an inspired home

At its best, cooking and eating are cultural, spiritual practices. They draw together a plethora of ingredients and sensations meant to be felt and savored in combination and sequence. There is something symbolic about preparing my countertop—the ritual in bringing together and sharpening my knives, the intention behind rinsing produce, the rhythm in slicing and chopping. And then there are the aromas that fill the air. The smoke from searing meat and veggies. The warmth of the kitchen.

I grew up cooking with my family. One of my favorite questions to ask people is about a food that reminds them of home. I moved around frequently—often every year—so geography has little bearing to my perception of this home. For me, home is feeling, a memory, a concept. My most vivid memory of food and home comes from rolling lumpia, the Filipino style of egg rolls, with my family. While my parents worked over the stove in the kitchen, my aunt would sit with me and my cousins at the table, teaching us how to roll tight, uniform lumpia. There was a precision to it, yet at the same time, my family never measured anything. “You can’t taste with your eyes,” my dad would laugh. My dad was always happy in the kitchen.

My parents sent me home with lumpia over the Thanksgiving weekend. They were lovingly wrapped in foil and waiting in the freezer. We typically have lumpia with sweet and sour sauce, but I didn’t have any at my apartment. Just like my dad taught me, I adapted a sauce with what I had. My dad taught me a lot about cooking, and one of them was enjoying the process. “What’s the worst that could happen? Just add lemon!” my dad would smirk.

So I put together my interpretation of sweet and sour sauce for lumpia. Sambal, honey, patis, brown sugar, rice vinegar, water. I found my dipping sauce to taste less like the traditional sweet and sour sauce of my lumpia and more like an amalgamation of Southeast Asian inspirations. Growing up next to Little Saigon and living in Long Beach, I transported myself to a home of homes.

It rained today, so I delayed my grocery run. I reached into my freezer and pulled out frozen steaks. I didn’t use lemon, but I squeezed some lime and sprinkled some sea salt and crushed black pepper on each side. I’m a novice when it comes to cooking steak, but I think I did all right this time.

What’s a food that brings you home?

purple stuff magic

Juggling two jobs as I onboard for one and close out another, I needed to make space (aha! See my previous post for context) for self-care during a fifteen-hour work day. I got in 35 minutes of Pilates, made myself a nice omelet to go with the tortillas I’d saved from the Salvi bodega around the corner, took some impromptu dance breaks, and cooked up some purple stuff magic.

There’s always something so magical about the color purple in nature. From florals, to gems, to foods—purple is ethereal, mystical, soothing, divine. My particular choice of purple stuff magic today was making ube halaya, a Filipino candied yam that’s often used as a spread, condiment, or with baked goods. It can be mixed with other things to add that distinctly purple, ube flavor. Personally, I love to eat it right off a spoon.

While ube has become more mainstream in US cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, it was hardly in anyone’s vocabulary a couple of years ago. Often mistaken for taro or sweet potato, it is most decidedly its own category. For reference, here is a comparison of an ube (left) and a Japanese sweet potato:

Who knew that the purple one was not ube?

In all my 35 years of life as a dedicated ube fan, I realized at Seafood City that I had no idea what an ube looked like in its raw, unpeeled form. I only found out when I came home and realized that what I had taken home was, in fact, a Japanese sweet potato. Disappointed but determined, I made my way back to the store and made sure I asked the manong attending to the fruits which rooty things were definitively ube.

I drove home, feeling triumphant and proceeded to boil three ube. Peeling the pale skin with a spoon, revealing its unmistakably rich, violet hue, triggered the rods and cones of my retinas to dance with delight. See below:

Tell me that color isn’t magical!

Since I boiled way too much ube, I froze a considerate amount and have since made ube ice cream and ube halaya. Today, I tweaked my ube halaya recipe, using the last of what was frozen. Here’s some I snacked on this evening, with macapuno sprinkled on top:

Purple stuff magic.

Does color move you? Does food?

Food magic

I’m convinced more and more that food is magic. The way we select ingredients, the intention in preparing them, the connections we build—yes, food is magic.

Do you ever prepare food when you’re upset? You make something you’ve made countless times before. All of the ingredients are the same—you use the same proportions, cookware, the same procedures—but something is clearly off. It tastes different. And not only that, but it feels different. It’s why even though I followed my dad’s recipe to a tee, it still doesn’t taste quite the same. Yes, food is magic.

And when you prepare something with love, isn’t it noticeable? As soon as I have that first taste, a tingle of celebration and content sparkles in my taste buds. There’s also something unmistakably healing and soothing about food. Yes, food is magic.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s a privilege to be able to work with fresh ingredients. I was invited to pick lemons from my aunt’s backyard:

She is not my biological aunt, but in my culture, anyone in my parents’ generation would be considered an auntie.

Determined to celebrate these gifts, I decided to bake a lemon treat. I ran a Google search of all things lemon and stumbled upon this recipe for Meyer lemon pudding cake.

I had never known true labor in cooking until I whisked egg whites by hand! Is it time to invest in a copper bowl and hand mixer?

To be honest, I’d never baked a cake from scratch before, nor whipped egg whites. Growing up, the oven was used mostly for storing other cookware. But I was determined to bake my heart out, and the result was—yes—magical.

Make the time

As a latch key kid in a working class immigrant family, I grew up quite independently. I am the eldest of three (actually, eight, but that’s another story), having to learn how to cook for myself as early as 5 years old, then cooking for my younger brothers as well. Cooking and eating was always about what was convenient.

I started working while I was in high school, and I worked all throughout college. Time was always scarce. By the time I had my first job as a high school teacher, lunch break was rarely long enough for me to breathe. When I started training to become and then became a doctor, I mastered eating (and sleeping) standing up, inhaling my food in 5 minutes. By then, I’d accepted that food was not meant to be enjoyed. It was fuel, and the best I could hope for was that it tasted okay.

Life has changed significantly since then. Constantly on the run, I felt totally disconnected from my body and developed a number of health issues. My body was screaming at me to change my lifestyle, which meant that I needed to treat it like it was the treasure it is. For me, that started with exercising for joy and eating for pleasure, and slowing down and being more present and intentional in my day.

For me, presence and intention manifests in what I can make with my hands, and food is one of those things. Granted, cooking can be a luxury. Like many luxuries, it takes resources, whether that’s time, money, access, or experience. Coming from a country where canned meat is king, cooking with fresh ingredients truly feels like a blessing, and making the time to cook and eat with such presence has become a luxurious spiritual experience.

I was marinating mackerel in miso that I plan to broil in a couple of days. I thought I’d take a stab at concocting my own version of pork belly braised in miso-butter:

Pork belly braised in a miso-butter sauce, served with homemade pickles and white rice.

These days, especially because I like to develop my own recipes and am constantly tweaking them, I take the time to plate my food and savor what I’m eating. And more often than not, this experience is worth savoring.