My favorite foods are the foods I grew up with. Mostly, they are poor people's food because I was raised by poor people.
Let’s zoom back to when I was seven. Yes, the days when I called the extended kitchen the “dirty kitchen.” For me, it was not a dirty place. In fact, I spent a lot of time there. It’s where I played with my dog and rubbed her belly. In the afternoons after my nap, I went to the dirty kitchen because it’s where I found people in the house. It’s where a steep set of stairs lead to my kind nanny’s bedroom located on top of the driveway. I liked visiting her there because I liked her small TV.
My kind nanny was a tall and skinny lady. She had puffy hair which she straightened on her days off. I met her when I was five years old and she was nineteen. To be friendly, she gave me chips when we first met. I call her my kind nanny because she was the kindest person in the house. Not once did she yell at me or chase me with a broom. She packed my lunch for school and cooked my meals since I was small.
My demanding nanny was her cousin. I met her when I was three years old and ever since we shared the same bedroom. She slept on the bottom mattress of my pull-out bed. She kept her clothes in my closet and before we slept at night we watched comedy shows on my average sized TV. I call her my demanding nanny because she was. Her eyes became larger when she yelled and her fingers stiffly pointed at my small body when she was angry. She pinched my thighs when she was annoyed and threatened to get me in trouble when the adult was home.
One evening my nannies and I were joined by the adult for dinner. This was new. I sat at my regular seat, the cushioned bench against the wall. I liked sitting there. To my right was my demanding nanny, across from me was the adult and my kind nanny. We were, let’s say, “complete” that night.
I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but I remember the way I sat. I had my left foot planted on the bench while my other leg dangled to the ground. I was in a half squat position and ready to eat. The adult across me snapped.
“Why are you sitting like that!”
Sitting like what? I was sitting the way I sat every night.
I was scolded to put my left foot down. I was shamed for sitting like a person from the province; like I was some rural barbarian who didn’t know any better. My nannies were shamed for allowing me to sit like them around the table. I did not understand. That’s how we sat every night.
My nannies were from a small rural town in a province called Iloilo in Panay island. The food they grew up with involved a lot of dried fish and fresh vegetables. As I am writing this book I have never been to Iloilo. Someone from Iloilo will be more qualified to tell you about the place than me. All I know is that my nannies were not from wealthy families. I remember one of them telling me they went to school without proper shoes.
// How to eat tuyo and other dried fish with vinegar.
Besides giving you recipes, I also want to show you how to eat certain foods in this book. I inherited a taste for Filipino dishes from my nannies and I want to pass this undiscovered palette to you too.
One of the classic Filipino tastes I want you to know about is tuyo. In the Philippines, tuyo is referred to as “poor people'' food. Tuyo is sun dried sardines. In the Philippines, laying fish to dry under the sun is a way to preserve your catch as a fisherman. Drying fish is also another form of livelihood in many of the fishing provinces in the Philippines.
Internet literature says tuyo is considered poor people's food because of it’s cheap variety, but to me that reason is suspect. I think tuyo is referred to as poor people's food because catching fish and drying it may be the only way of life available for some in the Philippines. Moreover, it might be the only commodity a person can depend on to feed their families because they have no money. In short, I think tuyo is called poor people’s food because the person who catches and prepares the fish is generally, well, poor.
Regrettably, the widely known feature of tuyo (according to people who do not know how to eat it) is its smell. I’ve heard stories of white people complaining it smells like a foot (which means their feet smell like fish, gross) or husbands asking their Filipina wives not to cook it when they are home. My goal in this book is to break that barrier. I want you to know tuyo beyond its less romantic reputation.
Instead of recognizing tuyo for it’s sharp sun dried ocean-like aroma, I want you to see the people behind the fish. The men and women from small provinces in the Philippines who set out to sea to make their daily catch, return it to the port, transport it to the drying racks, wait until it is perfectly dried, package it, and distribute to places where you and I can purchase them. It’s people like them who are forgotten when stories of Filipino food are told. Let’s not forget them anymore.
Dried Fish, Daing, Tuyo, or Bilad
Luckily for us, we do not need to do a lot of prepping for our dried fish because people before us did all the work. Daing, Tuyo, and Bilad all mean sun dried. In places outside the Philippines or Asia, you will find dried fish in a vacuum sealed package in the refrigerated section at the Asian market. You will be surprised to find a variety of choices, not just sardines - Bisugo, Banak, Tunsoy, or Galunggong. What they translate to will be written on its packaging. Choose a fish that looks most interesting to you. I can tell you now that all of them will be in the salty spectrum.
When you are at the Asian market, pick up Filipino coconut vinegar too. There’s a wide variety. If you’re unsure which one to choose, pick one that has the most solids floating in the bottle. When you see it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Tomatoes - diced and served on its own plate.
How to Prepare:
1 - First, make sure you’ve cooked the rice and it’s ready to be served. Imagine the house smelling like cooked rice.
2 - Open the vacuum seal packaging and remove the fish. You will notice that it is very delicately packaged so you will want to be careful removing it too. Choose how many fish you want to fry. You will whiff the sun dried ocean scent. You will notice it’s not bad after all. It smells like the fishing provinces of the Philippines. Let it transport you.
3 - Choose a regular pan you can do a quick fry on. Cover the pan with oil. The fish does not have to be completely submerged in oil. We are lightly frying. If this is your first time cooking tuyo and the smell is not comfortable for you, open the windows. We are diversifying your sense of smell with this dish.
4 - Fry your fish on one side and flip to the other. The texture you want to achieve is slightly stiff and crunchy. If you prefer it to be less stiff and crunchy, spend less time frying.
5 - When your frying time is over, remove the fish from the pan and let it cool on a plate with paper towels. Arrange nicely because you will serve this on the table.
6 - Your tomatoes can be diced or sliced. Serve it on its own plate and sprinkle a generous amount of salt on top.
7 - The vinegar. We call it suka. Now that you have your own Filipino coconut vinegar I want to congratulate you. This is perhaps the most underrated vinegar of life. I will tell you more about it in later pages. Go ahead and pour yourself a generous serving of vinegar on a little saucer. This is your sauce for the tuyo.
How to Eat Tuyo:
It is very simple. To make this a true Filipino experience I will walk you through how to eat it:
Have yourself a plate of rice and place the tuyo and tomatoes next to it. Using your hands or spoon and fork, dissect the fish into small pieces (the point here is to make sure you get pieces small enough to fit your mouth.) After, dip the fish into the vinegar or scoop vinegar onto the fish. Scoop yourself tuyo, tomatoes, and rice onto your spoon or right hand and eat it. It’s a very simple dish.
When I have the luxury of finding tuyo at the market I think about my nannies and our small beginnings. I realize how nobody that knows me today knows about my life with them. When I smell tuyo in the kitchen I remember our mornings together around the table. Me as a small child and my nannies as twenty-something year old province girls then living in Manila. The adult in the house liked tuyo too. In hindsight, I realize that besides my nannies I probably inherited a taste for Filipino food from her too. Although I will admit that as I'm writing this, I am still sitting the way she told me not to.
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