Episode 98: Spreading Christmas cheer with Blacksoup’s Suspended Noche Buena

15726353_10155004143187573_3853160072597708668_nI’ve been spending Christmas without immediate family around for a few years now. Most of the time, I spent it at work, after which I would buy a KFC meal and watch drama series at home. It’s quite lonely, but it was a good chance to have time for myself.

This year’s Christmas is different. Instead of celebrating it alone, I devoted my time for a worthwhile cause.

15741247_10155004146457573_7254132937462489720_nBlacksoup Café + Artspace started the Suspended Noche Buena project to provide food for the poor. The idea, which started in Europe, was for customers to buy meals for those who cannot afford it.

15747732_10155004141062573_6429558850952636599_nCustomers bought a suspended Noche Buena pack for P250 each. Each pack contained a serving of Spanish sardines with sundried tomatoes pasta, slices of ham and quezo de bola, Blacksoup’s deep fried pudding with caramel sauce, and a bottle of iced tea.

15672623_10155004139437573_6998660192975369947_nBlacksoup collected a total of 288 meals this year. Volunteers went around the streets and gave these away to street dwellers, beggars, and poor families.

15726384_10155004144332573_10487745477907442_nMy team – there were three of us, consisting of fellow volunteers Karl, Diane, and myself – ventured on Christmas Eve around Quezon Avenue, Roxas Boulevard, and the Ermita-Malate district in Manila to give away these Noche Buena meals.

Joining the Suspended Noche Buena project was quite an adventure, especially that children and adults (even the unsavory ones, admittedly) flocked to us to get food packs. More importantly, it was a reminder of the struggles that the poor endure this Christmas, much more throughout the year. We’re glad that the food packs we distributed found their way to those who truly need them.

15727067_10153995395945124_1450896553784458874_nWe’d like to thank Blacksoup Café + Artspace for giving us the opportunity to make others’ Christmas a little more cheerful. I for one look forward to helping out again someday.

The number of the poor and hungry is ever growing. May the ranks of those who can reach out to them increase as well.



Episode 83: Afterthoughts on a Tinola Recipe

For the first time in six years, I cooked chicken tinola.
It all started with some sort of thread on Facebook some time ago. I told my fellow authors that I can cook chicken tinola, to which they insisted for me to make it. We eventually decided that I would serve it in a Christmas party among us. I readily accepted the challenge. I know the recipe and all, so it’s going to be easy, right?

