Posted in Foodies 'Round the World, Midge on the Road, The Well-read Foodie

What Does it Mean to Write About Food?

How we feast at home

In American food writer Amanda Hesser‘s book Cooking for Mr Latte, there is a chapter where Amanda finds herself acting as tour guide for a guest from India. In the course of a city tour of the Big Apple, the guest asks her what she does for a living. This prompts the following conversation:

“So what is it that you do?”

“I work for a newspaper,” I said. “And I write about food.”

“You write about food?” he said with another little laugh. “What does it mean to write about food?”

What does it mean to write about food? I ask myself this question every time I’m out on assignment for the magazine I’ve been working for close on two years now. I ask myself this question every time I cook or bake something and post about it on social media. I ask myself this question every time I work with food or interview chefs and other food-and-beverage professionals.

There is no clear-cut or cut-and-dried answer, to be honest, because it all depends on the writer. In my case, writing about food is all about sharing. In this context, it’s about sharing food even virtually. It is about sharing the experience with others who could not be with you physically to enjoy it. You could also say that it is about sharing information: the very basic “who, what, where, when, and how” of an event or a specific location.

Yep, in the course of my work, I actually met Matt Moran! (Singapore, 12 October 2017)

Sharing in the context of food writing also involves both teaching and learning; it is a two-way street for both the writer and the reader. In my case, whenever I post recipes, I get to share something new with others: something they can try for themselves in their own kitchens. In return, when I read the recipes and recipe-notes of others, I am encouraged to try something new and, once I’ve become comfortable making that recipe, to put my own spin on it.

Writing about food also means sharing your impressions about food, cooking, and the people behind processes and institutions. Over the course of nearly two years, I have had the honour and privilege of meeting and interviewing culinary masters, brave young bucks, and those whose opinions are helping change the way the world eats and drinks. Having done so has changed the way I look at these food and bev icons: I have seen a different side of them, a more human side, so to speak. In the process of speaking to them, I have picked up lessons – not just about food, but about life itself and how to live it to the fullest. (Thank you, Oz Clarke, for those insights about maturity that came out while we were discussing the merits of aged Champagne against more youthful bubblies!) This side of food writing has also enabled me to learn more about myself and how I have changed over time.

Pistachio and apricot white choc bark, anyone?

It has been nearly thirteen years since I started food writing by way of this blog. When I first wrote about food in early 2005, it was a way for me to destress at a time when my life was all odds and ends. Writing about food was my way of feeding my heart and soul at a time when the former was broken and the latter felt empty. It was my way of coping with life, I guess.

For over a decade, I have chronicled my attempts at baking bread from Nigella Lawson‘s How to be a Domestic Goddess, how I taught myself how to make chocolate confections, how I ended up injuring myself or nearly ruining the stove and oven in the process of cooking. I look back on old entries in this blog and smile to myself, seeing how far I’ve come on my personal culinary journey.

Considering how I actually flunked home economics in grade school, high school, and college, I never really imagined I would actually end up with a career writing about food – but here I am. I love food. I love working with food and the people who work with food. And, yes: I love writing about food.

A gold (butter) star, for all you lovely readers out there!

In October of last year, while on assignment covering Singapore Airlines’ World Gourmet Forum, I met a number of fellow food writers – bloggers and journos, alike – and actually made friends thanks to a commonality of interests. And I had to wonder: how did we all end up in this particular profession.

The day I was slated to fly back to Manila, a fellow magazine person caught up with me at breakfast and we ended up talking about life…and how we found ourselves writing about food for a living. And we figured out that the powers that be noticed how we loved food and travel and wine and words – hence our current assignments. While we’ve both flown back to our respective countries (he’s Indonesian, by the way), we’ve kept in touch. We share food photos and point out potential, newsworthy events in each other’s neighbourhoods. I tell you: it’s nice to have someone who shares interests and a profession with you. (We’re also certified geeks, but that’s a story for another day.)

Indeed, it got to a point that, over the course of one conversation, I was prompted to say, “Don’t you just love the fact that, as food and lifestyle journos, we have one of the coolest jobs in the world?”

And his reply pretty much sums up everything we both love about our jobs and food writing in general: “I know, right! Great people, great food, great places.” And everything – seriously everything – an experience to be savoured and remembered.

