A is for Adobo

Friday, June 08, 2018

Farewell, Tony.

“He’s right there. Go talk to him.”

Melanie noticed that Anthony Bourdain, “bad boy” chef-turned-TV personality, was sitting at the bar at Incanto, having a drink. I swallowed my food and took a big swig from my wine glass, steeling myself to go up to him – to say what? I stood up, ready to get my fangirl on.

My knees buckled. I sat back down, nailed to my chair, frozen in fear. I couldn’t do it.

I found myself in a familiar, albeit more successful, situation years before: I met Tony once before in Santa Cruz at a book signing for his book “No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach.” When it was my turn, I thanked him and told him how much I admired his work – that his approach to his food and travel show was so respectful of the host culture, unlike the gawky spectacle of other shows of that ilk. And then I told him that he needed to go to the Philippines and do an episode there.

“Where should I go?” he asked.

“Pampanga. That’s where my dad’s from, and they’re known for being really good cooks in that region.”


Shortly thereafter, the Philippines “No Reservations” episode aired. I like to think – and this is a constant joke I make with my friends – that I had something to do with that and that my name got left off the end credits due to some clerical error. But, knowing how video production work goes, the show was probably already filmed by the time we met. A girl could dream.

I’ve been a fan of Bourdain and his work from his early days on the Travel Channel and his novel, “Kitchen Confidential.” (In the spirit of being a true fan, I dived into his mystery novels, not enjoying them as much, alas.) And throughout the years I’ve seen him evolve from a traveling gourmand with searing wit and I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude to a more worldly, mature, astute and compassionate observer of the world.

In 2013, he joined CNN. My boy *made* it. He was running in the big leagues now. My boy from the culinary underbelly was now front and center on one of the premier mainstream media outlets in the world, and I couldn’t have felt prouder. With the force of CNN behind him, over time his shows transcended from the prurient “watch me eat this cow anus” of his early days to bringing us along as he developed a richer, more informed, textural and complex understanding of the places and the people he visited. And, most importantly, he showed us how each and every one of us all over the globe have more in common than we think we do. The food, while still a presence, took a back seat to a visual feast of imagery and deft and thoughtful storytelling.

I’ve often gauged the greatness of each of his episodes if, after watching, I felt the immediate need to visit the country or city profiled (I’m looking at you, Senegal, Vietnam, Iran, Hong Kong). But it’s when he revisited the Philippines in the Season 7 premiere where my love for him entered into a new realm. In his storytelling of the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), he bore witness to a force that many Filipinos have lived with for decades, but – because we don’t talk about our problems in public – never really saw the light of day. Talk to any Filipino and they’ll tell you about their parent, their child, their aunt, their uncle, their cousin, their brother or their sister working overseas to make a living. Imagine the pain, the heartbreak, the void that comes from being separated from your family, from your friends, from your community, all in the name of a last-ditch effort to provide for your family when your prospects at home look bleak or nonexistent. Imagine how many families are torn apart by this.

Once scene in particular punched me in the gut: Tony’s sitting at the dinner table with Aling Aurora, an OFW who had recently returned back to the Philippines for good. She reads aloud a letter from a now-grown child she took care of during her many decades in the States; the letter is a glowing and heartfelt thank you to the woman who practically raised him. The camera cuts to a shot of other people sitting at the table; Aling Aurora’s own biological children. Everyone’s crying (including me at this point). I realized: Are they crying because they’re touched by all the good things this American had to say about their mom? Or are they mourning the decades spent without their mother, now having to sit through an emotional recounting of how this American kid got the privilege of being raised by her?

Suddenly, I’m a crumpled pile of clothing and tears on my couch, ugly crying.

It’s a painful scene to watch. But it was just so … real. He nailed it. This is what I’m talking about when I say that the evolution of Bourdain’s point of view has broadened. It’s easy to get carried away by the first-class flights to exotic destinations, getting led around a foreign land by a local fixer who takes you around to the coolest sights, the best restaurants/food stalls/taco trucks/hole-in-the-wall joints that the guidebooks don’t tell you about. It’s another thing to really step outside of yourself to look around at the world around you, try to make sense of it, highlight and speak up when you see disparities and injustices in all of its forms. And to do it in a way that isn’t dogmatic, that isn’t in-your-face, but in a way that excites you, thrills you, and makes you think. Like, really think.

