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Anna Simms: How I beat the odds to become a “kitchen guru” in the Philippines



In a recent article (here), Anna introduced her retirement “experiment” in the Philippines. While continuing to love her new life in the country, here she describes the trials and tribulations of trying to cook good old-fashioned food in the provinces…

 

Since my children flew the nest, I’ve never claimed to be a “domestic goddess”, so when I was asked to be a “kitchen guru” in the Philippines, it was a bit of a shock!

I’d been visiting the country as a a tourist since the 90s, but this time I was staying more permanently in Baguio, the fruit, vegetable and flower capital of the country. My son was already living there, with his wife.

Almost as soon as I arrived from New Zealand — and with no warning — my son asked me to teach his wife Jho Ann how to bake some Western-style food!

To suddenly become an accomplished chef again would involve reaching far back through the cobwebs of time to retrieve some distant knowledge. Half a teaspoon of this, a quarter cup of that, a sprinkling of the other… goodness me!

“Oh, and could you teach her how to make bread too… and croissants,” said my son, optimistically.

Having said that, in one of my past lives I did teach yeast cookery, so that particular skill is drilled into my brain. But when it came to baking in general I was in a bit of a quandary.

“If you’d told me you wanted me to do this I’d have brought some recipe books,” I said, in something of a panic.

Then, I suddenly had a light-bulb moment. Things had changed since last I did all that stuff. Google, (which hadn’t been invented when I last baked) became my new best friend in the Philippines.

“What would you like to learn to bake,” I ask Jho Ann. My son immediately answered the question, listing all his favourites: “Could you teach her to make bread, a cake and some biscuits,” he said.

When you are brought up in the Philippine provinces, baking at home is a rarity. Most households have just a single or double gas burner on which they cook a staple diet. A wok and basic utensils often complete the kitchen kit.

Jho Ann wasn’t your typical provincial girl, as she had worked as a maid in Moscow for two years, but she didn’t cook. She’s also travelled outside the country, and is familiar with a number of other cuisines.

I had a look at Google and settled on carrot cake, peanut butter cookies (the local version is full of sugar and perfect for sweet biscuits), rum balls, cinnamon raisin yeast swirls and a regular loaf of bread (for which I didn’t need the recipe).

Before we started I asked: “Do you have a large mixing bowl?” No. “Do you have a wooden spoon?” No. “Bread tins?” No. The last of these was not insurmountable  because we could make a cob, rolls and a pizza base.

“Ingredients.” No. “An oven?” No.

In the developed world, all the things I mentioned are more or less taken for granted. You decide what you’re making, grab the necessary equipment from drawers and cupboards, turn the oven on, gather the ingredients and start mixing.

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It simply hadn’t occurred to me that somebody brought up on a basic rice-based diet wouldn’t have all this stuff and ingredients — let alone having anywhere to store it.

It got worse. Ok, let’s get onto the carrot cake. “Cake tins for baking?” No. Ingredients like flour and icing sugar, baking soda, baking powder and the usual things we have sitting in the cupboard? No, not in this kitchen.

Right then, cookies. Well, making peanut butter cookies was the line of least resistance, because of the availability of peanut butter made by Baguio producers. “Do you have cooling trays?” No.

Same thing with the rum balls. We needed a bowl and a wooden spoon and another set of ingredients like cocoa and desiccated coconut. The Philippines may be the world’s biggest exporters of coconuts, but desiccated coconut is the hardest thing to find.

At least one ingredient was easy to find, and cheap — Tandauay Rum, which was available at every sari sari store.

And then, my son dropped another bombshell. “Also, could you also teach her how to make spaghetti bolognese, chilli con carne, hamburger, potato salad and roast chicken.”

This is perhaps easier, as meat, potatoes, chickens and vegetables are all easy to come by at the local wet markets, but the spices and herbs to accompany them are not easy to find, except black pepper.

Luckily, my son and his wife have a herb garden, with lemon grass, oregano, different varieties of chilli, tarragon, parsley, coriander and basil. These grow particularly well up in the high altitudes of the Cordilleras.

However, finding the rest of the ingredients, and the equipment, was yet another saga.

So, off we went to the only supermarket in Baguio to search for ingredients. This was another lesson on life in the Philippines. At home, you pop into the supermarket, go to the relevant aisle and pick up all the stuff you need. A quick dash through the checkout, and it’s done.

If I even could find what I needed, I then needed to tolerate the glacially slow-moving queue…

By a miracle we found the only yeast that I’ve ever seen in the Philippines in Baguio’s SM supermarket. What were some of the other difficult ingredients to find? Well, flour was common enough, but it took us three trips to locate icing sugar. Butter was available, but expensive.

There were very few spices available and even fewer dried herbs. Red kidney beans weren’t available in cans but there were dried ones in the wet market. It was like the good old days — soaking beans overnight ready to cook the next day.