The rain was pouring heavily on December 19, the day of the Christmas party. The bad weather notwithstanding, I borrowed a fellow author’s kitchen, bought the ingredients, and mindlessly started cooking.  
First to go into the pot was eight tablespoons of margarine, instead of the usual spoonfuls of cooking oil that the original recipe demands. I then sautéed on it four pieces of ginger the size of my thumb, already sliced into minuscule pieces, along with eight finely chopped cloves of garlic and two similarly chopped onions. Last was the chicken – all three kilos of it – along with six chicken cubes and four tablespoons of fish sauce. Great care and timing is needed, though, to make sure everything goes into the pot without getting burnt.  
Ginger sautéed with margarine has a subtle, appetizing scent. This blends well with the scent of the mash of ingredients burning over the stove – the strong scent of garlic, the savory juices of the chicken, the pungent onions, and the salty cubes and fish sauce.
I let the chicken simmer in its own juices for about three minutes. Once three minutes have passed, I poured in a pot and a half of rice water, water used to clean rice, and let everything boil.
Next to jump into the pot of broth were half a kilo of diced potatoes, two pieces of chayote (chopped, of course), and a cupful of chili leaves. I let the broth boil for five more minutes before adding two more chicken cubes and a spoonful of fish sauce. For the finishing touch, I chopped six pieces of chili peppers, threw them into the broth, and let the tinola simmer and stand.
The tinola was ready by the time the authors arrived for the party. Everyone had their fill of the dish, which turned out to be perfect for the ongoing weather. I’ll leave the comments on the tinola itself to the concerned authors.
It was during one of my moments of introspection, as I thought of my cooking ordeal on my way home, that everything in my mind slowly fell into place.
I learned some time ago that food plays an important role in our memories. That’s because we associate food with certain events and the emotions evoked from them. This is why some dishes bring, for example, a sense of nostalgia or longing, or a pleasant feeling to a person, especially when dined in a place related to that dish.
When I took on the challenge to cook tinola, I realized I’m going to cook a dish that’s not from the recipe books, but one that I must draw from my memories and feelings. It’s probably gonna feel like writing a bestselling mystery novel or a heartfelt love letter or an autobiography.
I wonder if I can still get in touch with those deep feelings. That was the first thought I had.
To be blunt, chicken tinola is my favorite dish. Tinola, I believe, is the ultimate comfort food – warm broth with savory chunks of chicken, and slices of papaya or chayote, enjoyed best during cold, rainy weather or after a hard day at work and school.
My mother used to cook tinola often. Being her ever-loyal kitchen assistant, I eventually learned the recipe, and started cooking it on my own. This was one of the things I brought to Baguio City when I moved there to study. I cooked tinola whenever I could, if only to cope with the city’s cold nighttime weather. When I eat out, I tried to order tinola whenever it’s available, though I still prefer the recipe I’ve grown up with over the years.
While in Baguio, I ended up making my own variation of the dish. In this variation, I increased the amount of ginger, and used fish sauce and cubes instead of salt. I let the chicken turn slightly brown before adding rice water because the resulting Instead of papayas, I used chayote and potatoes as extenders. I also add finely chopped red chili peppers directly into the broth.
The result is a gingery soup with a thick chicken taste and a spicy finish, complemented with soft chayote and potato chunks mashed over soupy rice to complete the meal. It was, I may say, the best type of soup to have when enduring cold, rainy weather.
The first time I cooked my tinola variation for someone outside the family was back in college. I wanted to introduce this girl I was dating to my mother, and decided I’d go cook it for lunch. Unfortunately, she did not show up.
Despite the heartbreaking experience, I never lost my love for the dish. I even tried out cooking tinola without the chicken, which sort of had the same result. All I needed to do was to boil eggs and mash their yolk over chayote and soupy rice. Yeah, make of that what you will.
To be honest, I stopped cooking tinola, or any proper home-cooked dish for that matter, after my mother died six years ago. I guess it would suffice to say that, for the longest time, I lost the heart to cook. It was as if my cooking abilities were sealed, and all the recipes I knew over the years disappeared from my memories.
Tinola was, for me, not just comfort food. It was the physical manifestation of my hopefulness, my longing for warmth and comfort, my feelings of love, and my positive outlook for the future. It’s the embodiment of the things that fill the belly, warm the heart, and calm the soul. I ate tinola to enrich my heart and nurse myself back to health. I cooked it so that others may find the same positive, comforting energy that I enjoy. Or so I believed.
Perhaps I shall neither praise nor demean my tinola recipe, and instead say I was able to cook the tinola from my memories. That I was able to cook it the way I remember it, and that I have poured the feelings I have into that dish is enough.

Episode 79: Coffice Work

At a corner table in the smoking area of Seattle’s Best Trinoma, I find myself at peace the most. I wrote my first love story here, and polished many of UGG’s blog posts. During instances when I do have to work on something from my day job, this is where I feel more focused, calm, and meditative. This is where I’m most comfortable as a writer. 
Jamiroquai is right. This corner table might as well be my corner of the Earth.

Just to digress from the topic, I’m not dead yet. While I don’t talk about my latest food adventures on this blog, I post more regularly through my Instagram account @unlimitedgrubgrabs. I know it’s inexcusable. It’s just that I don’t have enough free time to write for this blog lately.

