My Life in Ten Dishes

Much like photographs, food tells a story – a specific moment in a person’s life.  Perhaps the taste of certain dishes helps awaken dormant memories: the Christmases of one’s childhood, a bad case of heartbreak, graduations, christenings, even funerals.

This particular entry is a spin-off on the one recently posted by Lorraine of the amazingly scrumptious blog Not Quite Nigella.  Her entry was a spin-off on this article by Jill Dupleix of the Sydney Morning Herald.  It involves the listing of the ten dishes most likely to tell others about your history and personality.  Of course, given the number of foodies on the planet, it’s already a given that my list will be completely different from Jill’s, Lorraine’s, and any other gourmet / gourmand.  Jill said it best:

Your list will be different to mine, and different to your nearest and dearest. A stranger could look at them and know so much about you and your life; where you came from, who you became, and everything in between. The places you have lived will be in there, the people you have loved and who have loved you. Every dish tells a story, good or bad.

Admittedly, my life hasn’t exactly been easy-peasey despite the fact that I do come from a comfortable background.  Much as I did have a happy childhood in the company of my family, I had the most horrendous time of it in school right until I graduated from high school.  Things only began to look up when I entered university and, even then, I’ve had a number of low moments.  Through it all, however, food has played quite a significant role.  That in mind, here is my life in ten dishes:

Paella: the way my mother makes it and how my grandmother made it.

First important dish: Paella

I can never imagine Christmas or New Year’s Eve without paella Valenciana.  My earliest food memories include my mother bustling in the kitchen, having stuff like chorizos de Bilbao and bell peppers cut up, frying chicken and pork, and simmering rice in a vivid orange broth.  As far as I can remember, our paella has never been cooked with seafood and, technically cannot be considered a true paella but a lesser variation called arroz Valenciana (Valencian rice).  For one thing, Mom is allergic to crustaceans (but not, oddly enough, shellfish) and her own mother never really got into the hang of adding shrimp and crab to the dish.

The savory flavors, the intermingling of rich meats, fragrant rice, and the peppery hit of smoky sausage are my personal signal that Christmas has arrived and it’s time for the family to get together.  Whenever I eat my first spoonful of the richly flavored rice, it’s as if the years melt away: I’m a kid again and we’d be going to my grandmother’s house for lunch – and she’d also have paella as the centerpiece of her Holiday table.

My grandmother passed on nearly thirteen years ago, but Mom has helped keep her memory alive through the rice with which Holiday feasts are built on.

Because when you're sick, soup helps.

Second important dish: instant noodle soup

Okay, so it might sound weird to all of you that this particular dish showed up in my list.  But whenever I have a bowl of noodle soup, I’m taken back to two instances when I was so ill and it was the only thing I could get down.  Noodle soup was the afternoon merienda (snack) of choice of my childhood because it was more substantial than sandwiches and chips but didn’t have the effect of spoiling my appetite for dinner.

In the summer of 1985, however, it was the only thing I could eat.  I came down with the measles and my tonsils were so swollen that I could hardly swallow.  Plus, despite the fact that I’ve never really been a picky eater, I had no appetite and this worried my parents.  Instant noodle soup nourished me through this difficult time and, oddly enough, it became one of my comfort foods long after I recovered from the measles.  It sustained me again in the early days of the summer of 1996 when I contracted chickenpox and was certainly sulky and peckish.

Pain au Chocolat

Third important dish: Pain au Chocolat

I nibble one of these buttery, chocolate-filled pastries and I’m taken back to the spring of 1984.  As stated here, I had my first taste of pain au chocolat with my aunt and maternal grandparents in the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes.  Today, all I have to do is take a bite to remember a drizzling spring day in a quaint little town, the faint sound of pilgrims singing Marian hymns in the background.

Rice! Where's the damned rice?!?

Fourth important dish: Binagoongang Baboy

Considering that I recently did a post about it, I just came to realize that my taste for binagoongang baboy actually began with a dish my father cooked on one of those rare occasions he opted to mess in the kitchen.  When I was much younger, Dad whipped up a seriously bagoong-infused version of pinakbet (Ilocano-style vegetable stew) which involved eggplants, okra, snake beans, and chunks of stewing pork.  It was the sort of taste that lingers on one’s palate and I guess that’s the flavor I’m looking for whenever I order this dish.  Today, however, Dad rarely does any cooking – and he won’t whip up his pinakbet no matter how much I whine about it like a little brat.  Probably because my mother will never let him hear the end of it if he does…  😉

Ah, yes: those cookies...

Fifth important dish: chocolate chunk cookies

I’ll admit that I’m not the sort of girl who’s good enough to attract the boys.  Far from it, as a matter of fact: I’m curvaceous – not a good thing to be in this day that scrawny anorexics seem to be the norm.  I prefer reading, writing, and going to museums to partying all night and getting drunk.  Throw in the fact that I have a very bad temper and boys tend to run screaming away from me.  But if there’s at least one thing that I can do better than most girls, it’s the fact that I can bake – and I do bake very well.