The day before he died, I finally had some quiet time to sit down and watch the Hong Kong episode of “Parts Unknown.” In recent press he’s described the episode as a cinematic dream come true for him, and I believe it. It was magical. Of course, Christopher Doyle’s cinematography had a lot to do with the visual impact, but it was the subject matter that Tony uncovered – the vanishing Hong Kong and the trepidation the people of Hong Kong feel around mainland China’s continuing hold on them – that punched me in the gut and had me screaming “Yassss, Tony. Speak on it.”

In that episode, Christopher Doyle describes his work thusly:

“The only function of what we do, of art or of anything, is to give voice to the unspoken. To give it a form it’s never been perceived in before. We can’t change the evolution of history, or of gentrification; you can’t stop that. But at least you can say, ‘look what you’re losing.’ That’s all. All we can do is give image to an idea.”

The last few years have been, to put things mildly, very challenging. I don't think I have to explain why. I’ve found that to cope, I turn more heavily to all things creative, either creating myself or consuming the art of others. Things that give me delight help steer me away from going to a very dark place. I’m devastated that Tony is gone; but what I mourn for the most is the loss of yet another creative voice in this world. The world will be that much tougher to move through without him.

Maybe he wanted to get out while the getting was good. Maybe his demons got the best of him. Maybe he felt that he had no more mountains to conquer. All I know for sure is that he left an indelible mark on my consciousness and on my soul. And for that, I am changed forever.

Thank you, Tony, for opening my eyes to the beauty of the world around us, and for finding the common thread that unites us. I’ll miss you terribly. 

Monday, November 30, 2009

In Memoriam: My Grandfather

One of my favorite photos of my grandparents. Minalin, Pampanga, Philippines, 1975

My grandfather passed away on Nov. 27 at the age of 89 years old.

I've always felt disconnected from my extended family back in the Philippines; not because of any family drama or anything, but really only because the geographical distance makes it very difficult to build and maintain relationships. (Let's face it; the flight to Manila makes a five-hour flight to New York seem like a nanosecond, not to mention the fact that a plane ticket can cost about a month's salary for some.) In any case; my grandparents helped raise my cousins; my memories of my grandparents consisted of stories my dad would tell me about them and the three times I've visited. But despite the distance (both literally and figuratively), I've always held a fondness in my heart for my family back there.

Thankfully, the Internet and social networking have enabled the kinds of connections I've wanted to make with my cousins. My cousin, Jon, wrote this tribute to our grandfather the other day, and after reading it, I realized that my dad --- the oldest of all the siblings --- is SO like my grandfather. I may not have had the pleasure or privilege of living with my grandparents, but my grandfather's teachings, personality, values and beliefs were mirrored in the teachings, personality, values and beliefs I've seen in my own father.

And I never felt so connected to my family than at that moment.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

No Reservations

I met Anthony Bourdain Friday night. He was in Santa Cruz doing a book signing for his new book, "No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach," which is more of a travel book with photos.

Can I just say: I lovelovelove Anthony Bourdain. Not only is he an awesome chef and writer, but his TV show about traveling to exotic locations and eating their food teaches you about other cultures and traditions in a way that is insightful, entertaining and, most importantly, respectful.

Don't even get me started on how hot he is. I'm just saying.

I told him as such (about him being respectful, not about him being hot) when we had our conversation (I'll never wash my ear again!) --- I asked him if he had ever done a show in the Philippines (he hadn't) and, if not, that he really needed to to bring his perspective, because that fuckin' Andrew Zimmern guy totally blew it. Don't even get me started on Zimmern. For real.

Anyway, we (that would be my man, Bourdain, and I) went off on that for a minute, and then he asked me where he should go.

"Pampanga," I said. "The folks in that region are known for their cooking."

"Alright. Done," he said.

Please believe my heart just about exploded. Tony, if you're reading this, and you do a Philippines show, give your girl a shout out in the end credits, wouldja?

(Cross-posted on my other blog.)


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Rainy day comfort food

Days before I come back home to visit my parents, my dad usually asks me what I want to eat when I get there. Inevitably, I always tell him the same thing: Some kind of roasted pork and freshly made mungo.

(Or is it mongo?)

However you spell it, this thick and hearty soup (don't call it a "stoup," please) sticks to your ribs and reminds me of home.

The weather here has turned; fall is here, and I have a couple of hours to kill before leaving for my show. What better way to spend a lazy Sunday morning than to make a hot, steaming pot of mungo?

Making this is much easier than I thought, but you'll definitely have to go out of your way to buy some of the authentic, Filipino ingredients. Keep it real; it's worth it.

