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
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.