On birthdays it’s natural to celebrate by eating with one’s family. Half the time this involves just choosing the restaurant that we eat at. While this used to mean choosing from Manila’s generous selection of upscale restaurants, I realized some years ago that my birthday was essentially a license to make them try new things or go to places that require a bit of commitment to reach. Mind you, it’s not as if my family (these days we come to about nine around the table) are a particularly conservative bunch. Not about food, anyway.
Sashimi, raw oysters, and ginataang talangka are family favorites, and my father was the one who introduced us to the original Rasa Singapura, back in the eighties when it was a hole in the wall on Scout Ybardolaza in Quezon City and nobody knew sambal from a hole in their socks.
Still, it’s turned out that living a couple of Superhighway exits south of Makati tended to dampen the frequency of my family’s forays north of Guadalupe. These days, most trips that take them out of their usual orbits tend to originate with me and my wife.
This has ranged from something as minor as demanding that they make the drive from Alabang into UP Village where Daisy Langenegger of Green Daisy used to serve gourmet organic meals made from ingredients she and her fellow organic farmers had grown (this was before she more or less permanently relocated to her farm up north in Isabela), to dragging everybody to a wet market to choose seafood to be cooked in the kitchens next door.
Naturally, every place I’ve taken them to is a place where my wife and I have eaten before. No birthday disasters have occurred, though my father still treasures the memory of my sister-in-law’s face when a vendor refreshing a display of raw fish inadverdently nailed her with some of the refreshments.
Just as often as I take the family out, I cook for them. I realized a few years ago that there was no rule that says I had to be cooked for on my birthday, or even that I had to take it easy. Luckily, everybody in my generation of the family cooks, so we’re as easy about sitting back and letting someone else do the work as we are about taking charge of putting something together.
The year I realized that cooking was a birthday option, my wife and I made sukiyaki on portable gas burners placed at the center of the table in the lanai of my father’s house. Sukiyaki, like shabu-shabu and Chinese hotpot, is properly cooked live at the table, with new ingredients being added to the pot as needed, then removed and eaten as soon as they cook through.
Towards the end, noodles are added to soak up the broth where everything has simmered. It’s all about speed and immediacy and fresh ingredients, and there may be few rituals that embody sharing as perfectly as one where everybody dips into a pot full of good stuff bubbling away in the middle of the table. This year, I decided I wanted to celebrate with a barbecue. A seafood barbecue. Woohoo!
There would be other things besides seafood, of course: I love charcoal-grilled vegetables, for one thing. And my father had a couple of racks of lamb he wanted to contribute to the occasion. Looking ahead, I realized that having a hunk of oven-cooked meat would take the pressure off the grill.
Seafood cooks faster than meat and we were a small group, but I hadn’t grilled anything in years and you can only grill so many things at a time. I also knew that I didn’t want to go the route of cooking a pile of stuff beforehand: everything is just more moist and better-tasting hot off the fire.
I had two grills, each about the size of a large wok, so it seemed very possible that people might wind up watching other people eat first. Having lamb at the ready would make it possible to cook in the spirit of play, which for me was really the point of the exercise. An open grill is an invitation to experiment.
Can you just throw oysters on the grill or would it be better to shuck them in advance? Try it both ways. Would Japanese sweet corn taste better boiled or grilled? Try it both ways.
Salmon heads at P160 a kilo, ie about three to a kilo, in Farmer’s Market. Split the heads, and brush them with oil? Oil and what? Salt. Maybe soy sauce. Bahala na: Pabili ng isang kilo. What are those clams, the ones that look like they’re filled with bloody meat? Batotoy kamo? Pabili ng isang kilo. Dalawa na lang. Hickory chips in True Value? One bag. Slice the pumpkin thin, put them on the grill. Burned some mushrooms? Throw them out and try again.
Recipes are just records of particularly successful experiments, after all. I don’t have anything against following recipes, but cooking is not the same as following a recipe, although it does seem that almost everything we read and watch on TV assumes that this is the case. It makes sense, in a way, because how could you script a show to teach people how to improvise? How to NOT follow a recipe? How to remix bits and bobs of other recipes when confronted with alien ingredients? It’s the sort of thing that is taught live and in person, through mentoring and apprenticeship.
I suppose I could have tried the same thing on any other day. I didn’t have to try grilling oysters for the first time on my birthday. Still, I suspect that it was because it was my birthday that I wanted to do something different.
Anyway, it was a great night, just so you know. The lamb was perfect. My brother Noel, the Lmd Ermitano behind the photos and food blog EyeOnWine also celebrates his birthday in May. He brought corn, chicken mushrooms, craft beers, and Txakoli (pronounced “chakoli”), a dry, white Spanish wine.
My sister made pilaf and oven-roasted vegetables.
Both oysters and batotoy or blood clams can definitely be cooked by tossing them on the grill, but unlike tulya and tahong that gape wide open on cooking, the former two only open a crack once done, then you have to wait until the shells cool down before you can even touch them, and even then they’re still pretty hard to pry open.
An oyster tossed on the fire unshucked results in a firm, slightly smoky oyster that is not bad at all, but I definitely prefer to shuck them first, put them on the grill, brush them with a sauce made of butter, olive oil and soy sauce (note: try adding garlic next time), then cover the grill so they bathe in the smoke. Japanese sweet corn is better boiled. Chicken mushrooms have a waxy, hydrophobic outer layer that repels water-based sauces.
My wife Chako cooked the salmon heads by laying them on the grill before lightly brushing them with a mixture of sake and soy sauce—a flavoring commonly used in Japanese cookery— and they were delicious.