When I was in high school I was friends with a kid called Balbon. He went to Ateneo, was a big thing in basketball when he was younger and played for the national basketball team, and though he wouldn’t admit it he was acutely aware of the pressures of the nouveau riche, as he would always have to tell people how much money they had, where his family had most recently gone on vacation, and other things establishing that they were a family of means. Among these establishing factors was apart from playing in pick-up basketball games with the squatter kids, he would steer clear of them. I’m pretty sure that if he had known what I really was, a kid whose family was hard up and on the brink of ruin at every turn, rather than what I had been introduced to him as which was a Fil-Am, then he probably wouldn’t have hung out with me either. But we wound up spending a lot of time together, on and off the court.
Just a few blocks down the way from us was Tomas Morato, and we’d cross that street and go a few more blocks down to play ball on a nicer court. In our neighborhood it was either the church’s half-court with the too-slippery floors—there were only two options to make that court playable, and here you could detect the class divide; either you bought some Coke in a plastic bag, spilled a good amount of it on the floor, and then stepped in it a while so that your sneakers got sticky, or you played barefoot—or it was one of the many makeshift courts scattered along various corners and side streets, each with their own obstacles and perils. But across Morato was a full court whose cement had just been laid and that made for a great place to play.
And so we would make the trip to the court every once in a while to get our game on. It was probably during one of these trips with Balbon that he asked me the question which forms the impetus for this recollection and essay. Memory’s a shady thing, bringing together elements and events which may or may not be accurate, which might have occurred in proximity to each other, but not necessarily as we remember it. It’s this I acknowledge as I recall Balbon—pale skinned, tall, thin and wiry but muscular, one of those fluke bodies that you can only ever see on a high school boy—and me—short and sunbaked brown, still scrawny and growing hungry with the turmoil at home and a diet of rice with tomatoes and red egg or chicharon or when things got hard up just fish sauce, and sometimes just going to bed hungry—walking along Tomas Morato as the sun was setting. He dribbled a basketball, easily passing it through his legs, behind his back, as we walked. And then he asked, “So how many of these restaurants has your family taken you to?” I can’t remember all the restaurants that are still around now, but I remember him pointing out Alfredo’s Steakhouse, Mario’s, and Alba (and come to think of it now, I still have not gone into those places).
I couldn’t tell him any. In fact, the only time that I ever got to go to restaurants was when there was a birthday or a baptism or something like that. All I knew was fast food, and even that was a treat. So that he wouldn’t think any less of me, I pretended to know some of the restaurants, and then I changed the topic.
But I think that stuck with me. And as I was subjected to more instances where I felt that there was a world out there, the world of food, that I was being kept out of, I would find myself making my way to the entrance to that world. In fact, once I started earning money, I would barge through that entrance and have my fill, to the point where I went from a scrawny 110 pound kid to the 195 pound walrus that I was when I turned 30.
I never got much luck at home. My father was, let’s say, a voracious eater. To say he was enthusiastic would be an understatement. However I feel that the appreciation, though genuine (seriously, if you see him eat) was never really an educated one. The tastes were simple, and he had killed his palate with years of smoking, which meant that everything we had was over-seasoned so that he could taste it. His appreciation was quantity-based, and his tastes were of generally pedestrian fare—we only ever went to one restaurant, Kowloon, and we would only ever order the same things; now I love that place and the food, but still, there was no sense of new, of adventure in the eating—and he had the tendency to fixate on specific trends or foods and get stuck there. For example, there was a time when he read about how juicing vegetables was healthy, so from that point on he would force us to drink beets and all these other things that once juiced, tasted terrible. He was also always eating hopia, and he was obsessed with monggo, which he would impose on us so that we would eat it for two to three weeks straight.
What bothered me more about my father’s eating habits was that their indulgence would come at the cost of my own eating. It was a common thing that I would arrive home and there would be no food left because he had eaten it all.
Still, I like to think that I was lucky when I was in high school. I got by on the kindness of friends. When hanging out at friends’ houses after school, their parents would insist that I have dinner with them. I was a nice, polite kid who got good grades and they were glad their sons were hanging out with someone like me. I had friends that I rode to school with every morning, and on our way they would drop by McDonald’s for their breakfasts. I didn’t have enough money for that, but they would take turns buying me breakfast value meals. I had friends who would let me chip in a few pesos for an order and they would take care of the rest. And I don’t know how I made it through all of that, but there was always somebody who was willing to spot me for something or other, someone who would buy something so I could eat, or augment whatever meager funds I had.
The first real “restaurant experience” that I can remember was with a high school girlfriend, at Pancake House. Up to this point, all I knew were McDonald’s or Jollibee or some other fast food place. This was a time when a one-piece chicken went for something like 30 bucks, and what we’d do was order a one-piece, then just get an extra rice and an extra gravy to fill us up. So sitting down somewhere, ordering off a menu, talking to a waiter, these were snazzy things I was suddenly experiencing.