Posted in A Girl at Lunch, Midge on the Road, Restaurant Hopping, The Flavors of Asia, The Well-read Foodie

On Food and Words: 12 Years of Midge in the Kitchen

From the time I made pumpkin buns

It’s been five months since I last posted in this blog. This is not to say that I’ve scrapped it entirely; indeed, my current line of work has made me even more enthusiastic about food, cooking, and dining out.

It has been, to be perfectly honest, a roller-coaster year.  There have been some serious downs and equally serious ups: triumph and tragedy all on a single plate.  My paternal grandmother, the last of my grandparents, died at the end of November. Paired-off friends broke up, single friends found partners, and – alas – I found myself estranged from the person whom I still consider one of my very best friends.  Too many words said and left unsaid, again. But I’ve made new friends, met lots of new people, gone to numerous places, and eaten my fill of amazing dishes cooked by some of the best chefs.

Manchego con Tempranillo y Frutas from Tapas Night 2017

I’ve learned a great deal about food over this past year thanks to interviews I’ve done for work and also because of a number of chance meetings that came about because I love traipsing through the city for new gastronomic treats.  I daresay there is still so much for me to learn.

In the meantime, bear with me.  I’ve hardly had time to write for the blog, but if you follow me on Instagram, I daresay the photos and the tempting descriptions of my latest culinary projects and restaurant jaunts will be worth the visit.

Twelve years of food writing; still here, still hungry, still writing.


Posted in Home Cooking, The Flavors of Asia, The Well-read Foodie

In Which the Blogger takes on a Chinese Eggplant Dish…

So fiddly to make, but definitely worth it

It’s one of those days: the newly-minted freelance writer has just a bare minimum of professional writing to do, the help has gone on her annual fortnight-long vacation out of town; it’s been raining buckets, and one is in a quandary as to what to cook for dinner tonight.

And so…

“I’m heading out to do a cake delivery,” I told my sister yesterday.  “Might head to the supermarket to get some ingredients.  Three-cups chicken okay with you?”

My sister considered this for a bit and said, “No, but could you try cooking stuffed eggplant instead?”

Stuffed eggplant in this case is not the fabled imam bayildi of Arabic cuisine or the melitzanes papoutsakia of Greek cuisine.  No: it’s actually jiān niàng qiézi [煎釀茄子], a type of dimsum served at many restaurants specializing in Cantonese cuisine.

In this case, the slimmer purple Asian eggplants are cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks that are partly split through the middle and filled with a prawn forcemeat.  The stuffed chunks are first fried, then steamed and served with a sauce compounded from garlic, sesame oil, and oyster sauce.  In some recipes, the process is reversed: the stuffed eggplant is first steamed and then fried.  However, the fry-then-steam process works for me, so I stuck to that.

Whichever method you choose, though, the end result is a rich-tasting dish that works better as a main course rather than a dimsum tidbit.  Serve this with a large bowl of steaming hot rice to add scrumptious comfort to cold, stormy evenings.

The recipe I used was adapted from the one featured on The Woks of Life.  But because several family members are allergic to crustaceans, mine features an all-pork filling and uses the more pungent black rather than white pepper; the filling also featured a tablespoon of rendered lard.  Believe me when I say it adds the right amount of punch, loads of flavor, and a much-appreciated richness.

The authors of the original recipe say you can skip stuffing the eggplant all together and use veg stock to make this vegan-friendly.  But, given my general aversion towards vegans, – who, I’m sorry to say, are the biggest hypocrites in both a political and a culinary sense – why mess with a good thing if you don’t have to?  Oh, but feel free to replace the pork with minced white fish or ground chicken; I don’t recommend doing this with beef or lamb, though.

(Oh, and according to my sister, this dish tastes every bit as good cold and eaten for breakfast the day after.)

Stuffed Eggplant

For the Stuffed Eggplant:

  • 4 medium-sized Asian eggplants, trimmed and cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks
  • 1/4 kilo ground pork
  • 1 tablespoon rendered lard or bacon fat or vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped + additional 2 spring onions, also finely chopped
  • generous dash of black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine or mirin
  • Additional 2 tablespoons lard for frying

For the Sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon lard
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 chicken or pork bouillon cube
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • ground black pepper to taste

Slit the eggplant chunks lengthwise through the middle, but do not cut all the way through.  Just leave enough to form a hinge on one side.  Set aside.

Combine all the remaining ingredients for the stuffing until a rough paste is formed.  Stuff the prepared eggplant with about 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons of filling per piece.  Chill for at least 10 minutes.

