Of all the books I own, I consider Tikim the first in a chain of events that led to my forever growing cookbook collection. And it’s not even a book of recipes!
Instead, what it carries between its pages is a desire and great love, felt by many Filipinos, for the foods they grew up with and continue to crave.
“When one describes food, one does not use words alone,” Doreen says, “but the readers’ remembering as well - of past pleasures, savoured sensations.”
Doreen was my gateway to food writing. I didn’t even know the genre existed - much less how it flourished in her hands, in the Philippines. For that reason alone, Tikim will always be my favourite book of essays.
A deeper look at food
Tikim is divided into four chapters: “Food and Flavors”, “People and Places”, “Books and Other Feasts", and “Food in Philippine History”.
Doreen’s writing takes us to the heart of the matter, beyond what you expect. Her perspective on street food, for instance, shows us that beneath the funny names - like Adidas or Walkman for grilled chicken and pig parts - the cultural factors that make up our street food culture are what makes it distinct from those of our neighbouring nations.
It’s especially, she says, “a communal gathering rooted in a sense of the street as communal space, in an understanding of meals as movable in time, as flexible feasts that make their own spaces and shape their own meanings.”
On breakfast, she writes, “the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, the smell of crisping bacon, the sound and scent of sinangag frying in a carajay ... how breakfast lures one into waking.” An indigenized bacon preparation! But of course, it's just another way for us to get that salty, carb-loading kick we love in pairing garlic-scented fried rice with dried fish from the seas, the traditional daing or tuyo.
A variety of food preparations
Have you ever thought deeply of nilaga, as more than a soup of meat and vegetables?
“The simple feat of boiling meat - what miracles it can create!”, Doreen writes. If we think “of all the boiled dishes that belie the simplicity of their goodness” - whether a New England boiled dinner of fresh meats and vegetables; the Spanish cocido with cured sausages and chickpeas; the Italian bolito made with pork, beef, tongue and chicken; or the French pot-au-feu enriched with savoury herbs - our humble nilaga can certainly be mahiwaga, or magical, in itself.
In the province of Negros, Doreen describes how locals have adapted dishes from other regions, that were themselves direct descendants of Spanish/Mexican and Chinese dishes. The Negrense empanada, for example, is typically a meat-filled pastry, but here has “a fluted crust like mil hojas” - a Spanish term for mille-feuille, that classically French dessert of puff pastry layered with custard.
On eating a durian, Doreen writes, a grower named Mr. Galang “sliced along the ridges, twisted the fruit slightly, and opened it along a section that revealed flesh golden like butter.”
“‘It was like ice cream!’, someone exclaimed. And there was no smell, only an absolute rightness about being eaten in the shade of its own trees and leaves, under the Davao sun.” What a way to bring us straight into the scene, like we can almost taste (but not smell) that durian.
From one book collector to another
Doreen covers a lot more than just regional specialities. In one essay, she writes about finding this book called “Pasteleria at Reposteria” in an old bookstore on Quezon City, published in 1919. On its cover, she describes, is an illustration of an elaborately decorated croquembouche - a tower of cream-filled choux pastry, another French dessert - captioned croquemboucheng caraniuan (ordinary croquembouche).
While acknowledging this would have been something only “elite” families would have prepared for a special occasion, she wonders, “What would an ‘out of the ordinary’ croquembouche be, then? What is this treasure trove of Philippine-made patisserie that we still have to discover?”
In her review of The Philippine Cookbook by Virginia Roces de Guzman and Nina Daza Puyat, she succinctly describes why, for many Filipinos, home cooking is irreplaceable. “This peek into the cooking pots and lifestyles of some families…brings pleasure in Philippine homes, where in truth our mother cuisine develops.”
“Reading through the recipes,” she adds, “is like peeking into family kitchens and get-togethers.”
Artistry in Filipino food
My favourite essay is this collection is called “A Town Bejewelled: Philippine Food Art”.
Compared to the court cuisines of Europe, the dynastic cuisines of China or the refinement of Japanese culinary arts, Doreen writes that in the Philippines, “artistic expression in food does not mean garnishing with vegetables or fruits, or building architectural banquet pieces”. Instead, artisans display their skill in “enhancing the food itself, or the packaging in which it is presented…not for the sake of nutrition, or of taste, or even marketability - but on the idea that utilitarian need not be plain, that what appeals to the palate may also give pleasure to the eye.”
Hence, the art of pickling - manifest in the country’s many forms of achara - have developed and flourished among people who love their vinegars. In the province of Pampanga, cookies pressed into wooden molds engraved with religious iconography are still produced in rural homes and bakeries, though they are fast becoming rare.
In Bulacan, the art of etching designs and then cutting into very thin sheets of papel de japon make their locally produced pastillas (made with sweetened carabao milk) truly a unique pasalubong to bring home.
For the serious Filipino food lover, Tikim is an essential read - and a highly recommended book to find and keep!