I was never taught how to cook.
When I was very small, about seven years old, I helped my nannies wash dishes in the back kitchen. In those days, I was taught to call it the dirty kitchen. I think it was called “dirty” because it was where the household help stayed and worked.
During those days I spent my time with my nannies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At night I watched them clean dishes and sometimes I would help. One time after dinner I was too slow for the production line so my strict nanny demanded me to stop. I stepped away and never helped again.
When I was in grade school I attended an all-girl catholic school in the Philippines where once a week we were taught a class on “Home Economics and Living Education.” In short we called it H.E.L.E. and phonetically it sounded like saying “hell” but with an “eh” at the end. Hell-eh introduced me to arts and crafts and it’s where I first learned how to make Filipino treats and desserts. I remember enjoying the arts and crafts part but found the stove uninspiring. I assigned myself as the class dishwasher.
In high school, Hell-eh became more “in depth.” It felt like a drag because it involved more cooking. The requirement was to bring an apron, kitchen shoes, bandana, and tupperware to class every week. Such items were useless to me so I never brought them and was marked down a point each time. In my senior year of high school I received a grade of “NI'' in home economics. NI stood for “Needs Improvement.” This is a true story.
By now you should probably worry that you are reading a cookbook written by someone who failed cooking class in her primary years and lacked a flair for kitchen enthusiasm at a young age. Frankly, I am not qualified for this shit.
But here you are reading this book and here I am attempting to write it. Let’s continue.
I didn’t notice it at the time but not everyone around me was the same. Some of my classmates came from homes that made being in the kitchen a pleasant time. Some of them may have been excited to bring a tupperware to class because maybe there was someone at home who wanted to try what they made in school. I am not sure. I should ask.
Nonetheless, several of the girls I went to school with pursued a career in food and patisserie. They are now award-winning chefs, renowned bakers, and booming food business owners. One of them, Kristine, a top chef in the Philippines said to me, "I want to read your cookbook."
// How to make Arroz Caldo.
My memory of Arroz Caldo involves a sunny Saturday morning on a breakfast table. It was a regular Saturday of my teenage years. Thirteen year-old me in pajamas took a seat at a glass table decorated with an array of condiments arranged by the help. Green onions, dilis, sili, patis, fried garlic, and calamansi, greeted me good morning. I said good morning to them too.
I liked my Arroz Caldo runny almost like a soup. I also preferred to eat it with other people, but it was a Saturday so it was just me at the table. I scooped myself a serving onto a shallow bowl and topped it with condiments I liked. When finished, I walked back to my bedroom, showered, and sat on a bean bag to watch Saturday television. I mostly watched American shows. When it hit five o’clock, I would hear the front door open. People who smelled like sunblock returned home and chatted about their day to each other while ordering the help to put which items where. When they saw me emerge from the bedroom they said hi. I said hi back. How was the beach? Oh the water was rough today, it was okay, how was your day, we brought home mangoes.
How was my day? I had Arroz Caldo.
80 grams of ginger
5.5 cups of water - to start
Approximately 500 or so grams of chicken. Preferably choose pieces with bones in.
½ yellow onion
2 cups of white rice
1 cup of sticky rice, also known as malagkit
Salt & pepper
Enhancements: Safflower, Kasubha
Array of Condiments:
Dried anchovies, dilis - we will fry this
Chili pepper, sili
Fish sauce, patis
Garlic - we will also fry this
If you can’t find sticky rice in the Asian market, okay to use Arborio rice.
Okay to replace calamansi with lemon.
Replace safflower with saffron (if you have the budget) or turmeric. Not adding these enhancements is okay too.
Will cook for: Five to six people OR two people with three more servings for leftovers. Arroz Caldo always tastes better when shared with people.
How to Make Arroz Caldo:
I chose to start our journey with Arroz Caldo so you could be introduced to foundational ingredients in Filipino cooking - dilis, sili, patis, rice, and calamansi. This way you can get to know each of them at the beginning and understand the possibility of flavors you can retrieve from them. Filipino or not, you’ve had rice porridge before and this is one of the many rice porridges found in the Philippines. Arroz Caldo takes time, patience, and focus to make. I want us to start with that attitude too.
1- Choose a pot large enough to stir three cups of rice. (If you are unfamiliar with what three cups of rice feels like, go for the bigger pot.) I use a 5-quart pot.
2- The first cooking step is to boil 20g of ginger with 1.5 cups of water. Essentially we are making Salabat (I will talk to you more about that later.)
3- As soon as the ginger water offers a yellow tint, add the chicken. I recommend doing a slow boil to achieve the yellow tint. With the chicken, add 60 grams of ginger and pour in 4 cups of water. Add the onions. Sprinkle salt. Sprinkle pepper. Very important: use the lid and cover the pot. We need to save as much water as we can for the broth.