One 12 to 14-oz. bag of mung beans, washed and drained
1/4-lb. side of pork, sliced
1 pound of shrimp, peeled and deveined*
4 cloves chopped garlic
1 small onion, sliced
1 medium tomato, chopped
Salted shrimp paste (bagoong)
2 packages frozen bitter melon (ampalaya) leaves

In a soup pot, pour enough water (about 2") over the mung beans. Bring to a boil. Cover, and simmer until beans are cooked and water is more or less evaporated. Press about 1/2 of the cooked beans along the side of the pot to bust them open. This will help thicken the final mixture. Set aside.

In another soup pot, brown the pork in about 2 tsp. oil over medium heat. Once brown, throw in the chopped garlic and sautée until golden brown. Add onions and sautée until translucent.

Add one tbsp. bagoong and stir. Then add tomatoes. Stir. Add about 1/2 cup of water to deglaze the pan and simmer until the meat is slightly tender. Add shrimp. Cover.

When the shrimp is cooked, add mung beans from other pot to this one and stir.

Check for seasoning. It shouldn't be too salty, and you should be able to the combination of pork and shrimp.

Add water to your desired consistency. I like mine thick, but it's all really up to you.

Add ampalaya leaves to pot and simmer.

Serve over rice if desired. Me? I like it straight up. No, I'm not on Atkins.

*For this particular batch, I didn't add any shrimp because I couldn't be bothered to do all the prep work. However, if you do use shrimp, try to keep the orange stuff in the shrimp head; that's where a lot of the flavor is.


Friday, September 14, 2007


Mom celebrated her 63rd birthday this past weekend. In addition to inviting everyone she knew to her party, she also made sure everyone had enough to eat, plus go back for seconds, thirds ... fifths.

Since it was a special occasion, and that there would be many mouths to feed, she made sure that her party included that filipino party staple, a whole, spit-roasted pig, lovingly called lechon.

As a child, the image of a whole pig with an apple in its mouth, lying on the table along with typical party fare such as lumpia and pancit, was more unappetizing than anything else.

As an adult, I rarely eat lechon at parties. By the time I get to it, it's already cold, picked over, and everyone's already taken the best parts --- namely, the skin.

Now, don't get me wrong; crunchy, oven-baked (or fried) pig skin is good eatin'. There's nothing I like better than a hot, salty, crispy pork belly. (Wood Tavern in Oakland does it really well, but that's another post.) But I don't think most people pay attention to the sauce that traditionally goes with lechon. It's hard to explain; it's thick, rich, and at once both sweet and sour. It's a meat-based sauce --- okay, liver based --- probably one of the best things to happen to offal.

And my mom makes it the best.

So what's in it, really? Well, I'm not ready to share the details of mom's recipe with you guys just yet. Maybe one day.

And now, dinner:


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Everybody loves Lumpia

And why shouldn't they? Savory meat and veggies fried in a crispy egg roll wrapper. What's not to love?

This weekend, I set out to make everyone's favorite Filipino party food along with two friends of mine. It was a team effort: One friend chopped the cabbage and grated the carrots, another separated the egg roll wrappers (a task my mom always gave me as I was a kid), while I sauteed and browned the meat.

It was a lumpia party of sorts, the three of us sitting around the table, scooping up portions of the meat and veggie mixture onto our wrappers, rolling and wrapping and talking. And drinking lots of vodka and cranberry juice. Good times.

Then we divided the finished lumpias up among the three of us and fried up a few for dinner.

Now that's good eatin'.

There are many different styles of lumpia. We made lumpiang gulai---literally, "vegetable lumpia," because out of all the different kinds, this was by far the easiest and, in my opinion, the tastiest. As always, there's going to be some variation in the recipe depending on the family and what region you come from. Some people in the States add anything from that frozen mixed vegetable mix (peas, green beans, corn, etc.), potatoes, to raisins, which I consider a high crime and misdemeanor.

Raisins have absolutely no place in lumpia. If anyone puts raisins in their lumpia, they must be beaten with their own shoe.

A vegetarian version is absolutely doable, too --- just substitute the meat for tofu, or seitan, whatever the hell you want. Or throw in more vegetables. The beauty of this is that this is more a method rather than a recipe, per se. All quantities can be adjusted according to your own personal taste.

Lumpiang gulai (vegetable lumpia)
1 lb. ground beef
1 onion, finely chopped
5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped - reserve 1 chopped clove for dipping (see below)
1/2 head of cabbage, sliced in thin ribbons
3-4 carrots, peeled and grated
Egg roll wrappers (about 30 or so - buy extra)
salt and pepper, to taste

To make the filling, sautee the onions and garlic in a large pot until the onions are translucent. Add the ground beef, and cook until browned.