Heat the additional lard in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Fry the chilled eggplant until browned on both sides; place the pieces in a heat-proof bowl that can fit comfortably in a steamer.  Place three cups of water into the lower chamber of a steamer and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Lower heat to a simmer and place the bowl of eggplant chunks in the upper chamber.  Cover and steam for 10-15 minutes.

While the eggplant is cooking, make the sauce.  In a pan over medium heat, saute the minced garlic in 1 tablespoon of lard and the sesame oil until fragrant.  Add the bouillon cube, oyster sauce, and soy sauce.  Cook until the cube has dissolved.  Add the water, stir, and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and add the cornstarch slurry; cook until slightly thickened.

Remove the cooked eggplant from the steamer and pour any juices in the bowl into the sauce; stir well.  Put the eggplant in a serving dish, drizzle with the sauce; scatter over the remaining spring onions.

Serves 6.

Posted in Home Baking, Sweets for the Sweet, The Well-read Foodie

In Which One Bakes a Proper Red Velvet Cake…

In the tin

Red velvet cake is something of a pseudo-tradition in my family because my sister always asks for something similar to it for her birthday.

The first time she asked for one resulted in a deep purple dessert dubbed the Sky at Dusk because it was the color of a night sky and decorated with stars cut out of cake trimmings on top of a lemon cheesecake frosting.  This would eventually be followed by the much-darker imperial velvet cake and other similar treats.

And finally, this: a real red velvet cake.

Ready to serve

And not just any red velvet cake, mind you: this monster is a chocolate red velvet cake.

The average red velvet cake is, pretty much, a butter cake loaded with red food coloring.  However, the original red velvet is a cocoa-flavored butter cake that took its characteristic maroon hue from the chemical reaction between acidic buttermilk and the more alkaline cocoa powder.  Unfortunately, many modern red velvet cake recipes add just a smidgen (two tablespoons or less) of cocoa and load up on food coloring; not cool, if you ask me.

Mine is adapted from the one from the Hershey’s Kitchen – but has the added advantage of a quarter-cup of chocolate chips tossed into the deep red batter before baking.  Thus, this one has ample chocolate flavor and is considerably richer and more satisfying than the red velvet cake you’d pick up from some commercial bakery.  Add the fact that the icing on this particular cake is a caramel cream cheese frosting, it was a cake that definitely put a smile on my sister’s face on her special day.

And, believe me when I say this is guaranteed to make you smile, too.

Sheer and absolute delight in every bite

Chocolate Red Velvet Cake

For the Cake:

  • 1/2 cup vanilla-flavored margarine or soft unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 cups granulated white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup buttermilk or 1 tablespoon vinegar + enough milk to yield 1 cup total liquid
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda

For the Frosting:

  • 1 bar (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup caramel-flavored margarine or soft unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup icing or confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees / Gas Mark 4.

Grease and flour a standard-sized regular Bundt or fluted Bundt pan.

Cream together the vanilla margarine and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, cocoa powder, and vanilla; mix well.  Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda.  Tip half the flour mixture into the cocoa mixture.  Mix well and pour in half the buttermilk; mix until well combined.  Tip in the rest of the flour mixture and blend well with the rest of the buttermilk until a smooth batter is achieved.  Stir in the food coloring and mix until well-incorporated.  Fold in the chocolate chips.

Pour into the prepared cake pan and bake 55 minutes.

While the cake is baking, make the frosting.  Using a hand-held mixture at medium speed, whip together all the ingredients until soft peaks form.  Chill for at least 15 minutes.

Remove the baked cake from the pan and set onto a serving plate, reserving any crumbs.  Allow to cool completely before frosting.  Top the frosted cake with any reserved crumbs.

Serves 12…just.  😉



Posted in Home Cooking, The Flavors of Asia, The Grocery Shop-a-holic, The Well-read Foodie, Uncategorized

In Which One’s Bossam Turned Out Pretty Awesome…

Pork, soybean paste, ginger, honey…

It all started with a recipe from American Iron Chef Judy Joo featured in an old issue of Where Women Cook Magazine.  The pictures were certainly tempting: a whole slab of roasted pork belly slathered in a rich, thick sauce bundled into an iceberg lettuce leaf with some rice and kimchi.  Mouthwatering would have to be an understatement here.

