Thursday, 29 September 2011

Food and Culture Programme: Finding a Part of Self in Filipino Food

Last Saturday, I received an e-mail confirmation stating approval of my proposed research titled "Students at the Table: Stone Soup and Undergraduate Food Culture on a Liberal Arts Campus." And what proper timing! On Tuesday, I held my first formal food and culture programme of the year which incorporates the research questions I am studying. For the time being, the research is for my own personal inquiry but I hope to transform it into presentable conference and/or publishable material. Until that latter part comes to fruition, I see this as an added bonus not only for a new programming module of my design but as a means of critiquing already existing programmes and creating a space to talk within a field of study (or rather an activity of being) I find incredibly fascinating. (NB: I do recognize my first food and culture programme, however, as the Stone Hall potluck.)

Before I get to the actual cooking component of the programme, I do want to share a bit of the background of my research. Following is a snapshot of my research proposal which I submitted for internal review:

"Originally offered to resident assistants and head residents because of my own personal interest in the culinary arts, the timing of these programs could not have been any better. On August 23, 2011, an article was published on-line and refers to a sociology project conducted by Profs. Maria Lowe and Reginald Byron, and two undergraduates, Griffin Ferry and Melissa Garcia. The project, influenced to some degree by the many times asked question "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" concluded with the acknowledgement of the dining hall, more so than the residence hall or the class room, as the key center for students' (here, liberal arts undergraduates) understanding of race relations. [...] In the coming months, I would like to use my upcoming food and culture programs as a vehicle for gathering qualitative data on students' sense of "culture" (purposefully broadly defined) and their connection to food. By unintended consequence, this approach to food brings the aforementioned study's suggestions into question by intentionally bringing the dining experience into the residence halls."

Indeed, of the many interesting components of the upcoming food and culture programmes, the fact these programmes are being brought into the community to which the food will be consumed and discussed provides a very unique opportunity to better engage participants in a comfortable environment. Having shared all this, my "interviews" become situated within a more informal setting around the table/dining area, and are generally themed within the context of food and five areas: technique, identity, culture, location, and communication. In addition, and after having introduced it toward the end of the first discussion, a theme of sustainability will continue to be addressed moving forward.

Those of you who have perused my blog in the past should know about my leaning toward Franco-Italian cuisine. However, this first food and culture programme--as alluded to in the opening post photo--grounded itself around Filipino cuisine, and by extension helped me to situate my typical gastronomic comfort within a genre of food that "should" resonate with my heritage and ethnic identity. I must say I quickly found myself referring to the fact that, such is the case with many who don't typically cook specific dishes, I have an acute sense for what tastes right, i.e., my parents' cooking. And knowing this full well in advance, why even bother learning to cook? ("It just won't taste the same.") Granted it's a rather commonplace excuse, but trying to share an ethnic part of my personal culture proved to be difficult without any grounding in the cuisine I grew up with. I found myself exploring my own research.

Tuesday's menu included pancit canton and egg rolls (both my mom's "recipes"), leche flan (which I have practically memorised by heart), and a Chinese dish created by a student and his sous chef. I'd like to note that in the first set of parentheses, I set off recipes within quotations for a specific reason, namely that I see the term recipe as a strict guide to preparing food. And while food can most certainly be related to a science experiment, I find that focusing too much on the restrictive nature and step by step approach to cooking takes away from the autonomy and sense of ownership when it comes to preparing a meal. This is not to say recipes shouldn't exist nor should mise en place and ingredient list be totally abandoned but rather the end product should be something of one's own creation and not a replication of someone else's work. I whole-heartedly agree when, upon asking whether or not it was okay to share her recipes, my mom replied with "you can give anyone a recipe, but it will never turn out the same way as mine." Without question, there are techniques and (as the student who prepared the Chinese dish also noted throughout our cooking conversation) a sense of feeling that goes into the food. While he specifically referred to the ability to gauge measurements without so much focusing on a prescribed list of ingredients (think in terms of adapting to what's available), I would go so far as to also add (cue the cheesy music) that extra ingredient of love. Talk about a stream of consciousness... setting all this theoretical dialogue set aside for now, let's (finally) get to cooking.