Salt and pepper the ground meat mixture to your taste, then take off the heat.

Add the carrots and cabbage and stir until well incorporated. Spoon mixture into a colander placed over a large bowl to catch the drippings - you don't want soggy lumpia!

Lumpia wrappers come in two shapes: square and round. Use whichever one you have available. I prefer the square egg roll wrappers because they're not as delicate as the round ones, making them easier to work with.

To wrap. Oh boy. This is going to be hard to explain, but I'll give it my best shot.

Place the square wrapper in front of you so that it looks like a diamond shape. (If you use the round wrappers, a) you're a masochist, and b) Jah bless ya.) Spoon some of the meat and veggie mixture (not too much, maybe about 1.5 spoonful) closer to the bottom end of the diamond (or circle) and fold the bottom of the diamond up and over the meat. Pull it back against itself to tighten up the roll, and fold it over itself again. Fold the right, then left corners of the diamond over the roll, and um, roll until you run out of wrapper.

Visualize a burrito. But ... different.

If you want, you can seal the flap with some water, or a mixture of flour and water to keep it closed. But it's not necessary.

Have a tray ready for the finished lumpias. Many Filipino families save the styrofoam trays that meat comes in (well-washed and sanitized, of course) just for this purpose. Separate the layers of lumpia with wax paper or plastic wrap, then wrap and cover the tray (plastic bags are just fine, but whatever fits), and freeze.

According to my Dad, you must a) wrap the lumpias while the meat/veg mixture is still warm, then b) freeze the lumpia once you're finished - otherwise they'll spoil. I think this has something to do with the fact that there's onions in the mixture. For some reason, if food has onions in it, it spoils faster. Maybe it's another one of his superstitions, but you know how sometimes pancit can go bad the next day after making it? Onions, man. Tellin' you.

Fry the lumpia in a skillet with enough oil to come up the sides of the lumpia. You can deep fry as well, but it's not necessary. Lumpia should be golden brown. Drain upright (not flat) in a colander lined with paper towels to keep them crispy.

Serve with dipping sauce and rice, if you are so inclined.

Dipping sauce
1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped
Vinegar (apple cider, red wine vinegar, etc.)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl and serve alongside the lumpia. Use a spoon to pour bits of the vinegary, garlicky goodness into the lumpia after you take your first bite.

(Photo credit: The Jersey Girl)


Saturday, November 11, 2006


The first Filipino dish I learned how to make. It’s pretty simple, really – just some meat simmered in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and spices – but what you are left with is a magical, flavorful stew. Some people crave macaroni and cheese; I crave adobo.

Pork is the best for this dish. It gets a bad rap for some reason, but, to paraphrase Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, pork just tastes goooooood. Chicken works well, too.

My dad always told me not to touch the meat while it’s simmering until the vinegar is “cooked.” Vinegar? Cooked? I didn’t get it either. But if you smell the adobo just as it begins to simmer, you’ll notice this acrid, sharp, sensation in the nose and a vinegary aroma. As the adobo continues to simmer, this aroma begins to mellow. Then – and only then – can you even begin to touch it.

That was the secret to yummy adobo, he says. And now, I'm sharing his secret with you. Thank me later.

It may sound like a silly superstition, but it really works.

If you’re reading this, and you’re Filipino, you may have a different version. Some people, once the meat is cooked, fry the meat until it’s dry or something. I say, why bother? The mixture of meat, rice, and adobo sauce is nothing short of heaven.

1 pound or so of chicken, pork, or a combination thereof (pork is best)
5-6 cloves of garlic, crushed
2-3 whole, dried bay leaves
½-cup soy sauce (I prefer Kikkoman or Aloha Shoyu brands)*
½-cup apple cider vinegar*
Lots of freshly ground pepper

Place meat in a non-reactive soup pot. Sprinkle with garlic cloves, bay leaves. Pour soy sauce and vinegar over the meat and liberally sprinkle with black pepper.

Simmer on high until mixture comes to a boil, then reduce to medum-low heat and cover. Do not stir until meat is tender and sharp, vinegary smell mellows out.

Serve over white, steamed rice, of course.

Makes awesome leftovers.

* Amounts of vinegar and soy sauce are approximate; depending on the amount of meat you use, you may need more or less than ½-cup. The rule of thumb is you want the soy sauce/vinegar mixture to come up to no more than halfway up the side of the meat. Don’t cover the meat with the mixture – your adobo come out too salty.