pero noong kasalukuyan itong nagdaan sa harap ko ay di ko naman naisip na patigilin. Tinanong ko ang susunod na gwardya, sabi niya ay wala raw siyang napansin. Hindi ko malaman kung ako’y nakatulog na nakatayo o kung tulog lamang ang aking dugo, pero palagay ko’y di ako tulog. Naalala ko tuloy yaong pamangkin kong kasama ko minsan na naglalakad sa kalsadang malaki. Maliwanag ang buwan, marahil ay alas 8 lamang ng gabi. Nauuna lamang ako ng isang metro sa bata. Nang matapat kami sa isang punungkahoy sa tabi ng daan ay biglang sinigawan ako ng bata, nasasagasaan ko na raw ang yaong malaking puting aso, samantalang wala naman akong makita.

“Kinabukasan matapos kong makita yaong parang paring Amerikano, nag-umpisa na ang reyd ng Hapon sa kagubatan ng Cabiao.” (pp. 104-105)

[I have a story that won’t be believable especially to Marxist-Leninist materialists. One night in the forest over in Cabiao, there were a lot of us on the pathway leading to where our companions were camped. The pathway was narrow, with thatch grass and trees growing on both sides. It might have been one o’ clock in the morning. We stood guard on the pathway, some ten meters apart from each other. We were all standing, each bearing a gun, when I saw a big person–tall as an American, very white, and wearing black priestly garb—pass right in front of me. It didn’t occur to me to stop the person as he passed me. I asked the next guard, and he said he didn’t notice anything. I didn’t know whether I had fallen asleep while standing or whether I was just not alert, but I thought that I wasn’t asleep. Then I remembered my nephew [or niece: pamangkin can refer to either boy or girl] with whom I once walked down the big road. The moon was bright; it was only about eight o’ clock at night. I was about a meter ahead of the child. When we drew near a tree by the side of the road, the child suddenly shouted that I was running into a big white dog, even though I didn’t see anything.

[The next day after I saw the one who looked like an American priest, the Japanese began their raids in the forest of Cabiao.]

A stalwart revolutionary, Tatang had come to Cabiao in 1927, when he was seventeen years old. Located south of Nueva Ecija, Cabiao is adjacent to Arayat, Pampanga to the southwest and San Miguel, Bulacan to the southeast.

West of Cabiao was a three-thousand-hectare forest, in one part of which Felipe Buencamino, Jr.—crony of Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon and scion of the Buencamino family whose most prominent patriarch, also named Felipe, has gone down in history for having been called a “traitor” and almost (but not quite) slapped by General Antonio Luna at a cabinet meeting of the Philippine revolutionary government under Emilio Aguinaldo for endorsing the American proposal to “grant autonomy” to the Philippines—had carved out his Hacienda Buencamino.

Tatang describes the magnificence of the Buencamino home in San Miguel, Bulacan, and contrasts it with the inhuman conditions under which the hacienda workers lived and worked—the latter squelched together like sardines, their stifling quarters lacking electricity, running water, kitchen, and washroom. Accidents happened in the hacienda and sugar central, and cost some workers their lives.

Tatang worked at a variety of jobs and would later be involved in organizing the workers’ strike there in 1930. He would also be active in the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas and Hukbalahap movement.

Tatang was, in other words, the last person on earth one would imagine encountering a ghost.

As Tatang tells it, he sees a tall, pale-skinned man dressed in what appears to be black clerical clothing pass right in front of him. Because the person is tall and white, he takes him for an American. He questions whether he had seen the “American” in his dream, or whether it had been a vision spun out of his dulled senses. But he thinks he had not been asleep. This incident then reminds him of the big white dog his young nephew or niece said Tatang had run into when they were walking down a road one night, even though Tatang himself hadn’t seen anything.

A tall, foreign-looking man in priest’s robes–what better embodiment of that dreaded mythical creature, the pale-skinned kapre (often depicted smoking a cigar while lounging atop a big tree) or, in the case of the big white dog, the shape-shifting aswang?

