3/06/2012
Seolleongtang, laing and a disappointing burger

The thing about the stomach being the closest way to a man's heart? They weren't lying.

But I'm not writing about love, though. No, I've done that too many times. That, and there's no chance somebody will lovingly cook me a meal just to make me fall in love with her. I don't think anybody thinks I'm worth the effort.

Unfortunate, because I love a good meal. (Aren't we all?) And sometimes you know a lot about a person from the meals they cook.

This is the point when I realize I shouldn't have started this blog entry off with that thing about the stomach being the closest way to a man's heart. The metaphor was off from the start. For one, it's a bit of a cliché. And then there's the fact that I'm not writing about knowing a person through his cooking. I was just planning to write about trying foreign cuisines and how you know a lot about the cultures you're encountering through their food. I swear, the metaphor sounded good initially, and now I can't write my way out of it.

Well, the "sometimes you know a lot about a person from the meals they cook" was a start. But no. Let's pretend I did not write the first few paragraphs, all right? Meat of the topic. (Lesson: not everything should start with a metaphor.)

A month ago, my mother celebrated her birthday, and we ate at the (then) newly-opened Bulgogi Brothers at ATC. Not exactly the best example of authentic Korean cuisine, for it's mostly limited to grilled meats, but at least it's a step further from Kimchi (in all those food courts) and its narrow-minded definition of Korean cuisine. And I've always wanted to try authentic Korean cuisine. Guess it comes close enough.

I actually enjoyed the meal because of the side dishes. Then again, Korean cuisine revolves around all these side dishes, rather than being centered on one pompous course. Sure, there was the bulgogi, cooked in front of us by this Korean girl who's training the new employees, but there were all the bits in between which I actually enjoyed more.

Her name was Michelle, I think, and she was nice enough to explain to us what some of the items were. There was this pumpkin salad, which is more or less mashed potato, only it's pumpkin. And it has a bunch of other veggies in it. And I really liked it. Their kimchi servings were small, but understandable, because there were a lot of other sidings in tow, but it was better than the store-bought kimchi we had a few times before.

And then there was this soup. Seaweed soup, we were told. We were probably the first customers to have it in the outlet's then two-day history. "It's offered to those who celebrate their birthdays," Michelle explained to us, right after all the serving staff sang Happy Birthday, in Korean, to my mom. "It's to help with fertility."

Why my mother would need to enhance her fertility, I wasn't sure, but the soup - a freebie - was nothing I've ever tasted before. It's subtle, but not exactly subtle. And it doesn't taste grassy either. I can't quite explain it,  but it's really, really good. I suggest you try it, provided it's your birthday.

Of course, I told Jeany all about it. She's the resident Korean in my circle, although having been in the United States all her life she's really an American who happens to be born to Korean parents. But her parents, I gather, are still steeped in Korean tradition... or at least, they still listen to ridiculously ubiquitous K-pop.

Actually, I didn't tell her about it immediately. We talked about it weeks later, in the middle of a conversation about large tubs of peanut butter (and why she's so damn amazed by its existence), which led to a conversation about New York delicatessens, which led to a conversation a Filipino restaurant which happens to be across where she studies.

The place is called Maharlika, and I stumbled upon it while reading a back issue of New York magazine. (Yes, they sell back issues of that magazine here. Yes, I buy them occasionally.) Knowing that Jeany, since meeting me, has been somewhat fascinated with everything Filipino, I thought I'd mention it to her.

"Is it better than that place you mentioned, that was mentioned on Glee?" she wondered. "Jollibee?"

"Well, Jollibee is fastfood. It's a quintessential Filipino experience, but it isn't Filipino food."

Maharlika is this restaurant that's open for brunch, lunch and dinner. "Filipino moderne", they call it, although the menu suggests comfort food for people like me. It's Filipino food. It's in New York City. If I am in New York City and am feeling homesick, I'd probably go there for a bite and a chance to talk to someone in my native tongue. (Side note: have you tried it out, Miss Pam?)

"Eggs Imelda," Jeany pointed out. It's an item on the brunch menu. A sandwich with a poached egg, grilled prawns, laing, and hollandaise sauce made from calamansi, all in a pandesal. Well, two of them, actually. The description sounds delicious to me, but to Jeany, who doesn't have much of an idea, it's the name that sounds delicious. If there's anything Filipino that she's oddly really fascinated with, it's Imelda Marcos and her infamous shoe collection.

"My God, I want to go to brunch there. More exciting than the typical French bistro American crap."

I actually felt good when she said that. Here I was, being an ambassador of all that is good in the Philippines, or whatever's left of it, and convincing a Korean-American - a self-professed Gossip Girl type - to eat laing. Or, as I described it, "taro leaves, sometimes meat, cooked - boiled? stewed, there, stewed. - in coconut milk."

Jeany was, however, staring at the word "calamansi" on the menu. Philippine lemon, I explained. A little bigger than a penny, but much more intense that the ordinary lemon. She was really fascinated, and I liked it. I just had to talk about kare-kare ("Using peanut butter there is cheating. My late great grandmother would grind peanuts to make the sauce thick.") and sisig ("It's not extreme, it's divine.") and sinigang ("The souring agent's often tamarind, or kamias or bayabas. Don't know what they are in English.").

And that led to a little detour to Korean cuisine, and to that seaweed soup I mentioned earlier, and to seolleongtang, a "boiled meat soup" (in her words) made of meat bone. It's different from sinigang, I explained to her, because our soups tend to be really hearty. That, and we Filipinos seem to like big chunks of meat in our dishes. Pochero, adobo, you get the idea.

Yesterday I was telling her about adobo, and how easy it is to cook. I haven't cooked it myself, but I know it's just chicken and pork, soy sauce, vinegar and peppers, which you leave to boil - and which you should never stir, else it'll taste like "the vinegar you dip things with". I was getting carried away, because adobo is much better than the lunch I had earlier that day.

Another new restaurant opened in ATC: the fifth branch of Johnny Rockets, this stereotypically American hamburger joint dressed as a diner. It's glossy and expectedly retro, with old-school Coca-Cola posters hung on the walls, and the Shangri-Las on the (working) jukebox. I tried it out knowing that, when the place officially opens (it's currently on a dry run) there will be long lines for five weeks and I will never get to try it out.

So, I had a Rocket Single, with onion rings on the side, and a chocolate shake. I was given fries instead, by mistake, although my server wasn't apologetic: "unlimited fries kami, sir, I'll just send your onion rings later." Fair enough. I already had a platter of fries before giving my order. I got my rings later - the girl serving me sent them my way before dancing to some disco tune at one o'clock flat - and they're crunchier than the ones I had at Burger King.

The burger, on the other hand, was quite disappointing. I know, American food tends to be bland, but I can sit through a Whopper. What makes this so special? The sauce? It tastes like Thousand Island dressing to me. Are you giving me unlimited fries so I overlook your disappointing burgers? Why am I being cynical? My bill was at P600. At least I had a good shake. I rarely have shakes. But am I paying for the ambience? I get the diner atmosphere everywhere. And maybe I'm better off getting that atmosphere in New York, in the off chance I go there and have Eggs Imelda with Jeany.

Or maybe it's because I ate alone. Maica echoed my sentiments, but Dee disagreed, arguing that it's a place for groups. Fair enough. Eating with groups will surely put a dent on the thought of paying P600. Now, do I dare wonder about what American culture really is judging from an overpriced burger that tastes much better in Jollibee?

And your responses...

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