4- Let the chicken boil in the pot for 35 mins. Low to medium heat. Scrape off as much scum as you can in the pot and in your life. The cleaner the broth, the better.
5- Poke the chicken and feel if it’s soft. When soft, remove it from the pot and let it cool in a separate bowl. We will revisit the chicken later.
6- Before we add the rice to the pot, make sure the rice is cleaned first (Nica will add a video on her Ko-fi page this week to show her supporters how to clean rice) After it’s cleaned, add the rice to the broth. This step and the steps after will require our patience and focus. We can do it.
7- Stir the pot continuously. The goal is to prevent the bottom of the pot from burning. Okay to take breaks but keep your focus on the rice and stir! Keep stirring. Add 3 tbsp of patis.
8- In a separate pot (choose something smaller) boil the remainder of the ginger, about 20g, with a cup or two of water. Achieve a slow boil. Essentially we are making more Salabat.
This is the part where you should be creative and make decisions on your own to achieve the texture you like. The technique is this: continuously stir the Arroz Caldo while gradually adding ginger water. Ideally, we want to be in the middle of soupy and paste-like texture. If you like it more soupy, add more ginger water. If not, don’t add more ginger water. It may take you four or five times to pour in Salabat to your mixture. You can do it. Keep on low heat as you stir.
9- Add patis to the mixture. Use the patis to enhance the flavor of the Arroz Caldo. It's what adds saltiness to the dish. If you want it to be more salty, add patis. If not, don’t add patis.
10- Add safflower to the mixture. In Tagalog we call it Kasubha. [Nica to enter a short history of Safflower here] Kasubha adds the signature yellow color of the Arroz Caldo. If you do not have safflower, try turmeric. If it fits your budget and can afford it, add saffron — it will enhance the flavor.
I personally like to add safflower because it adds an element of color and literal flowers to the dish. When you look at the complete dish, you will see specs of petals. It is beautiful.
Intermission break -
By now you should have achieved the texture you desire for your Arroz Caldo. It should taste slightly ginger-like with a gentle touch of saltiness. Not too salty is a good sign. Now let’s prepare the condiments. You will need six small plates or sauce dishes to contain them in.
11- Prepare the Condiments:
- Green onion - chop into small pieces. Serve on a small plate.
- Dried anchovies, dilis - Cover a small pan with oil. Put a handful of dilis in the pan and let it cook. We are frying. When the dilis becomes crunchy you are done! Serve on a small plate.
- Garlic - Use the same pan and oil you used for the dilis for the garlic. Add more oil. Chop garlic into small pieces and add to the pan. We are making fried garlic. The secret here is to make sure the garlic is submerged in oil in low heat and… take your time. This process requires your patience because it’s not a quick set up. While you are frying the garlic, mix it with a spoon and let it rest. Mix-rest-mix-rest. When you achieve a bright brown color like my skin, you are done. Serve on a small plate.
- Chicken - While the garlic is frying, return your attention to the chicken you cooked in steps 3-5. The chicken should be room temperature by now. What we need to do is shred the chicken by hand. This requires patience and focus. Shred it into small, fine, or chunky pieces - whatever you like to achieve. The finer the shred, the more patience it requires. You have a choice on how to serve the chicken. Either serve it on its own plate or include it in the pot with rice. If adding to the rice porridge, stir and mix it well.
- Chili pepper, sili - This condiment is easy. Chop chili peppers into small pieces and yes, serve onto a small plate.
- Fish sauce, patis - Pour fish sauce in your favorite sauce dish. Having this on the side will allow you and whomever you share the Arroz Caldo with to adjust the saltiness of their own serving.
- Calamansi or lemon - Cut into small pieces. Serve on a small plate.
12- Okay by now you should have: one - a pot full of arroz caldo and two - six or seven side plates of condiments. Congratulations! Now I will tell you how to eat it.
Always make sure the table is clear. Arrange the table however you like. I like mine with placemats because that is how we always did it at home in the Philippines. Make sure everyone gets a bowl and a spoon. In the middle, place the pot of Arroz Caldo (you could heat it before serving) and surround it with the small plates of condiments you prepared. You should find it very beautiful that you made everything yourself. You should also feel very good that you can share it with other people.
Serve yourself a scoop of Arroz Caldo. Top it with condiments you like. In my opinion, topping it with all the condiments completes the experience. Again, you are in charge. You can achieve what you like.
Nowadays I don’t have to eat Arroz Caldo alone. When I make it, someone at home wants to eat it with me. Afterwards, we visit the beach together.
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