Tellingly, the term “kapre” derives from the Arabic kafir, literally, “one who covers the truth or covers something”,  but most often used as the word for  “infidel” or “unbeliever” (meaning, in this case, the anti-Muslim Spaniards who embarked on the Reconquista).

Bear in mind that the hacendero in Tatang’s time was a Spanish mestizo, a kind of “monster” who, if American intelligence reports were to be believed, liked to organize “stag parties” in his hacienda, the most “dissolute” being one where important guests–American and Filipino–were obliged to remove all their clothes, leaving only their underwear, and the “girl supply is virtually unlimited”: a veritable pimp, indeed, in both the political and sexual senses.  It was said that the American film star, Douglas Fairbanks, took one look at the festivities, bid his host an abrupt farewell, jumped in his car, and left.*

A good Todos los Santos to all!

________________________

*Thanks to Mike Pante for sharing with me the archival documents relating to “The Who’s Who in Manila.”

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Rizal’s Simoun: What’s in a Name?

Eugène Fromentin (1820-1876), “Le simoun”

Ever wondered why Jose Rizal chose such an unusual alias for Juan Crisostomo Ibarra in El filibusterismo? This French painting gives us a clue. Simoun is not one of the three men in burnouses. Simoun is the powerful desert wind these men are faced with.  The word “simoun” is French and derived from the Arabic word meaning “poisonous wind.” I explore the meaning and significance of Rizal’s choice of Simoun as Ibarra’s nom de guerre in my essay “Did Padre Damaso Rape Maria Clara?: Reticence, Revelation, and Revolution in Jose Rizal’s Novels,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 65.2 (2017): 137-99.

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On Cooking an Egg (Properly)

Overcooked egg

A few years ago, I bought a cookbook called Kulinarya: A Guide to Philippine Cuisine (ed., Michaela Fenix, Anvil, 2008). Gorgeously photographed by Neil Oshima, Kulinarya is a distillation of the wisdom and know-how of six of the country’s top chefs: Glenda Rosales Barretto, Conrad Calalang, Margarita Forés, Myrna Segismundo, Jessie Sincioco and Claude Tayag (who also served as food stylist for the volume).

Included are recipes of such Filipino standard fare as dried beef tapa, pork barbecue, kinilaw na tanguigue, kaldereta, tinola, bulalo, pinakbet, cripsy pata, kaldereta, pan de sal, halo-halo, and an enticing assortment of ensalada, sinigang, adobo, relleno, pancit, merienda (snacks), and desserts.

In one of the essays in the introductory section, entitled “Working Towards World-Class Cuisine,” the authors state that the mission of the collaborative Kulinarya Project is “to inspire world-class preparation and presentation of Filipino food.” The aim of the recipes, according to the book, is to “define tradition, not reinvent it.”

The book emphasizes the importance of using quality ingredients—liempo with evenly distribued fat-to-meat content, lechon that uses native pigs, prawns weighing at most 50 grams, 500-gram bangus for relleno—as well as storing food at the proper temperature, serving food that is “freshly cooked and piping hot,” and making sure that the vegetables are not limp and leached of their color.

The cookbook is a joy to read and sample, except for one small but nevertheless telling detail. Nestled in the ensaladang Filipina (Filipino salad), with its mouth-watering array of steamed okra, kamote tops, and water spinach, its grilled and skin-charred eggplants, and its dressings (ranging from guisadong bagoong alamang or sautéed shrimp paste and guisadong bagoong isda or sautéed fish paste to sweet-and-sour vinaigrette and honeyed fish sauce), are slices of hardboiled eggs that bear the unmistakable, telltale signs of overcooking.

You can tell that an egg is overcooked when there is a greenish-gray ring around the yolk. The ring is basically ferrous sulfate, the product of a chemical reaction between the sulfur from the egg white and the iron from the egg yolk. While the ferrous sulfate ring is not toxic, it does affect the look and taste of the egg.