During this time I had a little bit of money, but could have always used more. One of my fondest memories of these times was when my friend Poldo and I wanted to pick up the first Silverchair album. Poldo normally would collect stuff to sell to the diyariyo-bote, but this time there was a perya down on the K-streets (for those unfamiliar with Kamuning, on one side of Kamuning road is the Scout area, where we lived, and on the other side were the streets named K-1st, K-2nd, and so on). We pooled our money together to play the Color Game, and the dice fell our way, so much so that we were able to win enough to get a tape each (they were selling at the record bars at buy-one-get-one so we only needed 120), and to eat some of the street food, and I can still remember the crunchiness of the isaw on sticks slightly charred and wonderfully chewy.
On my own, I had little earning power and I would have to rely on saving up. Usually I managed to save enough money every day so that I could buy a tape a week. But that week, all that I had saved from not buying lunch and asking for food from people (this was effective because most of the kids in class had lunches their moms made them, and so all you had to do to get by was ask each kid to give you a bite of his lunch) was devoted to the date with said high school girlfriend.
Thing was, whatever had been saved I had spent on bus fare, movie, and snacks. So when it was time for us to eat, I had nothing, and I knew that this was a very embarrassing predicament. She handled it by pulling out a credit card. She said that she wasn’t allowed to carry much cash, but she had been given the card so that she could still eat out and her parents could track her activity. I wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about that, but I just went with it. I can’t even remember what we ate or how things turned out. And now it’s kind of a funny thing to think that, man, Pancake House held a very special place in my mind and heart for quite a while
Of course, like that relationship, Pancake House has been displaced and many other places have become favorite or memorable restaurants. Still, you start somewhere.
In college I would be introduced to the various culinary pleasures to be found in UP. Even when I had already been taken to Chocolate Kiss and Chateau Verde, I found that I still preferred a good old tapsilog at Rodic’s with the shredded beef. My friend Anna and I devised the street food crawl, which began at the Faculty Center, where we would get a snack from one of the manangs (choice of lumpiang ubod, karyoka, or banana-q), and then if we were particularly hungry monay with a slice of cheese. We’d eat these things while walking beneath the fire trees to the isaw stand that used to be in front of Kalayaan. After lots of innards on sticks, we would progress to fishballs, kikiam, and kwek-kwek outside the shopping center. Throw in some of that sweet corn in cheese soup. Then we’d head into the shopping center for scoops of Fruits in Cream in cones. We would undertake the food crawl regularly, as it was occasioned by both disappointments and celebratory gestures, both of which we had in abundance.
I would learn to eat exotic food and regional cuisines as I made friends from different provinces. There were a few memorable road trips where we visited our friends’ provinces and ate what they had to offer. Also sticking out in my mind now as I think of it, is a Bicolano friend who insisted that I go with him to a carinderia a few blocks from our street. He was looking for a taste of home and he knew the kind of food I liked. He got himself a Bicol Express, which I thought I was going to have too. But he ordered me a Dinuguan, Bicol style with the coconut milk and I was jarred by the taste and initially found it repulsive. But as I kept eating the taste grew on me, the sweetness on top of the spiciness, just the right amount of heat and then the depth and flavor of the blood and the meat. It was something of an epiphany to find this mix of flavors in a dish that had seemed so familiar that I had almost dismissed it. It’s because of this, and my overbearing love of Filipino food (it’s one of the reasons I’m reluctant to cook any Filipino food, because I’m so afraid of messing it up) that I find myself often excited by restaurants that claim they have a new take on old Filipino classics.
One of the biggest influences on what I eat is an ex-girlfriend, K. Before her I’d never eaten pesto (and now I have a fond memory of her pesto-stained smile), I had never eaten real sushi (not that fake California shit, nigiri sushi that really lets you taste the freshness of the fish), and I had never been in a fancy restaurant. When I started courting her she decided she wanted it to be a lengthy courtship because though we had already been best friends, I was coming from a long-term relationship and she wanted to make sure I wasn’t just rebounding. Her parents though, probably weren’t privy to any of that when they made the restaurant reservations.
And so, on a Valentine’s Day many years ago I found myself in a hotel restaurant with the parents of the girl I was courting. There were so many forks on the table! And spoons! And everything else! This was a fine dining situation, and up to that point I had no idea how one operated in that kind of setting. Obviously I wanted to show her parents that I was an okay dude, but I thought that it would just be made clear that I was some kid who “lacked breeding” and who was not good enough for their daughter.
I fumbled with the little card that had the menu on it, and whenever food was served I would pretend to admire it first. In truth I was watching which utensil they picked up and how they ate the dish. I learned in this way how to eat, and what appropriate table manners were (I had a pretty good idea of what improper was, as my father chewed with his mouth open, talking too, and reach over the table; my mother was polite at the table, but wasn’t really equipped with the tools of upscale social niceties). It was also with this family that I would learn how to use chopsticks, eat peking duck, and other kinds of food which I had never been exposed to. I have many fond memories of that relationship, and I messed that one up, but I do hope that these recollections show that I do appreciate how that family helped to enculturate me. They even put up with my weird quirks, like an inexplicable insistence on wearing shorts, which became a problem many times. K and I would suddenly be called to dinner with her parents, and it would be at some fancy restaurant that expected its diners to be dressed properly. K’s father would use his clout and probably slip people some tips to let me into the place. I’m sure this caused some embarrassment and I am eternally grateful that they tolerated my inability to follow the dress codes. Of course, now that I can afford it I like to get dressed up and go out to nice dinners, and I again thank that family for showing me an aspect of the culinary world that I had never known before.
