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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, July 30, 2004

entry arrow8:31 PM | The Search for Gastronomic Delights

It should be clear by now that this is partly a food blog. Written strictly from the point of view of the consumer -- literally. If I really have to be frank about it, I'm no cook. I can't cook to save my life, although my Home Economics teacher in high school had complimented me once on a good batch of atsara. I made great pizza then, as well; but my angel's food cake was disastrous: my icing was runny, and the cake itself was lopsided, as if it had been hit by a landslide. Whenever I venture into my mother's kitchen to experiment with culinary madness, I can never do without a recipe book, each step meticulously followed, foregoing of chance and instinct. Cooking has never excited me, the way it does for many people.

Eating, however, does.

Once, in Hokkaido, enduring one of those prolonged home-stays where foreign students like me were supposed to immerse ourselves in the local Japanese culture to strengthen our hold of the language, I was asked by my hosts to cook something up from the home country, any "native" dish to be served during an international dinner. The Chinese exchange students had been going about their day (while I looked on enviously) cooking something beyond dimsum. Kaija, my Finnish friend, baked a cake which, she said, the Finns eat during the cold winter months. In panic, I called up a fellow Filipino student named Karen McDonald (an exchange scholar from Ateneo), who also didn't know how to cook. "But," she said, "I think I remember a thing or two about making chicken adobo."

"Adobo is great," I said hopefully, "Even Ricky Martin loves adobo."

We trudged through the December snow to the local supermarket where we bought our ingredients. She had called up her mother back in the Philippines, and had gotten a rudimentary recipe. We had our list of things to buy, and for other things unavailable, we used our imagination instead.

"Three pounds chicken thighs, cut into serving pieces... One and a half cup of white vinegar... One and a half cup of soy sauce... One-fourth cup of peppercorns, crushed... One teaspoon brown sugar... Five garlic cloves, crushed... Three bay leaves... Salt to taste," we intoned.

We slaved through the entire afternoon, foregoing of the scheduled snowball fight we were supposed to have. Finally, after avoiding too many disasters in our hosts's kitchen, we delivered our masterpiece a la Pinoy: brown chicken meat that looked and smelled inviting -- but...

"We placed too much salt!" Karen and I looked at each other mortified, but decided not to say anything. The adobo, we know, was just too horrible: a culinary murder. Later during dinner, we delivered it to the table and pronounced it the national dish of the Philippines, and the Japanese hosts cried, "Sugoi ne! Oishi desu ka?" then took one bite from it, nodded in small confusion, and politely scampered to the section of the table where the Chinese had their bounty of delicious food properly cooked. It is now a singular mission on my part to learn how to cook adobo. If and when I'll get the time.

When I want the best of home cooking, I go home to my mother's where Lorgie, the housemaid, can cook a mean batch of curry chicken. Her chicken curry drips with the very word "delicious." Sometimes she cooks my favorite fish dish -- fried bangus -- complete with a sauce the recipe of which she refuses to reveal to anyone. Then there's her gorgeous fern salad. There's also Margie Udarbe-Alvarez's potroast, always a worthy addition to small parties. There's also the food prowess of Patrick Chua, the city's best dentist, who -- when he is in a mood -- would invite all of us his friends to a "tasting" party, to take part in a gastronomic orgy to devour his latest version of the paella. He has so far mastered vegetarian paella, shrimp paella, pork paella... each one of them a masterpiece. And I know this to be true: they are also better enjoyed because of the company it gathers.

The ultimate lesson about eating may be: food is so much better when there is company. It is the ultimate ice-breaker. It is the key to a special kind of bonding between people. I have seen people connect because of food. That may be why I love food. It has a special kind of high, which is essentially great, taken in moderation and in step with a rigorous habit of exercise. My best friend Mark and I, for example, are people separated by our distinctive tastes for most things. He loves knowing all the tiny details about cosmetic surgery and hates classical music and ballet. I love the latter two, and would rather watch movies than listen to the latest breakthrough in Vicky Belo's world. Ours is a world where twains may never meet... but they do, because most of our days are spent in the eternal search for glorious food.

As a result, I have been accused at work as becoming dangerously "tambok."

"Rubenesque," I correct them. "Botticellic." Yet I am also increasingly satisfied with the fate of my girth. Call it coming to terms with oneself, or call it "letting go." But I now have this distinct feeling of not caring to justify myself to anyone anymore. Call that maturity.

Besides, I am always reminded of Mike Royko's famous wit in his article "Here's to Orson Welles: The End of Fitness," where he recounts that the most beautiful sight he has ever seen is Germany’s Octoberfest, where people thump their healthy bellies and drink gallons of beer and eat thousands of pork shanks, all the while laughing and being merry. And then he contrasts it with a scene at the end of a marathon, where thin, emaciated athletes gasp for breath and loll their tongues out like dogs in heat. Not a beautiful sight at all, he says

Food is glorious. And I am bent on discovering the best ones available in this small city. Increasingly, I have noticed that Dumaguete itself has taken to "dining out" like never before. People eat out more and more, and restaurants are slowly mushrooming all over to meet the demand. Maybe this is because of our increasingly busy lifestyle, which has now somewhat resembled the habits of cosmopolitan folks. Who has time to cook these days? Our hours are crunched with too much work, and so we head towards the eating places, both fast-food and fine dining. And the variety is endless, if you know just where to look. Mark and I have discovered this small chicken place near St. Paul's called Blue Man, and most days, its deep-friend chicken satisfies the deepest of appetites. There's also that unnamed place near Rico Absin's house which offers a grand a la carte dinner. Then there are the vanguards: Rosante's, Chantilly, Jo's, Lab-as and Hayahay and Chez Andre, Scooby's, the Why Not food complex, Taster's Delight, Don Atilano, Golden Roy's, La Cavitena, Gimmick, El Camino, Nerisse, Santa Monica, Nena's Kamalig... And then there are the newcomers: Wakagi, Howyang, Toppings at Sted's, Ati-Atihan...

We intend to visit them all, and report from the food front. But it's hard to be a food critic. "Why do you want to do this?" some of my friends have asked, taking note of Cameron Diaz's famous line for Julia Roberts's character in My Best Friend's Wedding: "Food critic!" as if that is the worst epithet next to being called an s.o.b.

Why? "Because I want restaurants to tremble in fear whenever I walk in, hahaha!" I had replied to them, of course as a joke.

Why? Because I want to, because I love eating out (the eternal habits of a single man about town), and because this is increasingly a vital component of local culture, which I think needs critical attention. We all want to know where the best foods are, and where the worst foods can be found. And why do we eat the food we eat? Does it say anything about ourselves? And why, despite the blandness of Scooby's food, do we still troop to its glass-encased interiors? Whatever happened to SACs and to Giacomino's? And what gives with the franchise familiarity of Jollibee's, Shakey's, and Chow King?

And, pray tell, where can Mark get his vegetarian fix? Last night, we were in Qyosko and were dismayed by the all-meat choices. We asked the waiter if they had anything exclusively leafy and green. He pointed to an entry: "Sauteed Veggies," he said. So we ordered it -- and he soon came back with cabbage drenched in mushroom sauce, peppered with all kinds of meat cuts. What a downer. If it weren't for their delicious ube shake, I'd shake my head with such dismay.

And that's the thing: too many of my friends (and acquaintances) own many of these restaurants in town, like Qyosko. So I must give leave here, folks. To Dino Ponce de Leon of Expresso, in particular, who texted me last week to cheerfully comment on the other week's essay on coffee. I give credit to him, and his good humor.

Nothing personal here, of course, just a search for local gastronomic delights.

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich