Comfort soup

I remember the exact time my love affair with kimchi began. I’d just written a 3-hour exam, all essay questions, and I was ravenous. But on a Sunday afternoon in downtown Vancouver, there wasn’t much choice. Finally I wandered into a Korean internet café that also served some hot dishes. I ordered the bulgogi plate which was served with the ubiquitous small dish of spicy fermented cabbage. You know how when you’re really hungry, anything you eat tastes delicious? I’d had kimchi before, but it had left me cold. Now, I was in love.

Soon after, I moved in with a Japanese friend who also loves kimchi. One cold night, she boiled up a soup pot, adding almost an entire jar of kimchi to the hot water, along with thinly sliced pork.  Sharing that soup with her at her kitchen table is still one of my favourite food memories.

My mom is partial to a Korean tofu soup, so when I found a recipe for Spicy Kimchi Tofu Stew, I knew I had to make it to welcome her home from her Christmas trip to Vancouver. For me, a steaming bowl of this red-gold soup is satisfying, comforting, and evocative of many good memories—the very best kind of food.

Spicy Kimchi Tofu Soup
Adapted from Bon Appetit

1 16-oz. package silken tofu, cut into 1” pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 cups cabbage kimchi, drained and chopped (reserve the liquid)
2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste)
12 pieces thinly sliced pork
8 green onions, cut into 1” pieces (finely chop a handful of them and aside for garnishing)
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Reduce heat and carefully add the tofu. Simmer gently until slightly puffed and firmed up, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tofu to a medium bowl and set aside.

Empty the pot and put it back on medium-high heat. Heat the vegetable oil. Add  the kimchi and gochujang and cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, 5–8 minutes. Add the kimchi liquid and 8 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until kimchi is softened and translucent, 35–40 minutes.

Add the pork, scallions, soy sauce, and tofu; simmer gently until tofu has absorbed flavors, 15-20 minutes. Don’t worry if the tofu falls apart a little. Add the sesame oil and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with sesame seeds and remaining green onions.

Serves 6 as a first course.

Book review

Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos, and MeDuran Duran, Imelda Marcos, and Me by Lorina Mapa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book made me laugh, cry and remember. How strange and marvellous to see parts of my own childhood drawn out, and to read in Mapa’s clear, honest prose some of my own thoughts and feelings that I’ve kept locked away. A shining example of how casting a look back can point the way forward.

Spring gardens

Sometimes I think that heaven must be like a sunny spring day in British Columbia. And if it is, then the heart of heaven must be like the Butchart Gardens.

The first and only other time I visited this beautiful spot was 20-odd years ago. So I’m very grateful to my friend Maureen for taking me there on my recent visit to Vancouver Island. It was one of the highlights of my trip, second only to re-connecting my good friends Maureen and Vanessa and their lovely families.

It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Children of my heart

At the start of this new year, instead of making a bunch of resolutions, I made a few lists in answer to the following questions:

  • What should I start? What should I stop?
  • What should I do more? What should I do less?
  • What should I continue?
  • What should I be grateful for?

The first thing I felt compelled to answer to the last question was, “My siblings.”

Some of the reasons were obvious. I’d been through a tough year, and my brothers and sisters, each in his or her own way, helped me through it. They reminded me with their words and actions that I didn’t have to struggle alone.

But on further reflection, I realized something else: I am grateful for my siblings because, even if I don’t ever get to be a mother, their presence in my life made it possible for me to experience what motherhood is.

I changed their diapers, fed them, soothed them to sleep, played with them, scolded them, took care of them when they were sick or hurt, received their confidences, gave them advice.

I don’t have children of my own, and maybe I never will, but thanks to the part I was able to play in raising my brothers and sisters, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out.

Now my siblings are all grown up, and a new generation has started.

When my sister gave birth to my nephew twelve years ago, and I saw his little face for the first time, I fell in love. To this day I can’t fully explain the feeling I had, the awareness that this baby was my sister’s, but also my own. He was a part of me, and he came straight into my heart, into a place that nobody else had occupied before, and there he has stayed.

A few days ago, my brother became a father, and the miracle is happening all over again.

Children, I’ve come to find, open up spaces in your life and in your heart that you never knew you had. Without them, how narrow indeed my world would be.

New flavours on one of North America’s oldest streets

On the brunch menu: lechon kawali with coconut waffles
On the brunch menu: lechon kawali with coconut waffles

I was overjoyed when, in the middle of a chat about Asian cuisine, the Indonesian waiter at one of my favourite restaurants, Gado-Gado, told me that there was a new Filipino restaurant on rue Notre Dame, just a couple of blocks from where I live.

But I have to admit it was a little surreal at first to eat at Junior.

First of all, most of the clientele are non-Pinoy. Second, being typical Montrealers, they insist on having wine with their pork adobo. Third, many of the servers are non-Pinoy as well, and they love explaining the menu to me and giving me their recommendations.

But owner Jojo Flores is deservedly proud of his friendly, diligent staff, and of the carefully selected wines on the menu. Montreal diners are rather spoiled for choice, and they have selective palettes. Flores says Junior stands out as the only Filipino restaurant downtown. Dishes are rotated in and out of the menu every season. They have also introduced weekend brunches and taco Wednesdays.

Flores, who opened Junior with his brother Toddy in October 2014, is also proud to note that many of the people who eat at the restaurant are non-Filipino. “It’s really cool to see people enjoying the cuisine we grew up eating at home.”

I have to agree with him on that — it is pretty cool to see Filipino food finally becoming internationally known.

My own personal favourites are the crisp-tender lechon kawali and the sisig, which has just the right amount of chili heat and arrives on a sizzling cast-iron plate with the barest drizzle of mayonnaise. Both are perfect with a glass of ice-cold, locally brewed Jeepney beer.

From the “Rice and Shine” menu I almost always choose the lightly crunchy coconut waffles along with the —you guessed it—lechon kawali. (You can also order it with battered fried chicken.) And they do an excellent flat white.

Last but not least, there is the lively yet relaxed ambience, which Flores says is really “a reflection of who we are, and our appreciation for good food and great music.” Come down to Junior any day of the week, and chances are the place will be buzzing.

If you ask me, the Flores brothers have hit on a winning combination.

Sugar shacking

When I was about eight years old, my grandparents came back to Manila from Vancouver for Christmas, and they gave me the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder as a present. I loved them — partly because they had such good eating in them, and also because they described daily life in a mileu that was totally unfamiliar and completely fascinating.

I remember especially vividly the story of sugaring off in Little House in the Big Woods…how Laura’s grandpa whittled and hammered little troughs into the trunks of maple trees to collect their sap, and how he would boil the sap in a big iron kettle hung between two trees to make the maple sugar. One year, there was a “sugar snow,” a last cold snap that caused an extra-long run of sap, so that there was enough for Laura’s grandparents to throw a party, with music and dancing and “hot hasty pudding with maple syrup for supper,” and best of all, maple candy that was made by pouring the hot syrup onto pans of snow.

Well, this may not be the Big Woods of Wisconsin, but Québec has its own maple syrup traditions. During my first visit to a cabane de sucre (sugar shack) I was delighted to see the sugaring-off story come alive in front of my very eyes.

These pictures were taken at La Sucrerie de la Montagne, which I am told is by far the best sugar shack in the region. They have an excellent, all-you-can-eat menu of traditional Québecois cuisine, a boulangerie with an enormous wood-burning oven where they bake all their bread, and all-season accommodations so that you can come and enjoy the surrounding woods. Sugaring-off season starts in February and will continue until April.

Recipes and other food-related writing => 

After the quake*


Funny thing about turning forty. It changes people.

Suddenly, you’re not just one year older—you’ve stepped into a whole new decade. And not just any decade, but the first decade of the rest of your life.

Perspectives change. What’s important becomes clearer. You start seeing what’s still worth your time and energy. And it’s easier to let go of what’s not.

Towards the end of 2015, I finally got around to reading Radio Shangri-La, which had been gathering dust on my shelf for months.

This is what I later wrote its author, Lisa Napoli:

I picked up Radio Shangri-La at a book sale a few months ago, never suspecting how much it would resonate with me, a forty-one-year-old just starting to realize how much of my past life I’ve spent barely conscious.

I just finished reading it today, and I just wanted to let you know I’ve copied [the last] two of the questions from the preface that you say you asked yourself into the notebook I carry around with me.

Thank you for sharing your experiences with the rest of us who are searching.