A trip to Singapore was another eye-opener. Sure those tiger shrimps at the hawkers were awesome, but even more overwhelming were my first tastes of manta ray and eel. These were only things I had seen in documentaries on the Discovery Channel. I had no idea that you could eat them. And that they could be so good! The sauces, the spices, the kinds of flavors that I was suddenly eating in that little foreign city were things only hinted at when I ate at Rasa Singapura (an outstanding Singaporean restaurant that is sorely missed, as where it stood just blocks from my home remains charred blocks and crumbled concrete). This exciting mix of Indian, Chinese, Thai, these foods that I had experience with but never imagined all coming together, stand as an extremely significant life experience.
There’s also a dinner that I distinctly remember in Singapore. I could not understand anything on the menu. But I saw something that looked familiar, Duck a’la Range. This to me was nothing more than something I had heard in Looney Tunes cartoons, when Bugs Bunny would try to convince Elmer Fudd to shoot Daffy Duck. But this duck was my first taste of French cuisine.
I started reviewing restaurants for newspapers and magazines. At the time this was food that I would never otherwise have been able to afford. It blew my mind that I could eat a piece of beef that cost more than a thousand pesos, because that same thousand pesos was enough for my family’s groceries for a week, week and a half.
The downside to eating in the best restaurants as part of work was that my palate would develop and would learn to look for better food. As long as you don’t know what you’re missing, you’re fine. So a kid who found a couple of sticks of barbecue, extra rice, and a side of libreng sabaw to be a feast would have been fine and happy with that, as long as he wasn’t exposed to other food. But I couldn’t say no. I just had to take those assignments, had to understand what went into a meal that would cost as much as my family’s groceries for a week. What’s in the food? How is it prepared? What makes it all a dining experience?
When I started earning a decent amount of money, I committed myself to trying to experience as much food as I possibly could. I would eat at any restaurant that popped up, any place that friends recommended, and even if the place caught my eye as I passed by. I was trying to make up for those years when I was hungry by eating all that could be offered me. I gave up on the pizza stands and the Scott Burgers and Burger Machines that constituted the pamatid gutom meals of my youth (though I will hit up the Burger Machine every once in a while for nostalgia’s sake, or drunkenness’s sake too). I loved the dimsum stands, especially the Kowloon stand that used to be just two blocks from my apartment.
Though I eat alone often, I wanted too to share these experiences. The various significant others I have had were probably witness to my evolution in eating. I kind of feel sad now for not knowing food better when I was younger, and not being able to have shared better eating experiences with people sooner in my life.
Beyond romantic interests, there were two females who I would make a part of my culinary experiences. My mother, who is quite possibly the nicest person ever (which has made her susceptible to being taken advantage of, bullied, neglected, and taken for granted) deserves so much more than my father’s terrible dietary quirks. She wanted to pursue a career in food when she was younger, but her father demanded that she take a science course. She wound up with a degree in Food Technology, which she was able to use only briefly when she would help to design flavors for Baskin & Robbins. She is an outstanding cook whose talents have never been truly maximized or appreciated (I keep telling her that it isn’t too late for her to pursue her passion, and I do hope that she will do it soon). The thing is that my mom who is good with food, good with cooking, was stuck in the pedestrian culinary tastes that my father held to. And so I committed myself to taking my mom to the restaurants that she had never been able to take me to. Every payday, I would have her set time aside (we would have to go out in secret, as my father would resent her going out with me) so that I could take her to a nice restaurant.
And when my parents left for the States and I was left with my sister, it was her turn to benefit from my compulsive need to eat out. She, much like me, had not been taken to any place other than Jollibee or Kowloon by our parents. For her, special was getting a salad at Wendy’s. Now she’s a sushi connoisseur who’s following in my footsteps by eating out and trying to accumulate as many food experiences as she can.
At this point in my culinary adventuring I have started eating well and I am currently exploring vegan cuisine as a healthy alternative. Don’t think that I’ll ever give up eating meat, but I appreciate the design challenges posed by vegan standards. I am still exploring different cuisines, and there’s the hope that I will get the chance to travel and eat like one of my favorite writers, Anthony Bourdain (whose influence shows up in a later essay). I have to watch my weight these days, and that makes the food I choose to eat even more important; on a daily basis I want to eat good food that is actually good for me, and when I indulge in sinful food like crispy pata or aligue pasta, I have an appreciation and a sense of the increased value of the experience. From a hungry kid who could barely afford to eat out, I’ve become an overweight foodie.
I think back every once in a while to that time when Balbon asked me where I had ever eaten in Morato. When he asked it, it was something of a challenge. I like to think I’ve taken that challenge. I get just as hungry as I used to when there wasn’t any food at home, but now I know what to eat and where to go and that I can afford it, and it’s good to have that sense of capability.