To be fair, other photographs in the book feature perfectly boiled eggs in the rellenong manok (chicken deboned and stuffed with Vienna sausage, chorizo, onions, pimiento, olives, raisins, boiled eggs, Edam or Parmesan cheese, and ground pork) and the pancit luglog (rice noodles with a sauce made of annatto oil, garlic, shrimp stock, and chicken stock, seasoned with fish sauce and pepper, and topped with kamias [bilimbi], chicharon [pork crackling], smoked fish flakes, squid rings, pork meat, scallions, and toasted garlic).

In recent years, Filipino cuisine has garnered international recognition for its rich and varied culinary tradition and its creative appropriation of ingredients and cooking techniques from different parts of the world, both East and West, North and South.

Pointing out an overcooked egg or two is not mere quibbling. A close-up of one such wedge of egg right next to the “Working Towards World-Class Cuisine” essay undermines the stated mission of promoting a “world-class cuisine.” If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a badly cooked egg does nothing to enhance our pleasure and pride in our food history and culture.

To put it bluntly, how can we trust our best cooks to “define” Filipino culinary tradition and present the best of our food culture when some (thankfully not all!) of them cannot even boil an egg properly?

This is not some freak occurrence, either. I have seen YouTube videos of professional chefs (whose names are best left unmentioned) demonstrating the art of making, say, rellenong manok for Christmas. The relleno looks delicious, except, alas, for the overcooked eggs.

This suggests either negligence or lack of oversight (should these chefs rely on assistants to do the preparation for them) or, worse, lack of basic knowledge, training, and skill. The kindest thing that can be said about the cooks who serve badly cooked eggs is that they are too lazy to maintain the minimum standards of cooking; the worst that can be said is that they simply don’t care about the people for whom they cook.

And yet, reasonable instructions for boiling eggs properly can be found in no-nonsense, workperson-like cookbooks. For example, Eleanor Laquian’s Filipino Cooking and Entertaining Here & Abroad (National Book Store, 2007; earlier editions of the book were published under the title Filipino Cooking Here & Abroad)—a favorite of OFWs because its recipes have been adapted to cooking in places where not all native ingredients such as kalamansi or patis are available—contains the following tips for hard cooked eggs:

“Place eggs in a pot, cover with cold water, bring water to a boil, immediately remove pot from heat on boiling. Keep pot covered, let stand for 20 minutes.”

Laquian even offers a contingency plan for people who let their water come to a boil without having put in the egg beforehand. She suggests lowering the egg into the water with a metal spoon “so metal absorbs the heat and eggs won’t crack from the sudden change in temperature”. The temperature should be lowered so that the water gently simmers: “Never boil eggs, they become rubbery”. For hard-cooked eggs, allow 10 minutes, for medium-cooked eggs, 3-4 minutes. If eggs are not at room temperature before they are cooked, add 2 minutes more to the cooking time.

Timing is not all. How eggs are handled immediately after cooking is equally crucial: “Never let cooked eggs stand in the hot water after cooking, this toughens the egg white and makes it difficult to peel the eggs.” Instead, rinse the eggs under cold running water, or else plunge the eggs into cold water as soon as they are cooked.

Daiso’s egg timer

In Japan, Daiso’s 100-yen shops sell egg timers which can be put into the pot along with the eggs. These timers turn pink to indicate “hard,” “medium,” and “soft” boiled egg.

Other cookbooks recommend cooking times of 10 minutes for hard, 5 minutes for medium, and 2 for soft. Perfectionists that they are, some Japanese chefs also suggest using chopsticks to gently roll the eggs in the water as the water is being heated to ensure that the yolk stays in the middle of the egg.

If we want to affirm the wonders and pleasures of Filipino cuisine to ourselves and introduce properly our cuisine to the world, we might as well start by cooking our eggs properly.

 

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