Notes from Jakarta

This is my last night here in Kuningan, Jakarta: the new bustling and cosmopolitan center of the second largest metropolitan area in the world.  This is the urban cocoon of Indonesia’s capital, where foreign tourists and people on business trips are greeted with something familiar.  I spent most of my week-long “mission” of sorts in this area, so I couldn’t say that I have explored Jakarta, or that I know it like the back of my hand.  I’m not here on tour, but on a business trip: whatever exploring I wanted to do, I had to cram in a day.  No Bandung, no Kota, no Java Jazz Festival and Joss Stone, but enough of an authentic experience for me to miss it when I get back to Manila.

A week wouldn’t be enough to experience “authentic Jakarta,” much more so if work – not tourism – is the agenda here.  What Jakarta has offered me in a day, though, is something that I will never forget.

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The (Modern) Filipino Weltanschauung on Meat

“If You Knew Sushi” by Nick Tosches is one of those articles that define, for me, the way of food writing: something lost in photos of food before eating or culinary journalism by dumping the contents of the menu on an article, or watermarked pictures of food from the lenses of everything from a DSLR to a camera phone.  All that dovetails quite nicely with Prof. Solita Monsod’s column yesterday in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, where she writes that pork is more luxury than necessity.

Which brings me to ask – in the tradition of this newfangled fixation with appropriating German (philosophical) terminology for the most inappropriate situations – what is the (modern) Filipino Weltanschauung on meat products?

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Spaghetti, Filipino-Style

To some, the gist of “Filipino style” has always been about sweetness.  There’s our sweetened abobo, the sugars added to tapa, the sweet sauces in lumpia, and that staple of Filipino kitchens: banana ketchup.  While pasta purists would frown upon our Americanized, Hispanicized, hotdog-heavy interpretation of spaghetti Bolognese, it is something that we could, perhaps, take into consideration in our search for identity.

The Filipino-style spaghetti, for me, is not a dish brought about by the idea of “sweetness” in Filipino cuisine.  Rather, it is dish made from the cupboard.  There are many variations to the Filipino-style spaghetti that speak to its origins in the eccentricities and quirks of the Filipino kitchen: hot dogs, for one.  Canned tuna, for others, and still for others cans of corned beef thrown into the mix.  The thing with Filipino-style spaghetti is that it is not deliberately shopped for: in many ways it is an analogue to Creole jambalaya.  We put whatever we have in the pan.

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The Original Foodie

Grimod de la Reynière – the original foodie – wrote a bunch of essays that, in today’s food blogging world, would make him a foodie.  After all, Grimod was an expert in:

For all intents and purposes, Grimod “blogged” way before we started going into openings of restaurants in malls clutching netbooks and iPads because we review food.  Or become part of a “food blogger” niche.

Of course, Grimod did not walk into restaurants for the sole purpose of taking pictures of food, as is the norm today.  It was the 1800’s: Grimod did not paint still life of bouillabaisse or made woodcuts of suckling pigs.  Grimod ate, analyzed, left, and ate again.  For all intents and purposes, Grimod was the Big Bad… Gourmand.

Don’t get me wrong: I like reading food blogs, I like foodies, and I think that it’s a sad state of blogging in the Philippines to think that such a happy topic is more prone to flak than, say, political blogging.  The bashing of a “member of the Yellow Horde” is nothing compared to the online flogging of a “gatecrasher” or a “free food blogger;” mostly because it affects social taste, and hits us pretty bad in the stomach.  Had Grimod lived today and blogged in the Philippines, he would have been so hated, reviled, and pretty much blacklisted by that omniscient bearer of invites and press kits, “PR.”

No, this is not a knock on “biases” or “reviews” or whatnot.  I just feel that in this age of the free and the sponsored meal that happens almost every day, there’s no review for the guy who sells lunches to the offices.  No McDonald’s meal has been reviewed.  There is no single compelling piece out there that will defend the giniling of a C. Palanca Jollyjeep from the fans of Monday lechon kawali over at a Valero Jollyjeep.  This is not just about the quality of the food we’re writing about, but the quality of writing.  The synonyms of “delicious” and “succulent” do not make the difference.  It’s easier to find things in a thesaurus than to find real, delicious food.  More than the marketing, it’s in the eating, and the expression of the eating.

I don’t question the love for food, but I do underscore the big difference between the gastronomic essay and the food review.  The former is an exposition, the latter is a laundry list.  The former is an exploration, the latter is a sell.  The foodie from the gourmand: the former loves food, the latter lives food.  I guess that’s what I’m looking for as a reader: not a Doreen Fernandez with an encyclopedic knowledge for food, but a Grimod who has a deep appreciation for food and expresses it well.  I tried, but somehow I really can’t do it.  I really don’t know how, but all I’m saying is that maybe the marketing can take the backseat when we’re writing about what matters: taste, texture, flavor, and the things about food that take more than a recommended adjective to describe.  One, as a friend says, that takes passion.

Before we start sticking telephoto lenses on steaks, or raving about how flaky the cream dory is on 20 or so fish restaurants, or scramble over invites to dinner to some foo-foo restaurant we could go to once or twice a year on, a word from Grimod:

Life is so brief that we should not glance either to far backwards or forwards… therefore study how to fix our happiness in our glass and in our plate.

Anyway here’s a picture of fried chicken and fries.

Crisp, almost cookie-like breading on the chicken.  The fries had an earthy note, I guess from the sweetness of the sugars in the starchy wedges and the crisp skin left on the potato.  The meat on the chicken remained juicy but the peppery crust on the skin was perfectly seasoned, with a lemony aftertaste.  Superb, delicious, great value at P170.

Of course, I’m not really a food blogger so that’s all I got.