The dish in question was a roasted pork belly bossam, a modern spin on a traditional Korean specialty.  Bossam (보쌈) is a dish commonly served in autumn, just as families are preparing a fresh batch of kimchi from the year’s vegetable harvest or, as the period is called in Korea, at gimjang time.  It is also a drinking-man’s dish, as it is usually featured as an anju, or one of a set of dishes made to accompany soju or other alcoholic beverages.

In a traditional bossam, a whole slab of pork belly is simmered down with ginger and other spices to remove the gaminess of the meat.  The boiled pork is allowed to cool, then cut into thin slices that could be wrapped with  kimchi and other condiments in a lettuce leaf and eaten like a hand-roll.

Kimchi, pork belly, and rice with furikake

Judy Joo’s spin on the dish is twice-cooked: the pork boiled till super-tender in a miso and garlic broth, then slathered with a second miso paste – this time with ginger and honey – before roasting.  The end result is a meltingly tender slab of pork with a subtle, nutty taste of soybeans and a hint of spice.

When I decided to cook the dish recently, I realized that I would do well to grab a tub of doenjang or Korean soybean paste (Korean miso, if you will).  Doenjang has a coarser texture than the more common white and red Japanese soybean pastes with nubbins of crushed soybean that impart an almost peanutty nuance.  Here, it is used to season the pork in two ways: first as the base of the simmering solution, then as part of the marinade rubbed onto the meat before the second phase of cooking.

One thing I had to change was the cut of meat.  I still used pork belly, but – as seen here – I had to use pork belly ribs as these were what I had on hand at the time.  Also, I didn’t bother roasting: we found that grilling the pork on a smoking-hot grill pan with some dark sesame oil works just fine.

The result: very tender pork that falls apart as you prod it with a fork with a subtly sweet and nutty taste and aroma that goes very well with spicy kimchi and just-cooked rice.

Grilled Pork Belly Bossam

  • 1-1/2 kilos pork belly ribs
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons dark sesame oil

For the broth:

  • 2 tablespoons doenjang
  • 8 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 inch of ginger, sliced but unpeeled
  • 1 onion, cut into eighths

For the grill rub:

  • 2 tablespoons doenjang
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons grated ginger
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon kochujang or sriracha hot sauce

Place the pork and the broth ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Turn down the heat and simmer for 1-1/2 to 2 hours.  Allow the pork and broth to cool completely.  Remove the pork and reserve the broth for other dishes.

Combine all the ingredients for the rub and smear generously over the pork.  Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight to improve the flavor.

Heat the sesame oil in a grill pan over medium heat.  Add the marinated pork and cook for about 10 minutes, turning at the halfway mark.  Serve with rice and kimchi.

Serves 6.

Posted in A Girl at Lunch, Restaurant Hopping, The Flavors of Asia, The Well-read Foodie

In Which there are “Crab” Cakes…

Kani Cake
Kani Cake

Crab cakes are something straight out of Ruth Reichl’s autobiography Comfort Me with Apples.  In chapter two (The Success Machine), she takes lump crabmeat, mixes it up with breadcrumbs and a host of other good things, forms the mixture into patties, and fries the lot up in a lot of butter.  Reichl cooks these cakes in a fit of pique; worried sick that she doesn’t know what’s up with her then-husband (artist Douglas Hollis) who’s always away doing projects and who, alas, doesn’t seem to want to properly settle down and have children.  It’s a situation that seriously warrants luxurious, decadent, fattening, but so-comforting dishes such as proper Baltimore-style crab cakes.

While my own emotional state isn’t at all that rosy at the moment, I have not been prompted into cooking crab cakes at home.  Things aren’t that bad (well, not at the moment, knock on wood!), but a case of the blues calls for stodgy, tasty things.  Probably not the healthiest course of action, of course, but a spot of deliciousness on the tastebuds helps to lift one’s mood.

This what I was hoping for when I decided to try some nosh over at Coco Hut.

Crunchy outside, gooey within
Crunchy outside, gooey within

Coco Hut is run by the same team behind popular burger and taco joint Army/Navy.  But while A/N does Tex-Mex grub in the midst of faux military decor, Coco Hut served fried chicken and seafood with a more laid-back, island-hopper vibe.

For this particular lunch, I opted for the kani cakes and a plate of pancit palabok.  Oh, and to wash things down: a large glass of teamarind.  The teamarind is a tamarind-infused spin on iced sweet tea; this sweetly tart concoction is served ice-cold and goes down a treat on a hot summer afternoon.

