Growing up, two things were shoved down my throat: liking girls and Filipino food. “Marry a princess,” my dad would urge, pushing more food onto my plate. The usual suspects that spun from our lazy susan were often sour, bitter, overbearing in taste. But to decline another serving of bistek tagalog or ginisang ampalaya was not an option. Neither was it to refuse the agenda that Papa drilled over many meals, from values to espouse (Chinese shrewdness in business) to the sort of enterprise I’d take on: a restaurant, naturally. Have more kare-kare and eat the tuwalya, you’re a growing boy!
I nodded, swallowed. To agree was to quicken my fading from focus, to let the political or sports chatter of six older brothers rush back and reclaim the floor. As a 10-year-old boy with dreams of women’s figure skating and tingles down there for Zoren Legaspi, anything beyond the dictates of our dining table tasted like freedom.
My earliest memories of comfort food were my first shred of mozzarella, torn from a gummy block my sisters used as they experimented on lasagna fillings; the caramel popcorn from Goldilocks, gifted by our helper from her days off; instant pancit canton inhaled with an episode of “Jem & The Holograms.” Or really, anything eaten after school and in front of the TV — minus any supervision, and with no siblings to hog the remote control.
Across the Pacific, Bryan Koh, a Singaporean boy the same age, grew up with a similar menu prepared by Filipino house helpers. But while I craved escape from these dishes, he was curious to explore them.
“In terms of having a place in my heart, Filipino and Singaporean food are on equal footing,” says Koh, who wrote “Milkier Pigs & Violet Gold,” a travelogue with a generous serving of regional recipes from across the Philippines.
Alongside the Singaporean soups and curries Koh’s family enjoyed were adobo and pinakbet, while after-school snacking consisted of fried bangus or an ensalada of chopped tomatoes tossed with salted egg and bagoong. Filipino cuisine was beloved enough in their household that Koh awaited the pasalubong of polvoron his helpers brought home. Sometimes, he even assisted in the kitchen, charring an eggplant for tortang talong or souring sinigang with supermarket-bought sampaloc.
When his longtime helper left their household in 2009 and he was in his early 20s, it wasn’t long before Koh sought the flavors that defined home for him. In the same year, a freelance writing assignment in Batangas became a godsend.
Like his first sip of kapeng barako, a side trip through the province awakened Koh to the thrill and diversity of Filipino dishes in just a few meals. Guided by the husband of his former helper, he toured the towns of Lipa, slurping his first healing bulalo and stopping at a carinderia to gape at how many shapes glutinous rice can take. Koh quickly built an appetite for what other specialties lay beyond the lutong bahay familiar to him.
“Milkier Pigs & Violet Gold'' illustrates the sense of adventure and amusement Koh approaches his adopted cuisine with. “I chose the title not just because of these two icons of Philippine gastronomy,” he says, referring to lechon de leche and a now-ubiquitous ingredient enjoying its purple reign globally: ube. “It sounded like something you would see on the top of a jeepney — loud, preposterous, and yet so right.”
Published in 2014, the first edition follows Koh as he points his lips and camera lens across the archipelago, from Spanish-inherited confections in the north to clever cooking techniques by the Lumad down south. As he hops from one province to the next, we’re reminded how storied and dynamic our dishes are. Certainly not just a mess of rice and oil-petrified meat, but food with a clear-cut identity. He’ll detail a dish’s journey, from pre-colonial tradition through the impositions of religion — and sometimes, politics, as Bacolor’s bobotu tamales once mocked its women’s inability to vote. We learn how the produce particular to a town emboldens its stance in preparing a regional staple. Or how sourness exists on a spectrum, able to coax soul into a sinigang or sear raw fish into submission for kilawin.
“Milkier” lays its information out like a feast. There is enough scholarly observation to provide meat and substance, especially through the guidance of editor Michaela Fenix — a pillar of Pinoy cookbook publishing — and the local cookbook authors he consults. But he also makes room for sweet diversions. A Kapampangan hostess’s memory of the long-lost ice dessert her mother made, or even a baye-baye vendor’s bawdy story about how the rice treat got its name: a pestle’s pounding implying rough sexual intercourse.
Koh’s photos assert his impassioned descriptions — a glistening leche flan leaning into its spotlight, a craggy sierra of lechon kawali urging to be summited. However, it’s the photo collages throughout the book that make these dishes even more vibrant: the shocks of green from a banca brimming with seaweed, or the bright yellow basketball jersey of a noodle maker in Tuguegarao. Through an assemblage of anecdotes and images of what’s beyond the plate, you begin to appreciate the people and places that give our food its flavor.
“Bryan is a traveler — he uses the traveler’s perspective, objectivity, and desire for history when he tastes the food, so he ends up appreciating the flavors but never out of context,” says Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, author of award-winning books on Philippine culinary history, as well as “Kain Na!” an illustrated guide to Filipino food she and Koh collaborated on in 2019.
“That Bryan wanted to sample his nanny’s food in her country was significant. And that he wanted to understand it within the context of the archipelago-wide totality of cuisine was even more significant,” adds Sta. Maria. “Bryan really wanted to experience Philippine cuisines. Note the plural. He was quite aware that all national cuisines are in the plural form.”