When Christmas rolled around in 2008, I wanted to send a thank-you gift to the consultant who helped me set up the automated archive at the IT company where I was working at the time.  This reason, of course, was the public one.  I had another reason for sending the gift: I was actually smitten with the said consultant – and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why!

So I decided to whip up a batch of the best chocolate chip cookies ever.  Well, not chocolate chip – more like chocolate chunk!  Three hundred grams of the best dark chocolate went into the making of these cookies and these joined a batch of lemon-cardamom shortbread in a pretty green tin which was personally delivered all the way to said consultant’s office in Makati.  He never told me if he liked them or not, but I have taken comfort in the fact that I think he appreciated that little gesture.

Dark, delicious. most savory...

Sixth important dish: roast pork

Roast pork was actually the very first [sort of] complicated savory dish I ever made and it’s actually a source of pride for me because of this:

You remember the crown, don't you?

Last Christmas’s main course.  I still get all proud and teary-eyed whenever I think about it.  :p

The Sky at Dusk

Seventh important dish: Sky at Dusk Cake

When my sister turned twenty last August, I got rather melancholy.  My little sister wasn’t little anymore; the baby of the family was now in her senior year in college, finishing up her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

I didn’t quite know what to give her for her birthday, and I knew anything shop-bought would have been nice but not enough to convey the love I have for this person who has grown up into one of my dearest friends.  Given that purple was her favorite color, I tweaked a recipe for red velvet cake, frosted it with a lemon-cream cheese icing, and cut out little stars from the trimmings.  It wasn’t much, but the smile on her face was priceless.

Truffles, anyone?

Eighth important dish: chocolate truffles

In March of last year, I was invited to do the Chocolate Appreciation 101 workshops over at Heavenly Chocolates.  Thus, for the past several months, I’ve been working on various recipes to keep chocolate fun and interesting for various audiences.  I am proud to say that I never served the same truffle twice.  In a bid to keep the audience from getting bored, I challenged myself to conjure up little masterpieces favored with various infusions and liqueurs.  I just hope that I’ll be just as successful this year!

Chicken, lap cheong, taro – how could you go wrong?

Ninth important dish: steamed chicken and Chinese sausage

When my classmate Noralyn Lina passed away in October of last year, it seemed coincidental that Yummy magazine published a recipe for steamed chicken with lap cheong in its pages.  This particular dish was what we ate to console ourselves in my sophomore year at university.  We’d just lost an oratorical competition and felt that all our hard work had come to naught.  But we were so young at the time, so we bounced back easily, fortified by a meal of chicken and sausage at a Chinese fast-food and copious amounts of root beer.

The night I prepared this dish at home was the night of the same day Noralyn died, and I remember tears running down my face as I cleaned up the kitchen – mourning an old friend even as my family savored the flavors of my youth.

Anyone up for a sticky bun...or two?

Tenth important dish: cinnamon rolls

This dish actually involves three men who made an impact on my life: my father, my last boyfriend, and the consultant mentioned in the piece on chocolate chunk cookies who continues to inspire me to this day.

The first time I baked cinnamon rolls was for my father’s birthday in 2001.  During the time, I’d bought a copy of Nigella Lawson‘s How to be a Domestic Goddess and was fired up with a renewed zeal for baking.  Renewed zeal, you may ask?  Well, the boy I was dating at the time had God-only-knew how many dietary don’ts that didn’t exactly encourage me to do a lot of baking.  He actually told me not to do it; said the recipe was too fiddly, too time-consuming.  Mercifully, I didn’t listen to him.  (We broke up under some really bad circumstances a month later.)  I pushed on and, while not perfect, Dad was incredibly happy with the rolls that graced the breakfast table on his natal day.  So was my mother, actually, and so was my brother and his classmates at the seminary who polished off the remainder of that very first batch of rolls.  (It was graduation day at the seminary and the undergrads – my brother included- were to head home for the summer on the same day.  We brought the rolls when we picked him up.)

As the years passed, the rolls continued to improve: they grew fluffier, lighter, much tastier after so much practice.  And while, yes, these are fiddly and time-consuming to make, they had the advantage of impressing my archive automation consultant a few years later.  He wasn’t supposed to stay for tea, but the installation of the automation software ran into a glitch.  He cancelled one appointment, stayed on to fix the dilemma, and stayed on to have a roll and a slice of the chocolate cake I also baked for the occasion.  I don’t know if he was really impressed by the effort; I do know my officemates were as they polished off the remains!

Now that you’ve read mine, what about yours?  What are your best food memories?