(by Sherilyn Siy)
As I was growing up in Manila, we dined out and bought take-out almost as often as we ate home-cooked meals. My dad, adept at boiling, was in charge of cooking big batches of hard-boiled eggs, sweet potatoes, and corn. My mother cooked with more variety but often complained about having to do it every single day.
It didn’t help that our stove was installed outside the house, something my mother insisted upon, to keep oil and food smells from lingering inside the house. Bringing ingredients, condiments, pots, pans, and other cooking implements outside in batches, past a screen door that slammed shut, was tedious. My mother would often holler, “I need a spoon!” or “Someone get me the soy sauce!” from outside. It was a pain to cook in the heat or rain, or when strong winds threatened to extinguish the stove’s flame. At night, our legs became mosquito buffet, and the lighting outside was so bad, it was difficult to see the “doneness” of what we’re cooking.
For upper middle-class families like mine, an outdoor stove and cooking arrangement was pretty unusual. I never really thought much about it, and I suppose, like many things in childhood, I accepted things as they were. But I do remember wishing we had indoor kitchens like many of the homes of my classmates, and telling myself that when I had my own home, I'd make sure the kitchen was inside the house.
My mother’s repertoire consisted mostly of fried fishes (my favorite was fillet of tangigue or wahoo) and vegetables sautéed with ginger, garlic, tomatoes, and shrimp. She never baked because 1) we did not have an oven, 2) baking was too troublesome with its exact measurements, and 3) baking, she claimed, would make all of us fat. On special occasions such as birthdays, our cakes were always store-bought, and we celebrated at a Chinese restaurant.
I'm Chinese-Filipino, or Filipino of Chinese descent. My grandparents originated from Fujian Province in China and were among the thousands of Chinese who migrated en masse around the fall of the Qing Dynasty, which makes me a third-generation ethnic Chinese. I do not think my parents took us to Chinese restaurants with the specific intent of celebrating Chinese culture. Rather, it was more because they loved Chinese food (other cuisines were not as satisfying to them), and Chinese restaurants provided good value for money spent.
Growing up as I did, I concluded that cooking well is extremely difficult and best left to experts.
As is traditional for many Chinese families in the Philippines, I lived with my parents until I got married at 30. (I think it was a relief for them and for me that I finally get on with my own life.) I married an American who started the first and biggest food bank in Japan, Second Harvest Japan, and moved to Japan after we were married. Eating out was expensive, and what I wanted to eat was often difficult to find. Soon enough, I learned that if I Googled “[any dish I was craving] + recipe,” then what the great chef Auguste Gusteau said in the movie Ratatouille was pretty much true: “Anyone can cook.”
Cooking well is basically:
Following instructions (read the recipe all the way to the end before starting or risk ruining your dish).
Being adaptable and learning to substitute (i.e., Japanese potato starch works well for many recipes that call for cornstarch; yogurt works as well as the more expensive sour cream).
Taking risks (yes, put five more tablespoons of shikuwasa juice into that cheesecake when the recipe called for only one).
Trusting your instincts as to what you think tastes good when you deviate from the recipe (love ginger and garlic? Go crazy).
Like any activity, you get better with practice and learning from mistakes. I knew my skills had improved when one afternoon, while we were out driving, the kids asked where we were going to have dinner. My daughter Ruby said, “I hope we eat at home. I love Mommy’s cooking.”
Ruby enjoys giving detailed explanations of her favorites. “Do you know what my super favorite dish is that you cook?” I made several wrong guesses until she finally said, “It’s your mabo tofu. Mommy’s mabo tofu is the best. It’s better than the kyushoku [school lunch] mabo tofu — their tofu is too hard.”
Cooking at home is cheaper, and you can control to a great extent what goes into your food. I also believe that the cook’s energy, emotions, and intentions are infused into the dish. One day, my partner came home with a headache. After dinner, he announced that he felt much better. “Wow, Mommy,” Ruby remarked. “Your food is medicine.”
A friend in Tokyo, who was downsizing, passed on her oven to me, and it opened up a whole new world of delights. That oven is a godsend for making my daughter’s yearly birthday request: Mama’s double double chocolate cake. It’s just the recipe on the back of the package of the Ghirardelli cocoa powder, except the frosting is a glossy, ooze-down type that I stumbled upon when I didn’t have the confectioners' sugar required by the Ghirardelli recipe.
(Ruby helping me chop coriander for a Filipino style salsa)
Ruby is now 11 years old, and loves cooking alongside me, chopping ingredients or stirring the pot when my hands are full, and she can make several dishes on her own. I often think back to, and re-read, a lovely letter my partner wrote me several years ago, saying that Ruby was lucky to have me as a mom, and I'm deeply touched. But really, I know who the lucky one is.
Kid-Friendly Mabo Tofu
When I was growing up, a visit to a Chinese restaurant was not complete without an order of mabo tofu. Originally from Sichuan, this dish is typically so spicy, we would order it with a request to make it "mild." When the dish arrived, my dad would add chili peppers to his portion and work up a good sweat. My kids, including my one-year-old, can tolerate a small amount of spicy doubanjiang. Adjust it according to your taste.
a knob of grated ginger
1 - 2 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
1 t. spicy doubanjiang
1 t. additive-free chicken stock granules
1 T. sake
1 t. sugar
1 1/2 T. soy sauce
sesame oil for sautéing
1/4 lb. ground pork or chicken
approximately 12 oz. silken (called kinu in Japanese) tofu, cut into small cubes
chopped spring onions for garnish
(if needed) a small amount of water and potato starch or cornstarch to thicken sauce
Mix seasoning ingredients in a small bowl, and set aside.
Heat sesame oil and sauté ground meat until lightly browned.
Heat through and add water if necessary.
Carefully add tofu, so as not to break it up too much.
If there’s too much water in the dish, thicken the sauce with the starch mixture.
Remove from heat and top with spring onions.
Best served over a bowl of steaming plain rice.