Filipino readers, especially those abroad, have been along for the ride as well. “When I bought Bryan’s book, I decided to treat it like a novel, traveling to as many provinces and towns in the Philippines in my quest of tasting the food of each place,” says Meg de Leon, a cookbook author based in Australia. “Bryan’s book has become sort of a bible of Filipino cuisine for me. More than anything, it’s a source of information about our country’s food and its origins. Although not all the recipes are at their best; I have had to tweak many of them.”
“Bryan really wanted to experience Philippine cuisines. Note the plural. He was quite aware that all national cuisines are in the plural form.”
For Koh, part of a dish’s enjoyment is the discussion around it. “Some people have told me — and I’m quite happy with this — ‘My recipe’s better than yours, you can try it.’ Well, that’s what I do, and if I realize that they’re right, I credit them for the change,” says Koh, whose recipes don’t just detail what he collects from across the country, but his earnest discourse with a dish — alternative ways to season or practical substitutions for kitchens far from Pinoy market stalls. Even after the book was published, his conversation around Filipino food continued, mostly through readers’ constant urging to explore their hometowns and the tastes it has to offer.
After winning Best Food Book at the Philippine National Book Awards 2014, revised recipes and further travels made their way into a second edition of “Milkier” in 2016. Books about Burmese and Malaysian food followed, but a return to Philippine cuisine beckoned. With still more demand after two sold-out editions, Koh released a third edition in October last year, in the thick of the global pandemic.
It was through the Instagram of an L.A.-based cookbook store that I became aware of Koh’s work. Like many stuck at home, I’ve devoured more than my usual fill of recipes, an eager student in an imaginary culinary academy. I became a doting parent to sourdough starter. An obsessive toward European granny gastronomy, hand rolling everything from French tarts to Italian pasta. Curries were stirred, Korean street sandwiches assembled. I’ve managed to circle the world through my kitchen since the lockdown, but Koh’s book made me ask myself why I was hardly fluent in my own country’s cooking.
Koh wandered into the kitchen as a kid, curious about what his helpers missed about their motherland. My childhood anxieties drove me to finish my food and keep my distance. It was much later in life — when I knew the sweetness of independence and self-acceptance — that I began to appreciate where I came from, as well as the tastes that informed it. Once my truth could finally pull a seat at our family table, I could even savor meals with Papa. Still, I remained a stranger to Filipino food, blissful when eating it but ignorant to what made it special.
Sta. Maria is hardly interested when I confess my shame in studying our cuisine only so late. The veteran food historian is only glad to see me off on this journey, reminding me to enjoy the sights along the way. “Discernment of all the little details and differences helps us appreciate Filipino food,” she says.
“I hope this encourages you to know that not all cooked rice varieties are identical; that some bagoong are meant to be earthier while others refined; that there are ube cakes that are light and fluffy, while others are supposed to be dense. That we are masters at using relishes, salters, pastes, souring agents, sodas, fruit to create the halo-halo pattern. Our style is to personalize what we eat and thereby guarantee the multiplicity of flavors we like at a meal.”
However you arrived at it, Filipino food offers welcome, Sta. Maria seemed to emphasize. Even to people like Bryan and I, both outsiders in some way.
“Have fun figuring out our cuisine,” Sta. Maria says, signing off from our Facebook chat with a blessing. “Food is meant to be enjoyed.”
In a matter of days, my copy of “Milkier” has swollen from countless pages dog-eared and bookmarked. On one page, a mention of the elusive but wondrous pili nut tinola from Bicol; on another, an almost mythical account of Kapampangan carabao’s milk pudding (tibok-tibok); each, a stop my mouth can’t wait to make on a growing itinerary. Koh’s bibliography has itself become a list of must-visit destinations — opportunities to defer to the knowledge of divas like Nora Daza and Doreen Fernandez. With all the information already out there, it’s as if I’d entered a market famished, unsure where to direct my appetite first. It’s a good problem to have considering I once didn’t know my Cagayan from my Cordilleras — nor cared to. Now I look at a map of our islands hungry and embarrassed, asking “What took you so long?”
Thankfully, our food is oblivious to one’s hangups — it only begs to be served. More so, made.
First blood has since been drawn on Koh’s book: a tiny spatter from chicken liver used in an adobong dilaw. Adobo is a reasonable recipe to begin with. A fundamental of Filipino cooking, representative also of its many misconceptions. Not many people know its myriad modes of expression, or the colors it can take on beyond murky brown.
The adobong dilaw I make immediately reminds me of papaitan, an Ilocano favorite of my dad’s and a dish he once dictated I like. It is pure pungency and sheer pleasure. I eat it proudly, knowing, for one, that I can echo a taste that he loves. But more so because adobo is a dish I didn’t realize I could make mine — its chicken browned to my liking, with enough turmeric and ginger to make my tongue pop. Eating it alone in my apartment, a place stacked with the things I chose and the memories I am captain to, the dish tasted even more like home.
“Milkier Pigs & Violet Gold'' is available through booksellers online.