In case you are wondering, here are the two questions, exactly as Lisa wrote them:

  • What could I do with the second half of my life to make it more meaningful than the first?
  • How was I going to grow old gracefully?

Maybe they’ll start you thinking too. Maybe you’ll start asking yourself, as I now do every time I wonder if something is worthwhile, “Is this meaningful, for me or for someone else? Will it help me grow old gracefully?”

2015 turned out to be a doozy of a year. I went through one or two profound personal earthquakes. But the good thing about earthquakes is that when the dust settles, you look around, and what’s left standing are the things you know now will endure.

Everything else you can re-build, better and stronger than before.


*with apologies to Haruki Murakami

What matters most

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything new here. I’ve been through a lot these past few months: turning forty, going back to the Philippines for the first time in twenty three years, jet-lagging for two weeks upon returning home while trying to catch up with work, and helping with preparations for my brother’s April wedding. Most of it has been good, but still kept me quite occupied.

Then last week I saw an item in the newspaper about how to will family heirlooms that are more sentimental than valuable. At the end, readers were invited to Instagram photos in answer to the question, “What is precious in your family?”

What, indeed? What matters most to me? What would I try to save from, say, a house fire (touch wood)? Picture albums? Framed photos? My mom’s red Spanish shawl? Her jewellery? My dad’s letters from Don Alvaro

I couldn’t decide.

Then today, after a long FaceTime session with my future sister-in-law, ironing out wedding details, my mom opened the Trunk in search of a few things that could perhaps be incorporated into the ceremony: the cord and veil from her wedding, the prayer book my grandmother carried at her (second) weddingarras coins from my great-grandmother.

The Trunk belonged to my grandmother and contained her wedding dress.

There are other things in the Trunk: my mom’s wedding dress and shoes, the baby layette, the white blanket she made to wrap her newborn babies in, coming home from the hospital. My mom’s first birthday party dress is in there too, along with all our First Communion dresses and suits, and the christening gown my siblings and I (and most recently, my nephew) were baptized in. It’s still good as new, ready for the next baby whenever he or she arrives.

Looking at the contents of The Trunk, now I know what matters most in my family.  Not these old things, exactly, but the memories and traditions they keep safe in their yellowed and faded folds. These are the roots that give me wings. 

The layette Mom used for all her babies
The baby blanket she made to take her babies home from the hospital
The christening gown
Can you believe we were once this small?

Goodbye to my 30s


“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” So goes a quote from one of my favourite books of all time, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

I came across such a book recently. A colleague and fellow bibliophile gave me a pile of books, and among them was Quiet by Susan Cain. The subtitle, The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, drew me right in, and I read it cover to cover. And when I was done, I started talking about it to anyone who would listen, and passed on my copy to anyone who wanted to read it. One of those eye-opening, life-changing books, it helped me understand:

  • Why, after a certain time of day, I prefer to be alone and silent—and that it’s ok to feel that way;
  • Why I often feel exhausted after being around extra-gregarious, ultra-talkative people;
  • That I was actually not shy as a child—just extra-cautious when finding myself in unfamiliar territory, confronted with unfamiliar people;
  • That I can influence people and effect change—even if it means stepping out of character from time to time—if I care about something or someone deeply enough.

Most importantly, I think this book has helped me become better friends with myself, the person I am now as well as the person I used to be. One of the people Cain interviewed, David Weiss, a drummer and music journalist, says, “I feel like I am in touch with [my nine-year-old self] today. Whenever I’m doing something I think is cool, I send a message back to that person and let him know that everything turned out ok. I feel like when I was 9, I was receiving that signal from the future, which is one of the things that gave me the strength to hang in there. I was able to create this loop between who I am now and who I was then.”

I like this idea of creating loops, of coming full circle. I think this was a very timely book to read, one of the very last books to pass through my hands before I turn 40. Sometimes I look  at old pictures of myself, and I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but it seems that often I looked more solemn and worried than a child ought to look. So now I tell that worried-looking little girl that there are challenges and sorrows ahead, but a lot of joys too, and everything turns out ok. And best of all, the things about you that may have been misunderstood and ridiculed then—your bookish, quiet nature, your quirky sense of humour, your sensitivity to beauty and the power of words—are the same qualities that will find you true friends and true love as an adult, and bring you success in your profession.

So chin up—and here’s to the next 40.