By another little miracle we found some dried basil (for the spag bol). The only dried fruit we found were raisins.  Cinnamon we got in a small container.

We found baking powder, but really needed cream of tartar and baking soda. We spotted some, a couple of weeks into the mammoth search, up in a tourist area called Minesview. This out-of-the-way place, which looks out over some gold mines, had a small market, which was the most unlikely place to discover these hard-to-find ingredients.

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We hadn’t even started cooking yet and there was still equipment to find. Even finding a simple wooden spoon turned into a real trial.

Across the Philippines there are some wonderful craftsmen who carve chairs, tables, intricate carvings and all sorts of things. But wooden spoons?

We did find one in a supermarket for 400 pesos, which my son said was far too expensive. Jho Ann said she would check out the small shops which fronted the supermarket selling souvenirs. Eureka! A wooden spoon for 50.

We bought a small oven in the budget shop and then I had the unenviable task of heading into a department store to find cake tins and other equipment. In the kitchenware department even the sales staff had difficulty understanding what I was looking for.

They too, would have come from households where baking was never done. We managed to find some measuring cups and spoons, cake tins which would fit the oven, a roasting pan and so on. We found some glad wrap but no baking paper.

Explaining the difference between the freezer and a refrigerator (known as a ‘ref’) was difficult. Keeping food cool in the Philippines is often not done because people don’t even have a ‘ref’.  ­­­­­­­

Eventually we were ready to start baking. Because it was the most straightforward for me, we started with bread. I had to explain to Jho Ann that the amount of flour used depends on climatic conditions: If it’s warmer, we need more flour, and if cooler, less. She was probably quite confused by all that, but seeing her face once the dough rose under its tea towel made it all worthwhile.

Soon after she had learned to make bread, a niece and nephew arrived to stay. They helped make some dough and their eyes were out on stalks as they saw the dough rising!

Punching it down was great fun for them. We then made a loaf of bread and turned the rest of the dough into a pizza base, on which they eagerly piled their own toppings.

By the time her relatives arrived, Jho Ann had successfully mastered carrot cake, peanut butter cookies, rum balls, cinnamon raisin buns, spaghetti bolognese, chilli con carne, potato salad and more.

All the relatives absolutely loved the new recipes. For me, food in the Philippines isn’t a big draw, it’s mostly too sweet, and all too often deep fried.

The bread is sweet, the spag bol is sweet, the drinks are horribly sweet… everything is sweet. The most common meat eaten is pork, which I don’t eat these days, so I would generally eat just chicken and rice.

To me half the joy of travelling is experiencing new cuisines. But, for me, the Philippines doesn’t really deliver in this department. If only the Spanish influence had left a stronger impression on the cuisine, I thought to myself.

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In a sense, teaching Jho Ann to bake was just adding to the sweetness quota but, of course, biscuits and cakes are meant to be sweet. But making main meals with my recipes, which had nary a hint of sugar in them, was a great relief.

Our food was always regarded with some suspicion by relatives and other visitors, until they took a mouthful and then the table would fall silent — always a good sign.

That said, there were some culinary compensations to living in the Philippines. We lived at a beach resort for a while and had fresh fish and prawns delivered daily. Two girls, with a plastic bucket slung between them, would arrive and weigh out the seafood on simple scales. They supplied the largest (and most delicious) prawns I’ve ever eaten. By now we had a small charcoal barbecue where they could be cooked without delay, straight from the sea to the table.

The wet markets offered up all manner of meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and dried goods, all at very cheap prices.

My son, who is a good cook himself, had a favourite Philippine curry dish which we all enjoyed. Chilli, or hot food generally, doesn’t seem to suit the local palate so we had to spice up our own dishes once the food had been cooked in a mild form for any guests.

So, had I known I was going to be teaching baking and cooking, I would have brought my kitchen with me along with a selection of cook books.

It would have been a lot simpler. When I return to the Philippines, I will need to take a potato masher (we couldn’t find one) and a peeler. There’s a lot more besides, and it’s a real reminder of what we take for granted at home.

I have since returned to the Philippines and been treated to a selection of Jho Ann’s Western and Filipino food — always delicious.

But I’m still faced with the challenge of finding ingredients, which are mostly unavailable.

For instance, I can find vodka but no tonic water. Icing sugar still remains elusive, mushrooms are a rarity, red beans and canned tomatoes are non-existent, minced pork is much more common than minced beef so the quest to make an old favourite is always full of challenges.

On this visit, to add insult to injury, I ran out of tea bags and took nearly a week to find some. There is coffee is grown around Baguio, but it’s as rare as hen’s teeth down in the lowlands. The local alternatives are awful — powdered 3-in-1 coffee or iced tea that is mainly sugar.

Cooking in this country, like so many other things, is often a challenge and calls for great creativity. However, the people are friendly, I dance a lot and, in spite of any culinary frustrations, it really is more fun in the Philippines.