By the time I arrived to the hosting kitchen, it was a little before 5:00 P.M. Students who were interested in learning how to cook these dishes were invited to start arriving around 5:30/6:00 P.M., with dinner scheduled to start at 7 o'clock. I first began the process by getting a pot of water boiling as I got a smaller pot heating with 1 c granulated sugar and about 1/4 c water. This smaller pot was for the caramel of my flan (which this time I more or less forced myself to create from memory). As the larger pot was starting to boil, I got about three and half pounds of chicken thighs in the water to not only cook the chicken but to create fresh chicken stock to cook the noodles. In theory, at this point, the caramel of my flan should have been made; this was not the case and so I eventually realised the sugar had crystalised. Not having had any lemon juice to help counteract the crystalisation process (as I had done in previous flan rounds), I adjusted the process by dissolving the sugar over low heat and less water. (I also checked up on my recipe after the fact and realised I was trying to make caramel out of twice as much sugar than I usually do!) When the sugar finally browned correctly, I transferred the caramel to a medium-sized baking dish and put it in the fridge to cool quickly as I followed through with the rest of my flan recipe.

As the chicken was nearing completion, the student sous chefs arrived (one of them has a Filipina grandmother) and began chopping ingredients for the egg rolls and then eventually for the pancit canton (canton--yellow/egg-based--is my preferred noodle versus bihon, the transparent rice noodle which is my sister's favourite). After the chicken thighs (which I deskinned prior to boiling) had boiled slightly uncovered for about an hour or so, I transferred them to a bowl; one of the students then shredded them for the pancit. The chicken then out of the bowl, I allowed the stock to continue to boil uncovered for about 15-20 more minutes. Then, I poured some stock into a wok and cooked three packages of noodles. At that point, I found out we had a vegetarian in the group; we washed very well the large pot and got water boiling to cook the fourth package of noodles. With the noodles cooked, we added the chopped ingredients as the chopping was completed. To the main batch, we added the shredded chicken, match stick carrots, chopped cabbage, green beans sliced diagonally on the bias, and sliced Chinese sausage. For the vegetarian version, we of course omitted the meat. [In retrospect, I neglected to first sauté some garlic and onions which definitely would have added the missing flavour I was looking for.]

As the noodles were cooking and then warming, we mixed together the egg roll filling and after teaching the students how to roll the egg rolls, they took charge of rolling the rest. In this filling batch, we had a little over a pound of ground beef to which was mixed in (approximately) 1.5 c frozen peas,  2 c diced carrots, 1 diced russet potato, and 3/4 c raisins. After frying the egg rolls in canola oil (not the best photo above but they certainly went quickly!), they were then seasoned with salt (in a similar fashion to salting French fries). [In retrospect, the filling ran out quicker than expected, and the egg rolls had more of a fresh spring roll flavour, because of the fact I forgot to also combine in the ground pork. I further noticed an additional missing ingredient--one egg to help bind the filling together--as well as the missing taste which I attribute to forgetting to also include some sweet pickle relish. Talk about cooking with time constraints and forgetting the love!] There was so much leftover chicken and Chinese sausage, as well as egg roll wrappers (which, along with the sweet chili sauce, was purchased at La Herba Buena), that two of the students ended up rolling their own adapted versions.

With the egg rolls nearly all fried and the noodles definitely ready at this point, we were also treated with the spicy (and I mean SPICY) cubed potato recipe cooked by the two students earlier in the evening.

And finally, for dessert and as we talked about food and our different connections to it, we enjoyed the flan (which represented the largest single sheet of flan I've made; usually the custard is divided between two smaller pans). For more photos from this first food and culture (research) programme, click here.

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