The kani cakes were, alas, not quite crab cakes as these are made with surimi crabsticks, those faux crab-flavored fish cakes used for California maki.  Nevertheless, these make a (just-acceptable-enough) substitute as they work well with the mozzarella cheese and jalapeno bits.  The exterior of each “crab” cake is well-breaded with crispy panko and shatters when you sink your teeth into it; the crisp exterior gives way to the soft, gooey center.  Dip these babies in sweet chili sauce and you are good to go.

Coco Hut's pancit palabok
Coco Hut’s pancit palabok

I must confess, though, that I was a trifle disappointed with Coco Hut’s spin on pancit palabok.  While I like this sort of noodle dish good and saucy, this was too saucy and the amount of noodles felt rather short.  I think I would have been better off ordering the garlic chicken sotanghon I saw on the menu.  But, nevertheless, it was a fairly good meal.

Coco Hut:  2nd Floor – Bonifacio Stopover, 2nd Avenue cor. 31st St., Bonifacio Global City, Taguig

Posted in Home Cooking, The Well-read Foodie

In Which Breakfast is Inspired by an Indonesian Snack…

Here's a notion...
Here’s a notion…

Pancakes are the sort of breakfast you have when you want to take things easy and you aren’t exactly in any hurry.  For most Filipinos, it is a taste of luxury – and an accessible luxury at that.  For this reason, Pancake House remains one of the country’s favorite restaurants – and continues to be so despite the entry of foreign franchises such as IHOP and Slappy Cakes.  And for those who can’t be bothered to leave home to satisfy a pancake fix,  instant pancake mixes are a dime a dozen and are all dead-easy to use..

However, even the fluffiest, most golden pancakes tend to lose their appeal if that’s all people get for the most part.  Variety being the spice of life, there are as many variations on pancakes as there are ways to tell a joke.  These days, aside from the usual buttermilk and chocolate variants, you can get matcha-infused flapjacks, pancakes studded with chocolate chips, banana-walnut cakes, and even pancakes made with cake mixes to yield flavors like red velvet or even birthday cake with sprinkles.

Today’s recipe, however, is different.  Rather than appropriating the flavors of the West, I decided to play up tastes taken from our neighbors in the Southeast Asian region.  In this case, I decided to make pancakes from scratch inspired by an Indonesian snack: murtabak.

Consume with coffee
Consume with coffee

A popular halal street snack in many Muslim countries, a murtabak is a cross between a crepe and a turnover in that it consists of flour-based pancakes folded over a sweet or savory filling.  For the most part, these are usually savory things and are usually filled with beef or lamb mince before being doused with curry, gravy, or a soy-vinegar dip.

My recipe was inspired a specific variety of the dish commonly eaten in Indonesia called murtabak manis.  For this dish, the pancake batter is sweetened and flavored with either vanilla or almond extract.  The resulting griddle cakes are then filled with a mixture of chocolate, cheese, and crushed roasted peanuts before being folded over and handed to eager customers.

This recipe gets its basic form from Nigella Lawson‘s recipe for American breakfast pancakes.  However, once you’ve added the grated chocolate and cheese, you get something totally different from a standard-issue Yankee johnny-cake.  Not too sweet and intriguingly savory at the same time, these come into their own sandwiched with lashings of peanut butter and finished off with a drizzle of honey (not syrup).

Murtabak is normally eaten as a snack in the afternoons, but I can’t see any reason why you shouldn’t have these for breakfast.  😉

Murtabak Breakfast Pancakes

  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar (preferably muscovado sugar)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 30mL corn or canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 300mL milk
  • 225 grams all-purpose flour
  • 25 grams grated dark chocolate
  • 15 – 20 grams grated Parmesan or Edam cheese
  • butter for greasing the pan
  • peanut butter and honey, to serve

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients save for the chocolate and cheese.  Whisk together the oil, milk, vanilla, and eggs.  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the egg mixture.  Beat very well until a smooth, creamy appearance is achieved.  Add the chocolate and cheese and mix until well combined.

Heat a griddle or a large frying pan over medium heat.  Add just enough butter to grease the surface.  Add batter by 1/4 cup-increments and cook for about a minute on each side; immediately transfer to a serving dish.

To serve, allow four pancakes per person (they won’t be very big, really).  Spread one cake with peanut butter and top with another; continue spreading until you have a stack four cakes high.  Drizzle over with honey.

Serves 4.