I’ve been flying overseas since I was around two-and-a-half. A lot of people whom I’ve had the displeasure of working with tried to clock me for that over the years (mainly because they wouldn’t believe me as I don’t look like a jetsetter), but then they see all the stamps in my old passports.
But this isn’t a rant against those people. Today is a frank discussion on airline food: specifically why I like it and how it has evolved over the years.
Unless you’re flying on a budget airline, your airfare already includes at least one meal. This is especially true in the case of flights running four or more hours to international routes, though Philippine Airlines does give passengers light snacks (usually coffee and a stuffed bun) on domestic flights.
Depending on what time you’re flying, this can easily be breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In the case of red-eye flights or the last flight out, you aren’t really sure if you can consider it breakfast, supper, or a deucedly heavy midnight snack.
In any case, the food served aboard a plane usually reflects the airline’s nationality, where you’re flying out of, and where you’re flying to. For example: Singapore Airlines offers Singaporean specialities like laksa and sate ayam [chicken satay] on flights heading to and from Singapore.
You can also see this on the AirAsiaSantan menu (which you can order in advance or aboard your flight, though you have to pay extra on both counts) as it offers Malaysian / Indonesian dishes like sate ayam with sambal kacang [peanut sauce] and ketupat [savoury steamed rice cakes], as well as their famous Pak Nasser’s nasi lemak.
I’ve noticed that most people tend to sneer at airline food, often claiming that it tends to be flavourless, even insipid. Some go so far as to complain that it’s never at the right temperature.
However, these people don’t understand that the pressure inside the cabin tends to dull one’s senses of smell and taste. Also, even in business class, these meals are prepared and loaded into the galleys in bulk and kept at a specific temperature until serving time.
Having toured the SATS facility in Singapore which prepares meals for Singapore Airlines and for outbound flights for Philippine Airlines and other carriers, I’ve gained a better appreciation of how airline food is prepared, the specific standards for safety and quality, as well as the research and development that go into menus over time.
And seriously, if you’re going to complain about the food, spare a thought for the people who prepared your meal. Otherwise, go pack your own flight meal if you’re so inclined to be finicky.
“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?”
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 balut, penoy (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.
Another must-try dish is the sinampalukang itikor 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.
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 flan. The 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…)
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…
…I went and chucked the lot into a tasty duck curry for Easter Sunday dinner. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s the assignment: fly in, fly out on the same day for an Institute event in the Visayas. You won’t have time to tour ’round as this is all work (and you will be shlepping equipment – laptop, DSLR camera, recorder, tarps in a carrying sling – for much of the day; you will be interviewing senior members of the Cebu business community; and you are the [sort-of] official photographer so you’ll be on your feet much of the time). You shan’t have that much time to sample local delicacies, but – at the very least – you will be fed well.
Thus was the scenario from last week when the Institute of Corporate Directors for whom I work as a marketing/communications specialist flew over to Cebu for an event honoring two new fellows for the Institute. Fly out of Manila at the crack of dawn; fly back to Manila in the early evening (air traffic permitting). And don’t worry about going hungry as the City Sports Club in Cebu caters quite well.
The City Sports Club is a gem of a facility: excellent sporting facilities, a refreshing-looking pool that made us want to jump in, ample conference and banqueting facilities for the locals and for those from outside Cebu. The downstairs resto-bar, Bistro 88, does good eats with more than substantial portions.
A good brunch option if you’re feeling peckish from the drive from the airport is the amply-portioned Club Sub Sandwich. Here, a crisp-crusted mini-baguette is grilled and filled to the gills with ham, bacon, salami, and crisp mesclun leaves. The sarnie is simply dressed with mayonnaise and ballpark-style mustard and a dish of fat, chunky potato edges is served on the side.
While the flavors are typical of many sandwiches, the heft is what sets this wee beastie apart. One sarnie easily feeds two ravenous people (seriously) and keeps them stoked for a morning’s worth of setting up, running around with cameras or clipboards, and interviewing local brass.
The City Sports Club’s function food is also pretty good. In this case, the meal began with a mild spin on traditional pork sinigang – not bland, so you could mistake it for nilaga; but just tart enough to let you know that tamarind leaves and not pulp were used as the souring agent. It’s the sort of thing that helped whet the appetite for a neat spin on chicken cacciatore.
This Italian classic featured chicken breast and thigh fillets rather than bone-in pieces, but these were tender and coated with a savory tomato sauce. The chicken was a good match for the parsley flecked rice that came with it. The vegetables, I must say, were standard-issue banquet food.
While sodas and iced tea were offered to slake intense summer thirsts, one would do well to grab a watermelon shake (or, for that matter, any other smoothie made with fresh in-season fruit) to cool down on a hot day.
City Sports Club: Cardinal Rosales Ave., Cebu City 6000, Cebu