Maligayang Pasko! Let’s Eat!
By Keesa Ocampo
Many joyful things come to mind when I think about the Christmas season and how I spent many of them growing up in the Philippines. In an episode of Parts Unknown, even Anthony Bourdain marveled at how extra we are ‘pag Pasko – our dancing Santa traffic enforcers, the loving phenomenon of our balikbayan boxes na amoy States, and cover bands that make the season bright!
Growing up in the Philippines, it is quickly learned that at every occasion, the meal is always the centerpiece. At weddings, we toss rice grains at the bride and groom for wishes of prosperity and abundance. We have halo-halo to cool down on hot days. Buto ng pakwan to pass the time. Tsokolate eh to feel indulgent. So it’s no surprise that Christmastime, which starts in September by the way, is a holiday built on a dining table of eats and treats.
The holidays are about being together – meals and games with family and extended family. In the Filipino culture, everyone who’s older within the same generation is Ate or Kuya. From a generation up, it’s Tita or Tito. How we’re all related is oftentimes negligible and much less important than the fact that we are connected. The connection is almost a lifeline for us that, for better or worse, we don’t really have a concept of personal space. Or perhaps we do; we just don’t really need it.
So one can imagine that over the last couple of years, being away from each other and unable to connect with each other in the way that we’re used to has been, well, heartbreaking. Filipinos always touch, whether it’s a greeting of mano po to an elder, kissing a dear one on the cheek, a playful jab on the shoulder of a friend, or sending someone a flying kiss or nguso in jest, affection, or to give someone directions. While others may think – germs – to us, this is love. It is in our recognition of the other. It is the acknowledgment of one’s being and presence. It is the familiar greeting for someone we are connected to – kababayan, Tita/Tito, Manang/Manong, ka-batch, schoolmate, katukayo.
Alas, in the absence of all this, what has kept us connected to our roots and each other remains to be food. In the Philippines, there are a couple of Christmastime events that conjure up a memory of specific food. The first is misa de gallo (also known as Simbang Gabi or ‘Rooster’s Mass’). My brothers are better at this than I am but I at least have been to a handful of midnight masses. Nevermind the truth that seeing a cute boy, getting a wish fulfilled, or puto bumbong were the inspiration. Hot puto bumbong with not just any butter but, Magnolia DariCream butter. Or if you’re bongga, Queensland butter from a tin.
The next and biggest is Noche Buena or Christmas Eve feast. Baked sugared ham of Jamon China, cochinillo or lechon, ensemada, tsokolate eh… and in my family, apple pie with butterscotch sauce, lasagna, and soup – pancit molo or fabada.
Here’s a quick recipe you can make at home.
Tinolang Halaan recipe by Keesa Ocampo. Courtesy of Keke & KO on YouTube.
(Clams in Ginger Broth)
PREP TIME: 40 minutes
COOKING TIME: 20 minutes
40g shallot, thinly sliced
15g garlic, diced
30g unsalted butter
60g malunggay (moringa) leaves
480 ml water
Bouquet garni with 25g ginger, 2pcs bay leaves, 4g whole black peppercorns
Crusty bread, to serve
Purge live clams by soaking them in cold brine for at least 20 minutes. Toss the water and repeat.
In a stockpot, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and cook down the shallots and garlic until they soften, around 5 minutes. Add water and the bouquet garni, bringing the liquid to a boil. Muddle the spice bag to extract the ginger essence.
Add the clams and season with salt. Cover the lid til the clams open, around 10 minutes.
Add the malunggay leaves and cook them down, around 3 minutes.
Using tongs, transfer the clams to a bowl. To the stock, add the remaining tablespoon of butter. Pour the stock over the clams. Serve immediately.
Growing up in the Philippines, seafood always came fresh. The natural brine of clams and the depth of tinola broth always reminded me of French moules marinière. I had enjoyed many dinners on Belden Lane in San Francisco with a hot bowl of shellfish where I would dunk crusty bread lathered in a thin layer of moutarde de meaux. My version replaces the mustard with a malunggay pesto, topped with oven-roasted fish sauce tomatoes. A little bit of my Manila childhood, with a touch of my San Francisco adventures.
Once upon a time, Anthony Bourdain said that Filipinos are “…the most giving people on earth” and we give our most powerful love through our food. It is a gift made with our hands, perfected by generations of a trained palate. One of the most impactful memories I have of the Philippines is a time when I was campaigning in the very poor neighborhoods of Manila. A family of four who lived in a shanty of cardboard, 4x4s and corrugated iron smiled at me and invited me in. They were about to have what was likely their first full meal of the day – hot steamed white rice and a can of sardines. They divided the rice and fish amongst everyone and offered me an equal share. Ganyan magmahal ang Pilipino. Buong puso.
So wherever you are in the world and whatever is on your table – a feast for kings or a hot meal to warm your body and soul, may it remind you of the best parts of humanity and bring you a piece of home. Maligayang Pasko sa inyo. Kain na!