Friday, January 31, 2014

Humba, or the Dish My Grandmother Refuses to Eat Twice

I grew up eating humba (pronounced "hoomba"), a pork stew staple in the Visayas, or central region of the Philippines. It's a familiar and homey dish that sits in your stomach for days on end -- which is the point if you don't eat much meat for penny-pinching reasons.

While the pork was happily marinating in the fridge, I asked my mother if there were any family stories around humba. I didn't expect to hear a story of food igniting domestic conflict.

On Sundays, the designated cook in my grandmother's household, a maid or most often my mother, cooked a huge pot of humba to last for a few days. Back then, they stewed the meat over firewood; most cooks were confused as lachrymose folks, their eyes tearing from blowing the cinders to stoke the flames. Also back then: no fridges. Yes, there were fridges in other places, but my mother lived in a poor fishing village with little electricity in the 60s. The humba was kept "fresh" by steeping it in oil, my grandmother spooning out servings for her family at mealtime. My mother joked, "It's no surprise your grandfather died of a heart attack so young, the crap he was eating all the time." Sometimes my grandmother sent her to school with a lunch of humba sauce (no meat) and rice.

Since pork and beef were dear, most families in her barangay (or neighborhood village) ate fish during the week and indulged in meat dishes on Sundays (it so happened that pork was sold in the village market on Tuesdays and Sundays, so it worked out for everyone). My grandmother bought, slaughtered and sold pork, while my grandfather bought fish from the fishermen and sold the catch to market vendors. Understandably, my grandfather looked forward to Sundays when the unsold pork would make its way to his dinner table. Also understandably, my grandmother disliked heavy pork dishes. My mother remembers arguments over my grandmother's finicky and wasteful attitude. While the rest of her world ate humba for a few days after Sunday, she sent one of her kids or the maid to get her something else to eat. Even now, she hates leftovers. She'll eat it but she makes sure to let us know she doesn't like it.

The humba, if anything else, might cause marital strife. Be warned.
Rice to humba ratio depends on the diner, of course. 

1 1/2 lbs pork belly, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp. black pepper
5 cloves of garlic, smashed
1/4 c. white sugarcane vinegar
1/4 c. soy sauce
1/2 c. pineapple juice
6 oz. salted black beans, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp. oil

  1. In a bowl, combine pork, pepper, garlic, pineapple juice, vinegar, and soy sauce. Marinate for at least an hour in the fridge. Drain meat and set marinade aside.
  2. Heat oil in a large pot over high heat. Add pork belly and cook until lightly browned. Add onions. Scoop out the garlic in the marinade and add them, too. Cook until the onions are a bit transparent.
  3. Pour in the marinade and bring to a boil. Add the bay leaf and the black beans. Lower the heat and simmer for about an hour. You'll know it's ready when you can pierce the pork's skin without resistance. 
  4. Stir in the brown sugar. Reduce the sauce as thick as you like. Serve hot. Or, if you don't have a fridge, steep in oil for the week. 
Just kidding. Never, ever do that. 

**Traditional humba also calls for banana blossoms, if you can find it. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

My Mother's Fried Chicken

Firstly, I'd like to apologize for the radio silence. Wrapping up the first year as a full-time professor and planning (then traveling!) for a long trip to Paris ate up all my time. I imagined I would be blogging furiously upon my return, dishing on my culinary adventures in la ville lumiere. As it turned out, I brought something unexpected back to New York--my second child. So, I've had a rather bad case of morning (and night) sickness to occupy my time. The good news is that I've been able to stomach Filipino dishes and threw a favorite together the other night. Coffee, garlic, and tomato-based soups? Not so much.

Filipinos love fried chicken. There's an entire international empire with a bee mascot hawking fried chicken and a chain restaurant specializing in the dish. The main difference between this dish and traditional Filipino fried chicken is the complete omission of batter, though you can always drench the marinated chicken with some flour and egg prior to frying. But who wants the extra calories?

A 1 lb. package of bone-in chicken* (no shortcuts here! bone-in chicken yields the most flavor and juice)
1/2 c. of soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 whole lemon, sliced
A few pinches of pepper
Enough oil to cover an inch deep in a frying pan

*Double the recipe according to how much chicken you have. I tend to buy smaller portions.

With the exception of the oil, combine all ingredients together, squeezing the lemon juices. Leave the slices in the marinade. Marinate from half an hour to an hour.
Heat up the oil over medium heat. You'll know it's ready when you throw a piece of bread in the pan and it floats up after sinking. With long tongs, carefully place the pieces in the pan, skin side first. Do not crowd the pan. After 10 minutes or when one side is golden brown, flip over to the other side for another 10 minutes.
If cooking in batches, place cooked pieces on a cooling rack to keep them crisp.
As always, enjoy with Mang Tomas and white rice.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Biko, or The Poor Filipino's Cake

Growing up, my mother continually reminded my brother and I of our privileged lives with her childhood stories of extreme poverty in the Philippine countryside, or probincia. One such line was, "When we celebrated any happy occasion, we were content with biko and pancit." Back then, this anecdote prompted surreptitious eye-rolling, but in retrospect, I envy the provincial simplicity of two perfectly executed dishes that fed an entire village of fishermen and their families over the maddening race to feed twenty hungry mouths with a seven-course dinner at a birthday party.

The younger me associated this dish with culinary captivity: I used to hate standing over the wok, stirring and stirring and stirring the liquid mixture, asking my mother over and over, "Is it done yet?" Stirring felt like an eternity, especially when you're eight years old and had better things to do, like play pirate with your younger brother.

The present me doesn't mind it so much anymore. I feel like this dessert represents so much about my Filipino identity: sweet, simple, and sustaining.

Biko (Sweet Sticky Rice with Caramelized Coconut Glaze)

One can of coconut milk (not creme of coconut)
One 1-lb. box of dark brown sugar
1 tbsp of anise (more or less, to your preference)
4 cups sweet sticky rice (also called glutinous rice)

  1. Steam rice in rice cooker. If your household does not consider a rice cooker more important than an oven (and probably does not eat spaghetti with hotdogs), cook rice in a pot with enough water to cover a half inch over the rice (or a fingertip to first knuckle length). This is my mother's method and how I've measured the rice to water ratio, and it hasn't failed me yet.
  2. While that's cooking, mix coconut milk and brown sugar in a wok over medium heat. 
  3. Stir mixture occasionally in wok until liquid thickens. I do the tablespoon coating test - the liquid should be able to coat the back of a tablespoon, like thinner caramel. 
  4. Add the anise. Stir to blend. Enjoy the fragrance.
  5. Add the rice to the wok to blend all ingredients evenly. 
  6. Enjoy warm or cold. I like biko for my merienda, or snack.