The little leisure time I have is spent lately on writing my novels and relaxing in my coffice, Seattle’s Best Trinoma.
The crew here knows me by name. They let me hang out as I nurse my large breve or Javakula, and chomp on a bag or two of Lays. They know I like their Big Breakfast Plate with sausages and bacon. The WiFi connection’s hard to come by but stable. The music gets repetitive at times, but I see no reason to complain about listening to jazz for hours.
SBC Trinoma’s smoking area gets quiet at least three hours before closing time. This is when my writing soul burns the most, when I churn out paragraph after paragraph of my articles, or choreograph the scenes I need for my novel.
(If there’s one thing I like about SBC Trinoma’s smoking area, it’s not always crowded, even if the rest of the shop is. It IS a smoking area, after all.)
Visiting coffices is a trend among office workers nowadays, especially those who need to work on as much of their assignments as possible.
Working in a coffice has numerous benefits. A noisy, busy environment is, to a degree, conducive for accomplishing creative tasks. Visitors don’t feel isolated because one can meet like-minded people who want a more comfortable place to work in. The (rather incessant) need for a WiFi connection is also something useful for workers who are dependent on the internet.
Add to that the fact that the coffice has a good selection of beverages and you’re all set.
Sure, my work behavior can be frowned upon by coffee shop enthusiasts. A coffee shop is for everyone, I agree, not to mention there are workers who abuse their privileges. (The same could be said about some leisurely visitors, though.)
That’s why I make it a point to actually patronize the coffices I visit. I buy food and drinks whenever I work at SBC, or any coffee shop where I intend to work. I make use of their bandwidth as sparingly as possible. If I arrive at a shop during peak hours, I limit my working hours and don’t hog the power outlets. I clean up my table too, or at least keep it less messy.
In hindsight, working in a coffice is the same as working in a regular office space, with a set of guidelines and etiquette for its patrons. Perhaps it’s the feeling that one is working in a more relaxed environment while guzzling a favorite drink or chowing on a warm pastry that makes coffice work a viable option especially for people on the go.
When I finished “The Feast of the North Star” (my first novel on Wattpad), I made sure to include the staff at SBC Trinoma in my acknowledgements. Staying in their coffee shop was instrumental in my creative process, after all. Their breve, to be specific, was bitter – as bitter as my tears when I first wrote the story, but I digress.
By the way, I’m writing this post in my usual corner table, my corner of the Earth, at SBC Trinoma.

A Moment of Silence for my Food Writing Career

Looks like for a moment I reached the point when I lost the urge to write about food. Nah, I may say I just fell into an all-time low.

I’ve been thinking these past few weeks since I last posted in this blog.  To be honest, I skipped celebrating Christmas and New Year, and had stopped going out for food trips. I had some pending posts and material ready for writing, but I never got around into working on them.

Is it because of laziness? Maybe. Busy schedule? Perhaps. Lack of inspiration? Possibly. Lack of motivation? That too.
In any case, I offer no excuse for missing out on a lot of opportunities to have food adventures. The least I could do is catch up through my Instagram account, where I post tidbits of my visits to various places. All that lacks, though, is a blog post, which I owe to you, my dear readers.
I’m taking every chance I can have to write again and finish as many as I could. That means from here on out, I’m resuming my food adventures, and letting more people into my exploits as a writer. It’s not much, but I hope you could stay with me for the rest of the year.
See you around!

Unlimited Grub Grabs, now on its fifth year!

I am the soul of the gourmand.
Good food fuels my body, and good wine burns my blood.
I have tasted hundreds of dishes
Regardless of cuisine yet mindful of the price.
I seek great-tasting food and drinks.
My heart will only be satisfied by the best.
And so I invite you to my UNLIMITED GRUB GRABS.

Five quiet years have passed since I started my food blog. I won’t say this has been an eventful year for me, since I’ve been posting less about where I eat out and explore. It’s not because I’m slowing down on my blogging activities; rather, I found more things to do with my writing.

