Dirty Kitchen Cooking

Hold on, it's not what you think.

I don't mean literally cooking in a dirty kitchen. That's just what Filipinos call their second, outdoor kitchen. Sometimes, these can be semi-enclosed, but the main point is to have a well-ventilated area to work in. Anything that may produce a strong odor or a lot of smoke is usually cooked here. (Fried fish, for example)

My Auntie Jessica's house doesn't have a stove or an oven yet, so all of our meals were prepared outside. Her dirty kitchen is actually a little nicer than the norm. It's completely enclosed yet still separate from the main house, and the floor-to-ceiling windows and screen doors still lend that outdoorsy ambiance.

I showed you all the amazing goodies we bought at the market, so here is some of the amazing food that my mom and auntie made throughout our stay.

First, this is my mom at 5 in the morning while she gets breakfast started. (Frying fish! Surprise, surprise...) Yes, she got up that early to cook breakfast. Yes, we all woke up that early to eat breakfast. In our family, my mom is definitely the "head chef". She takes command in the kitchen, and there's just no arguing with her. (Trust me, I've tried. All she has to do is give someone that serious-mom-glare, and the battle is over. She's won.) My mom, as the second-oldest of 8 kids, learned how to cook at a very young age in order to help take care of all of her siblings. She told me her grandma and uncle influenced her the most. Cooking is not a science to her or following recipes to a T, but it's all about instinct, nourishment, and comfort.

One of the reasons we even woke up at 5 AM was that the hot, fresh Pan De Sal is delivered in the early hours of the morning. It's best to eat them while they're still hot and fluffy on the inside. (It also helps that roosters are crowing by 3:30...There's also the honking of the bicycle horn from the Pan De Sal Man) If the Philippines has a National Bread, I'm sure it's Pan De Sal. Although the literal translation is "Salt Bread", these rolls are on the sweeter side. They're perfect alongside coffee or, as I preferred them, stuffed with Nutella Hazelnut Spread! Also, we ate them with Eden cheese (as pictured in the large pile I have on my plate, bottom-right).

The garlic-fried rice was another breakfast staple my mom made everyday. She simply fried some smashed garlic in a wok then added leftover steamed rice. It was salty, garlicky, and crispy...a perfect foundation for your breakfast plate! In the bottom-left photo, I had tapa (dried, cured meat that is then fried or grilled), fried sweet banana, and steamed okra. And, yes, we even had shrimp for breakfast.

We also had shrimp for lunch. Really, we had shrimp in every meal. It was fantastic. We also had crab. Every. Day. A common side dish/snack were sliced green mangoes dipped in bagoong alamang (a salty, sauteed shrimp paste). It's never really been my thing, but I know that it's one of my mom's favorites. She'll eat it with any meal.

I told you that Tilapia is a staple in Filipino cooking, and I wasn't kidding. We had it all the time. My cousin Sam and I requested these little fishes every day. I love to eat it with eggplant, steamed or fried. Also, we had pork belly for lunch multiple times. My favorite preparations were the bbq pork belly (cooked on top of a banana leaf over a wood fire) and the fried pork belly (lightly seasoned, deep fried until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside). As seen in the bottom-left photo, I had my fried pork belly with sauteed bamboo shoots. So yummy!

In Filipino cuisine, you'll often see one-pot dishes in which meat and vegetables are stewed or sauteed together. Some of my favorites from our trip were, from top to bottom: Chayote (aka Pear Squash) sauteed with ground pork and chayote leaves, pork afritada (a tomato-based stew with carrots, potatoes, and red pepper), and shrimp (Oh hey, MORE shrimp!).

It took about a week into our stay before I was finally allowed to help cook something. It was a very odd feeling. When I did make it into the kitchen, though, I helped with a Filipino classic: nilaga. It's a simple soup made by boiling beef, peppercorns, and bay leaves to create a delicious broth, then adding a variety of vegetables.We used cabbage, green beans, and bok choy.

Nilaga is lightly seasoned, so it's served with a mixture of fish sauce and calamansi for added flavor.

Another standout was the Chicken Tinola. It's another popular Filipino soup. This one is made with ginger, green papaya, and malungay leaves (spinach or chili pepper leaves are often used as substitutes). I was so happy when my mom made this because I absolutely LOVE chicken gizzards. It may be a little weird for some people...but I enjoy the meaty flavor and they are very tender if cooked correctly. We also had grilled squid stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and ginger! Fresh, spicy, and delicious :)

And, last but not least, dessert! Or snack. This dish can be both! It's Filipino-style fruit salad. The basic formula is fruit cocktail, condensed milk, and cream. However, this is one of those things where everyone has their own recipe and little touches. I don't particularly like when it's made with regular fruit cocktail (peaches, pears, grapes, etc.), but I do LOVE when it's made with tropical fruit cocktail! The one my Auntie Jessica made had papaya, pineapple, and nata de coco. The cream to condensed milk ratio is pretty much based on personal preferences. Some people even use a little bit of mayo for thickness and to balance out all the sweetness. Another addition that I feel is a must-do: Eden cheese. There's that Eden cheese again! It's salty, creamy, and slightly tangy. Again, it balances out the syrupy sweetness of all the fruit.

The fruit salad is then put in the refrigerator or freezer to let the cream/condensed milk set and thicken. We always make it in large batches, so it lasts for a few days. It's one of those yummy dishes that you can scoop out and fix yourself a bowl, then keep coming back for more...and more......and more.

All of these dishes are the Filipinos' version of the proverbial "comfort food", the ones that just make you feel warm and fuzzy on the inside thinking of mom, grandma, or aunt. And, most importantly, home. There's a lot of love and passion behind preparing and cooking this food, things that you should always include when you're in the kitchen. I learned that from my mom, and I hope to pass that on someday as well :)