Feasting on Duck by a Country Road

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In a small shack by the roadside…

“Are you folks going out today?” I yawned to my dad on the morning of Black Saturday. See, we’re the sort of family that stays home during Holy Week: no trips to the beach, active participation during the religious services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, bantering with each other over the points made by the Dominican friars during the annual broadcast of The Seven Last Words live from the Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City, and I do my Easter baking on Black Saturday. So, we’re pretty much city-bound (and local community-bound) during Paschaltide.

So it came as a surprise when my father said, “How about duck in Laguna for lunch?”

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Poached and fried till golden…beak and all

Duck is a meat that rarely makes an appearance on most Filipino tables unless you live in Pateros in the northern part of Manila or in the town of Victoria in the southern province of Laguna. For both places, ducks and duck eggs are both a source of nourishment and a long-standing source of income. Balut, that infamous duck embryo delicacy foisted on unsuspecting foreign tourists and squeamish Fil-Am kids, has long been Pateros’ claim to fame; in Victoria, there are roadside stalls that sell live or dressed ducks, as well as balutpenoy (hard-boiled duck eggs), as well as both salt-cured and fresh duck eggs. In the case of the latter, it’s all part of the “One Town, One Product” (OTOP) initiative of the Department of Trade and Industry which encourages self-reliance in rural areas by encouraging MSMEs.

At long-time duck farmer Leo Dator’s humorously named Ang Tindahan ng Itlog ni Kuya (aka Mr Duck), duck lovers can indulge in a menu where duck meat and eggs are everywhere. Seriously: you can get a meal that’s ducky in every way from soup to dessert. Other than that, one can also get organically farmed ducks, duck eggs (fresh and preserved), and other niceties such as those au courant salted-egg potato crisps (made with their own eggs, natch), locally-made noodles, and other snacks native to Laguna province.

The speciality of the house, however, is kinulob na itik. Similar to Indonesian bebek goreng (crisply fried duck), the organically raised duck is first poached to take some of the gaminess off, and then deep-fried till crisp on the outside, tender and savoury within. Richer and more flavourful than the fast-food fried chicken so many Filipinos are fond of (and, really: I can’t see why), a single order is good enough for a group of four – with leftovers, to boot.

 

Sinampalukang Itik – look at all those chilies!

Another must-try dish is the sinampalukang itik or duck cooked sinigang-style in a sour tamarind broth with finely chopped shallots and plenty of fresh finger chilies. It’s quite a change from the usual sinigang: meatier, more robust, somewhat fiery because of the chilies chucked into the pot. It’s a dish that seriously demands to be eaten with plenty of rice – and the rice here is excellent. It may be plain, but it’s deliciously fragrant and the grains are moreishly chewy; it is certainly the perfect foil for the fatty goodness of the duck.

One does NOT say no to this sort of leche flan

There’s halo-halo on the menu for afters, but I would recommend you go out with the same thing you came in with and have a ducky end to the meal with the leche flanThe local take on this sweet favourite comes out denser, heavier, and creamier than the pale yellow examples you get in other parts of the country. Here, as duck yolks are used, the custard is a deeper orange hue and the resulting dish has a chewy, gooey texture that is seriously appealing even to the finickiest of diners. (But, if even this puts you off, you’ve no business eating.)

The tindahan is actually split into two parts: the main restaurant which is a roofed structure open on all sides with tables for dining on, a counter for ordering from, and a kitchen where the magic happens. The other part is the store which sells all things ducky (yes, including live Long Island Pekin ducks – fat and rather charming-tempered ones, really. You’d want to keep one as a pet, but you’d also consider cooking the creature come Christmas this year, so…)

Duck-egg Challah, anyone?

I ended up buying a clutch of fresh duck eggs and a whole kinulob to take away. Duck eggs are an amazing addition to one’s baking arsenal, if I do say so myself. They impart a richer flavour to eggy breads like classic Jewish challah, for one thing. I’ve yet to see what duck eggs can do in cakes or biscuits, but I’ve seen recipes for duck egg pavlovas (whites in the pav, yolks in the custard to pour over it) and as we’re at the start of mango season in these parts…

Oh, and remember that I bought a whole duck for take away: we had that bird for Black Saturday dinner and, yes, there were leftovers. Those definitely didn’t go to waste, of course, because…

Duck curry, yes.

…I went and chucked the lot into a tasty duck curry for Easter Sunday dinner. 🙂

What Does it Mean to Write About Food?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

 

In Which the Blogger Approximates the Savour of a Classic Thai Curry…

Not your usual Massaman curry

Not your usual Massaman curry

Massamana curry made by my beloved, 

Is made fragrant by cumin and other spices.

Any man who consumes this curry

Is bound to long for her.

(Verses dedicated to Queen Sri Suriyendra of Thailand and written by her husband, King Rama II)

The massaman curry is one of the most popular dishes in all of Thai cuisine which, in itself, is interesting as it isn’t exactly native to Thailand.  As the story goes, the making of this particular curry as well as its name comes from the Persian merchants who came over the Silk Route to Old Siam in the late 17th Century and settled there permanently.  Unlike the more traditional yellow curries made with ginger and galangal or even the fragrant green curries made with basil and lemongrass, the massaman pays homage to its Middle Eastern roots with its potent mix of sweet and earthy spices and the fact that it is normally made with beef due to its halal origins.

Traditionally, a massaman spice mix (Thai: nam phrik kaeng matsaman) is made with cumin, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, mace (a spice made from dried and ground nutmeg rind), and bay leaves.  The resulting spice paste is fried in oil with finely chopped shallots before being stirred into rich coconut milk with a touch of sweet-tart tamarind for a wonted sharpness.  It is so headily fragrant that, as shown above, the late King Rama II waxed poetic about a version that his bride cooked for him – and how the dish only strengthened his love and ardor for that noble lady.

When in doubt of your spice blending abilities, ready-made pastes work like a charm.

When in doubt of your spice blending abilities, ready-made pastes work like a charm.

I must admit that Queen Sri Suriyendra must have been quite a cook given her husband’s verses of praise for the meal she set before him.  Indeed, it is said that this particular Thai royal consort made her own spice blends and insisted on doing her own cooking despite, I’d like to think, an army of servants at her beck and call.  (Incidentally, she became the mother of King Mongkut whom most people are familiar with from the Broadway musical The King and I.)  It takes an amazing sort of woman to do that sort of thing.

I, however, am not as confident with my spice blending abilities as that particular queen from the Golden Triangle.  The only two spice blends I have memorised are pretty generic: the blend I use for Christmas gingerbread and the Moroccan-inspired one I use sparingly for grilled chicken or lamb.  Full-blown curry mixes, however, I leave to the experts.  This, of course, has led to my dependence on Japanese curry roux and this most recent discovery, the Kanokwan recipe pastes from Thailand.

Each packet is good for one stewpot’s worth of curry and is deliciously fragrant: heady and earthy with cumin and mace, a slight sweetness from the cinnamon and star anise.  Cooked into coconut milk, it becomes a gravy that is both decadently rich yet cut just so by the faint sharpness of dried tamarind and fiery chilies.

It isn’t exactly orthodox to use it in a meatball curry, but I find that it transforms a standard-issue dinner viand into something decidedly exotic yet lusciously satisfying.

Now: if only I could get the lodestone of my existence to write glowing, praising verses about me and my cooking, I daresay I’d feel more than blessed…