In 2008, I signed up to teach sound at International Academy of Film and Television, IAFT for short.Â IAFT is a film school affiliatedÂ with Bigfoot Studios, a film production company based on Mactan island in Cebu. Bigfoot studios is a largish compound, built to be as self-sufficient as possible. I havenâ€™t been back in years,Â but at the time I was there, it had dormitories, a canteen, a coffeeshop, even a tiki bar in the back, which had been built as a set and which had been retained as a watering hole, a facility sorely needed at the compound, given that Cebu city proper was a good 45 minutes away by taxi.
I had signed up for one term, which at IAFT, runs nine weeks long. Two and a quarter months. I thought Iâ€™d just eat in the canteen. â€śWhat the hellâ€ť, I thought. â€śI can eat anything for nine weeks.â€ť This turned out to be a delusion, perhaps inspired by a kind of misplaced machismo, or possibly some remnant memory of a lecture extolling the virtues of the more ascetic saints.
What can I say. In Thailand, a hawker tita on the sidewalk can make a papaya salad literally as good as any youâ€™ll buy in the best hotels. The Philippines is no Thailand. The manangs staffing the canteen did their best, but their efforts produced what could only be described as generic carinderia food. Now I know there are good carinderia (Sosings in Makati comes to mind) but letâ€™s be real: they are few and far between. Iâ€™ve often said that the best thing the Department of Tourism could do for tourism is just to roll out some kind of outreach module on cooking. Or even one on just not OVERcooking.
At any rate, I lasted all of three weeks before I found myself returning from Gaisano mall with Php3,000 worth ofÂ cooking utensils and groceries. The dorm had a communal kitchen that had a stove, fridge and microwave, but you had to buy your own pots, dishes and utensils. Still, I knew I didnâ€™tÂ want to do anything elaborate on a daily basis, let alone a thrice-daily basis; and I eventually came up with a small repertoire that provided a routine I could live with.
At the time, I was basically just muddling through with an eye to getting as much satisfaction and variation as I could for the least possible effort. In retrospect however, Iâ€™ve realized that the repertoire could mostly be described by a simple formula.
Starch with goop and salt
Doesnâ€™t sound appetizing, I know. But think about it: the formula decribes pizza toast, omelets, and nearly every pasta dish invented by the Italians. The formula also has the advantage of being memorable, accurate, and general. Generality is its best feature. Generality encourages substitution, experimentation and embodies a way of thinking that produces new edibles that have a good chance of actually tasting good. If you think of the tomato sauce on pizza toast as goop, itâ€™s easy to think of replacing it with other goopy things like fried pumpkin, raw cucumber,Â even scrambled eggs. But letâ€™s go through each element one by one:
STARCH. No brainer. You have a choice of three basic options: bread, pasta, rice. Adepts have the option of opening the list to things like potatoes, kamote, corn, bihon, egg noodles and so on, but bread was my starch of choice most of the time, as it was involved the least amount of fuss. Rice I would buy from the canteen.
GOOP.Â I relied on basically 4 types of goop:
1) Butter or olive oil
4)Â Vegetables, raw or cooked. Simple and healthy. This last category included things likeÂ tomato sauce/salsa, grilled eggplant, fried zucchini and so on. On weekends Iâ€™d mix up a half-liter stash of chunky tomato salsa and park it in the fridge as a go-to for the rest of the week. It was like vegetable bacon. It made everything taste better and was perfectly good on its own. I could eat it with Sky Flakes and feel Iâ€™d fed perfectly well.
SALT. â€śSaltâ€ť is actually shorthand for â€śsomething salty.â€ť I mostly relied on ham, olives, kimchi, soy sauce and bottled fish. Bottled fish has the advantage of being salt and goop.
Every now and again Iâ€™d fry up a fish from the supermarket or lay in a lechon manok just for that hunk of animal protein on the plate, but basically I subsisted on meals cobbled together from ingredients that more or less fit the formula:
Pizza toast is bread topped with goop and saltiness. Substitute with specific ingredients. Go wild.
Pasta can be dressed as simply as by spooning salsa or bottled fish (dulong in olive oil!) on it. A fussier variation would involve frying garlic and things in butter or olive oil. Garlic and chili, garlic chili and bagoong, garlic, chili, bagoong and shrimp, etc etc etc.
The omelet is the goop. Just stuff the omelet with something salty, and youâ€™re good to go, although thereâ€™s no rule against using multiple goop elements to make say, a mushroom cheese omelet. Just fry the mushrooms first.
â€˘ Tad Ermitano also writes a column, Culture Tech, for InterAksyon.com’s Infotech section (http://www.interaksyon.com/infotech/).