Recently, I started writing a novel – four, to be exact. They’re not like the love stories you read online, or so I hope. It’s a new playing field I want to explore and be good at. I already finished one titled The Feast of the North Star, which is based on an old, undated poem I wrote in college (not Hokuto no Ken, as the title states). I’m in the middle of writing a second one, and there are two more lined up, which I hope to finish by August next year.

(I might as well mention that I’m using pictures of anime characters and such as templates for my characters and book covers since I don’t know how to draw or do digital art.)

Then there’s “Foods Tayo,” our food segment at TV5’s Aksyon sa Tanghali, where I play the role of the anchor’s boyfriend and love interest (long story). I take every opportunity I can during our shootings to study food critiquing, broadcast-style of course, and explore good places to dine around Metro Manila.

Which leads to the main highlight of my year: my now-active Instagram account, where I post pictures of the food establishments and dishes I encounter. All you need to do is search on Instagram for the hashtag #onthenextunlimitedgrubgrabs and you can get a sneak peek of my solo raids and activities with the TV5 crew.

As always, I operate within my own budget, with no sponsors, invitations to events, or back-up (apart from TV5), but that doesn’t mean my resolve to write about food will waver at all. I still aspire to reach an Anthony Bourdain-level of food expertise, you know.

Without further ado, here’s to another year.

To have a behind-the-scenes look at what we’re up to (and for some hardcore food porn), visit:
My Instagram account @unlimitedgrubgrabs
My Facebook page: https://Unlimited Grub Grabs

Four Years of Unlimited Grub Grabs, and counting

I am the soul of the gourmand.
Good food fuels my body, and good wine burns my blood.
I have tasted hundreds of dishes
Regardless of cuisine yet mindful of the price.
I seek great-tasting food and drinks.
My heart will only be satisfied by the best.
And so I invite you to my UNLIMITED GRUB GRABS.

I’m celebrating my fourth year as a food blogger very quietly. No food raids, no promos, no special events or contests… nothing. I just got off work, and didn’t feel any urge to eat out.

People ask me if I ever go to food events, store openings, tours, and other foodie-related activities. Nowadays, the answer is “no.” My job no longer allows that luxury. If I am going to a food event, I’d prefer those held at weekend afternoons, which is my only free time. Invite me anytime else and I’ll decline, eve if I wanted to come.

Some also ask me if I earn off my blog. My answer is “no.” Or to be blunt, I’ve never figured out how. Sure, I have Google Adsense in my Blogger account, but I never figured out how to maximize its use. That, or maybe I couldn’t find the time to study it. For some time I hoped I could ask someone to manage the business aspect of my blog, but I never got around it.

Call me lazy, because partly I am. But my circumstances don’t allow me to spend so much time on blogging.

I am still watching my health, despite all of the stuff I’ve feasted on this past year. I have a bigger reason to do so now. But that doesn’t stop me from eating out and writing about it.

If there’s one thing I figured out this past year, it’s working on my content. I’ve always had a high regard for the type of stories I want to make. You see, food blogging is basically “I ate (name of dish) at (name of restaurant). I was with (name/s of companions). We (name of personal event). The food was good. I’ll come back and dine again.” But that’s not how I wanted my stories to roll.

I remember saying that food always has a deeper meaning. Food is rooted to culture, society, insight, and other aspects of worldly (or in the case of my Lenten posts, otherworldly) wisdom. A story that answers such questions is what I want to write. Also, I want to emulate Anthony Bourdain’s storytelling style. I’m still working hard to achieve that.

I still don’t have a lot of readers, but I don’t mind. I continue writing what I can write about, and that’s enough for me. Those who need my stories will find them, and knowing that they do satisfies me. As for monetizing the blog, I’ll need a lot of help.

In the meantime, I’m hoping for more experiences, more food to eat, more places to see, and more stuff to do to perfect my food blogging skills. I hope you continue to join me in my upcoming adventures.

Until then.

