I think I finally get it. I get why people travel for hours to step through the doors of Seafood City.
I haven’t been in a good place lately and a very familiar feeling (so much like 2014) has taken root. I feel tired and overwhelmed from trying to make too many things happen at once, and my patience just snapped after a blind-baked pie crust I pulled out of the oven fell apart, before I even could pour in the lemon curd that I finally managed to get right after several tries.
My eyes fell on the doughy cutting board, streaked with flour; on pretty much all the plastic bowls we owned, dirty and stacked in the sink, because I wanted to get photos of my baking setup for the blog; on spent rinds of the calamansi fruit that came at such a price (which I indulged in), waiting to be candied to make the ten dollars I paid for a pound worth it.
There was so much to do and I just wanted something to make me feel better, right that minute. I wanted to sink my teeth into a crispy piece of lechon kawali, and have that porky, fatty goodness wash over me with an icy cold beer.
It was a Saturday and there was no better day to head up to Seafood City in Mississauga to drown my sorrow in lechon, chicharron and barbecue. I thought, at least, I wouldn’t feel too bad about spending several hours in a grocery store.
After getting on the GO Train and transferring to a bus at Port Credit, then at Square One, I found myself on Mavis Rd. Turning into the plaza, an intense, immediate shot of gratification ran right through me - there were those familiar red letters…and Jollibee!
It felt like I was 8 again. I seriously pictured myself in one of those commercials that taught you more about Filipino culture than you could ever learn elsewhere, with two pieces of fried chicken and an order of sweet spaghetti.
Since Jollibee had yet to open, I ordered my lechon kawali (pan-fried pork belly) with rice from Crispy Town, dipping each piece generously in unlimited liver sauce from the condiment/water station. I got a side of laing (taro leaves cooked with coconut cream, ginger and chilies) that visually resembled creamed spinach, but trust me, tastes ten times better. I also ordered chicharon bulaklak - the large intestines of a pig, boiled then sliced down the middle to produce a "blooming" effect when the organs hit the hot oil.
And as many people do at a food court, I eavesdropped on other peoples’ conversations. The family I sat next to worked their way through 6 orders of halo-halo (that colourful iced dessert) and 4 orders of freshly fried turon (banana-filled spring rolls), with sugar dripping off the edges in little molten streams. They had relatives visiting from out of town and the adults gossiped about a teenager who was glued to his phone and refused to leave the car for the mandatory tourist picture at Niagara Falls.
At the next table, there was a family with two young kids, eating a bunch of grilled food. The dad (I guessed he was probably around my age) had this slick “Pilipinas” tattoo on his forearm, that nicely contrasted his equally slick shirt and gleaming kicks (how guys keep prized shoes clean is a mystery). He wiped barbecue sauce from his kid’s cheeks and looked pretty damn happy at that particular moment. The group sitting next to them, I overheard, drove in from Kitchener, several hours away.
I headed next to Grill City, which has over 40 items on their menu, including liempo (skin-on pork belly) and chicken and pork barbecue skewers made with a sweet tomato-based marinade - the kind that street-side vendors all over the Philippines manage to make their own while keeping it “classic”. They had chicken inasal (usually thigh quarters, marinated with annatto oil and lemongrass) and a selection of seafood that I wish I could have regularly, like whole squid, milkfish, pompano and tilapia stuffed with tomatoes, onions and chilies.
As I stood in line (I ordered barbecue to take home), a server plopped a steam tray of freshly grilled Japanese eggplants slit lengthwise, bursting with that same tomato and red onion relish. It looked so good and smelled amazing - I got a generous waft of charcoal-burnt eggplant skin, heavy with smoke from the glassed in “box” where all the grilled items were finished over open flames.
Two older ladies standing behind me started to “ooh” and “aah” as we admired the vegetables. “Ang sarap niyan,” one said, longingly. I agreed - it would be delicious! Then the other nudged me with a mischievous wink and said “Ay ako, gusto ko ng totoong talong!” (“I want a real eggplant!”) which made her friend burst out laughing. 🍆 I just can’t even.
Wandering the aisles, there was so much prepared stuff: snacks imported from the Philippines that people buy purely for nostalgia (let’s face it, Piattos could use a lot more flavour, though it’s a highly snackable chip), those individually wrapped jellies in little plastic cups with flavours like durian and green mango, and shelves of powdered “ulam” mixes that simply require you to cut up some meat and vegetables then throw everything into a pot with sautéed garlic and onions to get dinner on the table.
I’ve been thinking about this everyday approach to dinner a lot.
On the one hand, you could argue that powdered mixes have really kind of homogenized Filipinos’ collective palates, so much so that for a lot of people - myself included - the only considerable difference between kaldereta and menudo was the size and cut of its ingredients (larger chunks of meat and vegetables in kaldereta, smaller cubes for menudo). Until I started reading Filipino cookbooks, I had no idea these two dishes had different origin stories, with different sets of base ingredients and a flavour profile that made one distinct from the other (menudo has a liver component to its traditional preparation, which is where the canned liver spread that people love putting in menudo comes from).
I totally get and understand the value of these convenience items. I think about how my parents dashed out the door every morning before 7:00 am and sometimes wouldn’t make it back as late as 8:00 or 9:00 pm. In their shoes, I wouldn’t want to spend more time in the kitchen than I needed! The variety offered by instant mixes to ensure five different types of viands throughout the week, to keep things interesting, paired with rice, appeals for a reason. I grew up around this style of eating because it suited our needs, and it’s done the same for millions of people since the 1980s, when instant mixes became widely available (and affordable) in the Philippines, pioneered by companies like Mama Sita's.
It’s hard to kick old habits. For at least two generations of Filipinos who grew up eating this way, having a wide variety of “accessible” dishes (that taste great and carry our “panlasa” or flavour palate) that literally anyone can cook, makes up a huge part of our identity and culture. For Filipinos in the diaspora, this is especially true.
I can’t help but think, if we allowed as much shelf space at Seafood City for things like cards with five-minute cooking lessons, nicely drawn and illustrated with information about what aisles to get ingredients in, kind of like how Loblaws or Whole Foods supermarkets provide recipe cards that instruct you to “shop the store” - wouldn’t that be as great a way of connecting with your culture, in addition to driving here every couple of weeks to be soak in everyone’s excitement over Crispy Town and Grill City?
I guess the question, really, is what can we do about it?