Article: “Comfort and Pleasure”

Comfort and Pleasure: Food Memories From Manila Bay to San Francisco Bay

By Louie Yan

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain…

I was born and raised in the Philippines, and I come from a “foodie” family that has always found comfort and pleasure in a wide range of foods.

When I was very young – before I even turned five – I remember waking up on a Saturday morning to hear my parents discussing where we would go for a family drive that weekend. The decision had everything to do with what we wanted to eat later in the day. I was too young to chime in, but I’m sure my brothers, who are nine and 10½ years older than I am, shared their ideas. Kesong puti? Santa Cruz. Ensaymada? Malolos. Lanzones? My father’s home town of Pakil. My brothers and I would always fall asleep on the way home in the car.

Sometimes we would visit my uncle and aunt somewhere in Bulacan, where she would kill a chicken from their flock and fry it. She made sure the skin was crisp because that was my favorite part. My uncle and aunt later moved to Quezon City and that house in Bulacan is gone now, but I still remember the dark wood floors and unpainted wood walls.

My mother was raised by a wealthy spinster, the daughter of my grandfather’s boss. When my mother and I went to visit Lola Pacing at the old house on Azcarraga, there was always a little treat on the table – barquillos, hard ribbon candies in the little black Charms tin, an apple or a tangerine. Lola liked her coffee, but as she got older she was allowed less and less of it. At one point she was drinking warm milk with a small teaspoon of instant coffee stirred in for flavor. Lola is gone and most of the old house, which used to cover half a city block, has been torn down and replaced by commercial buildings.

My father’s brother had a vacation house on the river in Pakil. It had a heart-shaped swimming pool that was fed by a natural spring. The property was surrounded by lanzones trees, and we would picnic by the pool with our cousins when the lanzones were ready to be picked. Barbecued pork skewers, mangang hilaw with tomatoes and bagoong, rellenong bangus, and boiled kangkong, eaten on banana leaves or a layer of banana tree trunk. And lots and lots of lanzones.

…All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall…
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all…

I spent part of my life in Baguio, where the parents of one of my best friends in elementary school owned the Shanghai Hotel downtown. Andrew was the younger brother of Benny, who happened to be my middle brother’s best friend. Andrew’s family lived in the hotel and his birthday parties were memorable. The building had no yard or garden, so the parties were held in the banquet room. All the tables were removed so we would have space to run and play. There were at least 25 children, most of whom I didn’t know because they were Chinese friends and family who didn’t attend school where Andrew and I did. There were noodles (for long life, of course), fruit salad in gelatin, siopao, and a very large birthday cake.

In contrast, I rarely had guests over for my birthday. My birthday celebrations, for the most part, were private dinners with my family. I remember having my choice of main courses for dinner – for quite a while my favorite dish was pork hocks (pata) in sweet brown sauce and banana flowers – followed by a cake baked that day by my mother. The cake I remember the most was a tall chiffon cake with whipped white sugar frosting and M&Ms.

When I was in seventh grade my eldest brother took my parents and me to the dinner house at the Manila Hilton. The experience was different because everything was served as an individual meal, unlike the family-style meals at home or at the  “lesser” restaurants around town. I couldn’t tell you what I ate, but I do remember that I shocked my parents by ordering a rum and Coke. They didn’t stop the waiter from delivering it, and I must have eaten well enough to balance the alcohol in my drink.

My mother’s best friend was a restaurant entrepreneur who owned Luigi’s on Tomas Morato Avenue in Quezon City. It was at Luigi’s that I first tasted my first sangria and prawns thermidor in the mid-1970s. Because my mom’s friend traveled frequently to the US, Luigi’s felt like an American steak house of that era – dimly lit room, well-stocked bar, red vinyl booths and upholstered chairs. At this restaurant you could ask to have your steak cooked medium-rare and actually get it that way, with the right amount of sear, pink, and red. Steaks were prepared in skillets, during a time when criss-cross grill marks were not yet de rigueur.

My first taste of nouvelle French cuisine was in 1981, at a tiny walk-up with a red door on the second floor of a commercial apartment building in Ermita. The name of the place escapes me now and it’s probably long gone, but I do remember that it was owned by a quiet Frenchman and his lovely Vietnamese wife. My favorite entree there was an oval plate of six succulent prawns in graduated sizes, nested within each other, lightly sautéed with garlic and parsley. They tasted so good with a bottle of Pouille-Fuisse, my first foray into French wines.

…But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new…

The first time I went out to dinner with my wife in 1985, we joined her parents at a Shriner’s function – the usual and forgettable chicken breast with white sauce, overcooked mixed vegetables, bruised salad greens, and instant chocolate mousse.

I took her out to dinner later that year for her birthday, to MacArthur Park in Palo Alto for a much more memorable meal. The restaurant is housed in an historic wood frame building, the old USO hall by the train station at El Camino Real and University. The host seated us in one of the two lofts, where we had a view of the bar and the diners below. The restaurant was known for its barbecued baby back ribs and they did not fail to satisfy us. Dessert was a generous bowl of fresh raspberries in a honey yogurt sauce. We’re still trying to duplicate that sauce at home.

When I first started going to Las Vegas in the late 1980s, I went on business to attend technology trade shows. The selection and quality have changed dramatically over the years.