Manila, The Gates of Hell (or something to that effect)

Until now, I find it hard to tune in to the brouhaha that is Manila getting called the “Gates of Hell” in Dan Brown’s latest book “Inferno”. The responses have been varied, from utter shock and disappointment to total amusement. But for me, no matter how much I care, I’m playing the straight face card for this topic.

For those who have been living under a rock (or a pile of sweets from Candy Crush), the “Gates of Hell” remark came from a scene from “Inferno,” where the character Sienna Brooks joins a humanitarian mission in Manila.

Here, Sienna took note of Manila’s widespread poverty, the traffic jams, the garbage, and the rampant crime and sex trade. To put it simply, the whole ordeal traumatized her. (Follow the link above to read the excerpt of the novel.)

While it makes for a gripping yet nauseating example of human drama, many Filipinos found it offensive.

The Metro Manila, Development Authority, for example, took exception to Brown’s statement. “We are greatly disappointed by your inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis,” MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino said in an open letter. (Note, however, that Tolentino once made an article lambasting Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and lobbied to have its movie version banned.)

Malacanang insisted that foreign tourists who have seen Manila know better, and that the Philippines remains to be a prime tourist destination. Meanwhile, cultural activist Carlos Celdran urged Filipinos to remain calm and do something about the bad parts of Manila instead of protesting.

The comments from netizens were more polarizing: Brown’s Facebook page was swamped with comments and wall posts from Filipinos. Some defended Brown’s work and criticized the narrow-mindedness of his critics. Others took to lambasting Brown himself, wishing him and his family misfortune.

While comments against Brown’s depiction of Manila fly around, Adobo Connection had something else in mind. Not only did they offer the author a round-trip to Manila, but they are also developing an adobo recipe just for him. Incidentally, they called it “Adobo Diablo.”

Even popular author Paulo Coelho has joined in the discussion, though he sided with the Filipinos.

To his credit, Brown had something redeeming to say about Manila, as depicted in “Inferno.”

So why am I keeping a straight face with this issue?

Crazy as it may sound, I say Manila does qualify as the “Gates of Hell.” The fiery Bicol Express recipe was invented in Malate, for crying out loud. Some of the hottest night spots and party venues are there (YMMV). It was once the place to be for the artists, politicians, and the other members of society’s elite. The view of the sunset from Manila Bay and Roxas Boulevard is marvelous. Malacanang is located in Manila. (Wait.) Not to mention we have our own Hell’s Kitchen, but not the likes of the stuff from the pages of “Daredevil.”

On the other hand, we cannot deny that there’s a darker, more blatantly obvious meaning to Manila’s “Gates of Hell” tag. Mention Manila and the first to pop in a person’s mind would either be the trash-ridden slums of Tondo, the red light districts of Ermita, or the sleazy nightspots of Malate.

Also, take into account Quiapo, a melting pot of religion and superstition; Roxas Boulevard and its trash (ironic, isn’t it?), and Avenida, Manila’s old central business district, now a piece of a Batman-less Gotham City. Not to mention the traffic, the clogged esteros, the air pollution, the prostitutes, beggars, conmen, and corrupt cops. What other faults of Manila should I find and count?

The local elections just ended in Manila, so I’m pretty sure mayor-elect Joseph Estrada know what just got himself into. He did promise to improve and clean up Manila, even the poor parts of it, and damn well he should. As Celdran would say, “The world will always judge us by the old Manila, not the newer parts of Manila.”

But let’s go back to Dan Brown. “Inferno” is a work of fiction and all, but his description of Manila hit a really raw nerve on every one of us. Still, I’ve yet to read the book so I’d like to experience for myself how bad it is, if it is that bad in the first place.

Which reminds me, how often have we violently reacted against Manila’s critics? We can defend the city – and the Philippines, by extension – all we want, but we have to be reminded that we’re supposed to show the world how beautiful Manila is, and keep it that way. A balance of interests is in order. Instead of extolling Manila’s beauty and virtues, or engaging in fault-finding and vilifying, we should make use of what the city has and make it a great city, “Gates of Hell” or not.