02 February 2007

the way to a Filipino's heart is through the stomach

kare kare (makeshift recipe below)

Filipino culinary culture follows a rustic, oral tradition. Dishes are comprised of simple ingredients (well, mostly meat) with simple presentation. Recipes are not written down in cookbook for posterity. I have always been amazed at how my mom and my grandma would just "know" how much to include of what. Cooking skills are passed on in an informal apprenticeship, where the child watches on as her parent cooks hearty meals for the whole family.

It wasn't until I moved out and lived on my own (in a situation where I didn't have dining points to live on) that I realized that as much as I grew up watching the women of my house chop, saute, and fry day-in and day-out, I didn't really know how to do it for myself. I was simply a consumer of Filipino food, while my elders happily have been the suppliers. In fact, that was part of the parent-child caretaking role. Food = love. Therefore, to show and receive love, the parent cooks, and the child eats. Food is a source of pride, and it is an act of giving of oneself.

Until recently, I didn't really try to cook Filipino food on my own because the role seemed too foreign to me. I don't cook when I'm at home in Buffalo Grove, my parents cook for me. And when I am on my own, I cook "non-home" food (i.e., non-Filipino) like salads, sandwiches, pasta, random stir fry, and of course ramen. Silly as it may sound, it was as if I had a resistance to bringing such a major part of my life growing up into my present world. Perhaps, if I cooked Filipino food for myself, then I would be denying my parents their God-given role. Plus, there's no such thing as Filipino cooking for one! Food, like love, is best shared with as many people as possible.

Well, I have had the good fortune of finding an amazing group of Filipina women as roommates, and they've helped me to feel like I have an extension of my family here in San Francisco. It's been comforting to simply share meals w/ them and talk about all the amazing Filipino food we grew up eating. Soon enough, I started craving traditional Filipino food, not just eating it but wanting to cook it too.

Finally, I was ready to attempt to replicate my mom's homecooking masterpieces; this would be my latest rite of passage. So I have started calling up Mom and Tatang and asking them a million times, "So, how do you cook [insert dish]?" I realized that my parents delighted in this new role as teacher; they could finally show their love through food once again. It really is amazing how good it makes my parents to feel like they are needed and, more importantly, that they are contributing to my satiety. It was wonderful to find a balance to the parent-child relationship where I could be independent and still rely on my parents (To hell with attachment theory).

My first independently cooked meal was pancit guisado (i.e., stir fried noodles), of my mom's own formulation. That was a hit and I am eager to try it again for my roommate's birthday this month. Tonight, I took on the adventure of cooking kare kare (pictured above). Kare kare is an oxtail stew w/ peanut sauce, easily one of my favorite Filipino homecooked dishes. Like most traditional cooking, it is NOT low-fat, low-calorie, or low-anything. However, unlike many other Filipino dishes, it does include vegetables. No, I do not have a formal recipe and in my attempt to be truly authentic, I avoided using a recipe online. Here is basically what my parents told me to do (it's all trial and error anyway, how spontaneous!):

Ingredients (varying by how much meat you have, should be proportioned so that veggies don't overwhelm)
about 1-1.5 lbs Ox tail, have them chopped if sold whole
1 Onion
chopped Garlic
1/2 -3/4 c. Peanut butter (best to use smooth)
Green beans
1-2 Japanese eggplant
4-5 heads of Bok choy
Napa cabbage (my family doesn't include this so I omitted it)
~ 1 tsp. Annatto seed powder
~ 1 tsp. Cornstarch
Salt or bagoong ( aka, salted shrimp paste)

Boil the ox tail for a very long time until it is tender, but not too soft or it will become mushy and fall apart in the sauce (on low fire anywhere from 2-3 hours depending on how much meat is on the bone). While the meat is boiling, skim off the scum that forms and as much oil as you can. You can also choose to cook the vegetables in this pot and then remove and separate the veggies when they're cooked, to be added at the very end. Separate the stock and the meat. If this is the night before, you can place the stock in the fridge and then scrape off the excess fat in the morning. Saute the onions and garlic in some oil, then add the meat and brown for a bit. Add some of the stock to the pan enough to make a good amount of sauce, but not too much b/c you can always add but not take away (too thin kare kare is a pity). Add peanut butter (no I have no measurement, I just guessed and tasted til it was peanutty enough) and break it down in the liquid. In a separate cup or bowl, dissolve a small amount (about 1 tsp) of the annatto seed and cornstarch in water. The annatto powder will give it a scrumptious orange tint and the cornstarch will help the sauce to thicken. At this point, you can add the veggies and boil til it's all cooked. Otherwise, just add the precooked veggies and that's it. Usually kare kare is served with bagoong (aka, salted shrimp paste, pictured at left) as a condiment. Unfortunately, I mysteriously developed an allergy to it, so I just seasoned the meat w/ salt as it was browning. Serve your kare kare with rice, and then reserve at least an hour to recover from food coma. Enjoy!


the jesuit gourmet said...

it's always a delight to see someone reliving their filipino culinary heritage.

what's your next dish? :)

Tanya Regala said...

Hi Steph!

Your kare kare looks really delicious!

I'm collecting a list of the best kare kare recipes in my blog, and I included your kare kare recipe (just a link though, hope you don't mind). You can see it at

Keep in touch!