When my wife and I visited Sin City in 1997, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner one evening. We chose the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at the Paris Hotel, where we were staying. The host seated us at a table by the window, with a view of the Bellagio dancing fountains across the Las Vegas Strip. My wife’s consommé was presented dry, with the vegetables diced ever-so-finely and arranged in a floral pattern in the bowl. They cooked the instant the broth was introduced from a silver saucepot. My two-color beet salad with roasted duck breast changed my mind about beets forever for the better. We cleansed our palettes with a champagne ice. Our entrée, a rib-eye steak for two, was presented in its roaster, then plated with roasted vegetables and a reduction of the drippings in the roaster that had been deglazed with a hearty cabernet sauvignon. A berry gel introduced our desserts, dark chocolate confections from the restaurant’s award-winning kitchen.

Cruise ships are known for the volume of the food they serve, not always for its quality. In an effort to break out of this stereotype, during its maiden year in 2002 the Carnival Pride featured David’s Supper Club, an extra-cost restaurant located around the ship’s funnel. To enter the restaurant, we ascended a curved staircase with see-through steps, suspended eight decks above the ship’s main lobby. Our prix fixe dinner was memorable and well worth the extra expense. My lobster bisque was rich and not too salty. My wife’s filet steak was tender and cooked to her desired shade of pink. Our desserts, hand-made rolled cookies with freshly-made ice cream, capped a relaxing, romantic evening.

…Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more…

Our hybrid family – I’m Filipino and Spanish, my wife is Italian and Polish – views holidays as the perfect times to dine with family and friends. We usually host Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, and Easter. My middle brother and his wife host Christmas Day and the Fourth of July.

We’ve hosted up to 20 people for Thanksgiving dinner at our home. We cook two 12-pound turkeys, which we brine overnight. We roast one turkey in the oven, its cavities filled with aromatics – apples, oranges, onions, sage, and celery – and its skin lifted and filled with butter and whole sage leaves. The second turkey – its cavities also filled with aromatics, sans sage – cooks on an open rotisserie on the kitchen counter, basted with olive oil, lemon juice, and crushed home-grown oregano. We prepare a cranberry, orange, and pineapple compote from scratch. A simple vegetable dish, usually steamed baby green beans, is drizzled with a little olive oil. The dressing, which bakes in the oven with one of the turkeys (but never in it), has corn bread cubes, apples, dates, celery, onions, carrots, walnuts, and chicken stock. Creamy mashed potatoes and gravy from the turkey drippings rounds out the core of the meal. Guests bring either an appetizer or a dessert, and any dishes that are traditional for them but not for us, like pumpkin pie. One year my niece made bananas foster. And everything is washed down with great wines.

Christmas Day dinner at my brother’s house can only be described as bacchanalian. One year, when nine of us gathered together, we had six different appetizers. I had planned ahead and brought a platter of Shanghai-style lumpia.

Dinner included a four-bone prime rib (wrapped and roasted in freshly-chopped horseradish, parsley, and chopped garlic), a traditional bone-in Chinese ham, a spiral-cut Honey Baked ham, rellenong manok, and appropriate side dishes for each of the entrees.

That year we took a break after dinner and visited our aunt, who lives about a half hour away. That home usually has over 30 people and food stacked on top of more food on the dining table and the kitchen counters.

When we returned to my brother’s house an hour or so later, we tasted a half dozen different single-malt and blended scotches. Then we discovered we had seven desserts to share among ourselves.

Not every meal when we gather with our friends and family is as grand or complicated. Some al dente pasta, a tossed green salad, garlic bread, and my wife’s red meat sauce have warmed many tummies at our table. The sauce incorporates ground beef, fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, chopped and whole cloves of garlic, crushed oregano, and a myriad of spices, and it needs to simmer for at least a day before my wife will serve it. Ragu and Prego are not allowed in our home. Freshly grated romano is our choice of cheese to top our pasta.

Nor does every good meal out have to cost a fortune.

Among our family’s favorite places is La Casita, a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Fremont. The roasted pepper salsa is much better than the pico de gallo, and the chicken and rice soup is an incentive for us to drive the 15 or so miles from home to eat here. I personally go for the menudo (weekends only) and the chicharrones and my wife repeatedly orders the chile colorado.

Su’s Mongolian BBQ in Santa Clara is owned by our son’s former classmate. Every bowl of food is unique, because they allow you to pick the meats you want (shrimp or thin-sliced chicken, pork, beef, or lamb) and add the stir-fry vegetables and flavors you want (sugar syrup, vinegar, curry, oyster sauce, red peppers, cooking wine, ginger), all of which are cooked on a hot round stone measuring over three feet across. And you can go back as many times as your appetite will allow. A great meal for the students from nearby Santa Clara University for not a lot of money.

…Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more.

My wife has recipes for tamale pie and meatloaf, which her mother typed many years ago on index cards. She also has a hand-written recipe for her grandmother’s home-made bread. Every now and then, I bring out an old San Jose Mercury News clipping of a recipe for chicken cacciatore. My father-in-law used to cook it, on rare occasions when he wasn’t working 60 hours a week at the jewelry store he managed. These recipes have become part of my store of family foods.

After my mother had breast cancer surgery in the early 1990s, I asked her to write down all the family recipes she had in her head. The result was a spiral-bound notebook that included Filipino, Spanish, Asian, and continental recipes, all in my mother’s florid, hand-written script. I’ve attempted a couple of the recipes she passed on to me, notably chicken and pork adobo and Shanghai-style lumpia.

I’m teaching my son how to prepare adobo and lumpia. My wife has taught him how to make Italian fig cookies and cannoli shells. One day he will inherit a box full of recipes typed on index cards and a spiral notebook of hand-written recipes. We hope that he, too, will find comfort and pleasure in his food memories.

Acknowledgement: “In My Life” written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney