Five Ques­tions with Bryan Koh

A young Sin­ga­porean amasses recipes and mem­o­ries from restau­rants and home kitchens to carinde­ria and pub­lic mar­kets all over the Philip­pines, and im­mor­tal­izes them in a beau­ti­ful trib­ute of a cook­book

F&B World - - WORD OF MOUTH -

What is it about Philip­pine cui­sine that made you want to write a book about it? I grew up eat­ing Filipino food, pre­pared by my yaya, so in a way it’s my com­fort food. There was plenty of sini­gang, adobo, and fried milk­fish. But it was a trip around Batan­gas in 2009 af­ter a writ­ing as­sign­ment at The Farm, San Ben­ito, Lipa, that opened my eyes to the other joys the coun­try had to of­fer like bu­lalo, dif­fer­ent ado­bos, and var­i­ous kakanin, which I’d never heard of. I wanted to know more and felt that peo­ple de­served to as well. What fas­ci­nated you most about the cui­sine? I find the blend of Malay (or Aus­troPoly­ne­sian as an an­thro­pol­o­gist might sug­gest), Chi­nese, His­panic, and even Moor­ish and In­dian fla­vors quite un­usual and ex­otic. What sets Filipino cui­sine apart from its Asian coun­ter­parts is its in­cor­po­ra­tion of “West­ern” dishes into its reper­toire. Ba­calao, ja­mon­ado, kaldereta, leche flan, maza­pan, buñue­los— they are all there, though not with­out hav­ing suc­cumbed to mi­nor ad­just­ments to suit the new en­vi­ron­ment and palate. No other coun­try in South­east Asia has soaked up the fla­vors of their col­o­niz­ers as read­ily as the Philip­pines. Look at the fi­esta ta­ble, where a glazed ham and a toma­toey stew of goat and olives might be caught rub­bing shoul­ders with sticky cakes of gluti­nous rice and co­conut milk. You’ve penned a book about Philip­pine and Burmese cuisines, but none about the food in Sin­ga­pore. How come? It’s a fair ques­tion. I’d al­ways wanted to write some­thing about the food served in the homes of South­east Asian coun­tries. Home was in­deed my start­ing point and when I started rem­i­nisc­ing and rec­ol­lect­ing I re­al­ized that the food we ate at home was, by and large, a mix­ture of Per­anakan and Filipino. I was less fa­mil­iar with Filipino fare than Per­anakan fare at the time and that played a huge part in the de­ci­sion to ex­plore it. I wanted to taste a for­eign land­scape.

With the Burmese cook­book, I took this to the next level, as I hadn’t grown up on it and felt it would be great to delve into a cui­sine that hardly any­one knew any­thing about. And, be­cause the coun­try was un­af­fected by the pow­ers of for­eign com­merce un­til very re­cently, for well­known po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, there was a raw­ness and in­no­cence that I was des­per­ate to cap­ture. You’ve pro­duced a num­ber of award-win­ning cook­books. What does it take to come up with one? You have to love food and want to share this love with peo­ple. I’m not a natural when it comes to writ­ing, it re­ally was a skill I had to pick up and hone; I’m still hon­ing it. You should’ve seen my drafts at the be­gin­ning. They were ghastly. I think writ­ing recipes can be quite tricky, es­pe­cially when the recipe in­volves over­lap­ping ac­tiv­i­ties. But cook­ing, tak­ing pho­to­graphs, art di­rec­tion, and to some ex­tent graphic de­sign, th­ese come pretty nat­u­rally to me. The im­agery comes faster than the words. Where does printed ma­te­rial stand in a world that’s gone mad over dig­i­tal? A dig­i­tal cook­book can be pretty handy, but only if you want sim­ple recipes. It’s very good for when you want to check the in­gre­di­ents go­ing into a dish or how long it might take on the stove or in the oven. But I’m not sure if it’s very good for com­pli­cated for­eign recipes as this means keep­ing the de­vice next to you as you cook. If you stain or dam­age it, you’ll be dis­traught be­cause you would’ve killed what I shall as­sume to be a some­what ex­pen­sive de­vice. If you stain a pa­per cook­book, things would never be that dire. I find a stained cook­book rather charm­ing. It’s like you’ve added a layer of per­sonal nar­ra­tive to it, even if it is one of fool­ish­ness.

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