Filipino Food: Kitchen Tales And KUSINA tales

Chicken lumpia--mmm!
I love food. I love eating it, cooking it, and (if you're lucky) sharing it.

My kids are also passionate about food, which pleases me to no end. I'll cook for them and with them. I take them on food destination trips, like finding the best crepes or Italian ices or tacos. I love that they have strong opinions about cilantro and know there are different types of tomatoes. And while we eat every type of cuisine, the consumption of Filipino food is always a more personal affair. Of course it's because I am--and they are--Filipino Americans.

Whenever I make Filipino food, I corral my kids into the kitchen about two hours before we sit down to eat. I'll begin with a story about my Mom and how she prepared the dish we are about to make. I'll paint a picture of a ramshackle kitchen in Brooklyn that was overrun by Tagalog speaking adults, mostly women gossiping as they pounded garlic cloves or peeled carrots.

And as I fill my kids' ears with my family kitchen tales, I'll let them chop onions or measure ingredients or stir the pot. Sometimes they'll stop and gawk at a part of my story that seems incredulous. Like the time my Lolo (grandfather) painted the toilet seat in our bathroom and didn't tell anyone. (Somehow that was part of our kitchen tales; my Lola would always bring it up in the kitchen.) Or when my Mom mistakenly used sugar instead of salt in her arroz caldo. I couldn't eat my favorite dish for years after that. And even though my Mom has passed and my "titas" are scattered to the wind, my kids learn what I was taught in that old kitchen. They learn to be a little bit more Filipino than just by the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. They learn through the oral history that is thus far my life. And I teach them in my own kitchen.

I'm beginning to work more, which is a happy/sad occasion. I'm happy to work on the things I'm passionate about (crafting, writing, teaching), but I'm sad that my cooking has decreased. My kids are also getting older, so they are busier, too. The chances of us cooking in the kitchen together are slim these days, and I've been turning to frozen prepared foods lately, mostly the Indian dishes from Trader Joe's. When I was presented with the opportunity to try some frozen Filipino foods, I jumped at the chance. But I decided to still make it a personal endeavor by asking my kids to help me sample them.

Kusina brand frozen foods is produced by Ramar Foods, a California based company that also produces the delicious Magnolia ice cream. Kusina, which means "kitchen" in Tagalog, currently offers  seven different dishes and snacks. I will review each one.

Chicken Empanadas: I toasted them a few minutes longer than instructed because I like the outside a little bit crisp. My kids and I liked the filling, which had the traditional raisins and peas along with onions, garlic, and potatoes. I've had empanadas where the raisins or the peas dominate the filling, which is not very appetizing. With these empanadas, I was pleasantly surprised to find the tastes of the raisins and peas to be subtle. The texture was a bit mushy, but I'm sure it would improve if it were toasted maybe an extra minute with slits cut into the center beforehand. Bottom line: these chicken empanadas make a great after school snack. Great taste. Could use some additional instructions or suggestions to improve texture.

Chicken Lumpia: I think these were the kids' clear favorite. I broiled them for about 20 seconds at the end so the skin would be crunchy. There was a fair amount of chicken in the filling, which was a good sign. I've had egg rolls where the meat was scant and the wrapper was too thick. Not the case here. The vegetables (primarily carrots, onions, bean sprouts) weren't soggy or overly seasoned.  I made a dipping sauce with vinegar, crushed garlic, and red pepper flakes. Mmm, mmm, good! Bottom line: with a tangy dipping sauce, these chicken lumpia would make a great appetizer or could accompany a bowl of garlic rice for a full meal.

Vegetable Lumpia: like the chicken lumpia, this was lightly seasoned so I was able to taste the vegetables. My kids liked them and would definitely eat them again. I also broiled them for about 20 seconds at the end so the skin would be crunchy. Bottom line: these would make great hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party. Before finishing them in the oven with 20 seconds of broiling, cut them in half. Arrange them on platters with a ramekin of tangy dipping sauce in the center.

Pancit: it is imperative to follow the heating directions exactly as written. I absentmindedly removed the plastic immediately after heating it and my pancit was soggy. After quickly scanning the directions again, I realized that I needed to allow the pancit to sit with the plastic still on. So I covered the tray and waited 30 seconds. After stirring the noodles around, everything was dandy. It was a little bland, but pancit is meant to have kalamansi squeezed on top. In lieu of kalamansi, I used a lime. The kids ate it and were happy. Bottom line: this pancit can be served as a side dish with some sort of broiled or fried seafood. Don't forget the lime!

Pork Adobo and Chicken Adobo: As with a lot of Filipino foods, the taste of a dish varies tremendously from region to region. The country is, after all, composed of over 7,000 islands. With influences from Spain, Malaysia, China, Japan, and Thailand (to name a few), who can blame the Filipinos?
The main dish associated with the Philippines is adobo. The sauce is simple (vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, maybe some hot pepper flakes and/or a bay leaf) but it's hard to nail down what is the quintessential adobo taste. My Mom made it with a vinegar aftertaste that made you pucker. I personally try to give the vinegar and soy sauce equal
billing on the adobo epicurean stage, but with copious amounts of garlic and hot pepper flakes.
The sauce for the Kusina adobo is not as tangy as my taste buds are used to. It's sweeter, and yet when I double-checked the ingredient list I found myself staring at the same things I make my sauce out of: vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, pepper flakes. Ah, the chemistry that is cooking...
It's good. I like the taste a lot. But the one thing that I was disappointed in was that the sauce was already on top of the rice before I heated it. Bottom line: the rice was mushy and the meat was a bit dry. If the folks at Kusina could somehow package their adobo foods with the rice separated from the meat/sauce, then they would have two winning products.

Chicken Sisig: as with the Kusina adobo foods, this one could greatly benefit from separating the sisig from the rice prior to freezing. It was a little too mushy. The flavor of the sisig was tangy like a good sisig should be, but it would be nice to maybe throw it in a pan after preheating in the microwave, separate from the rice. And because my heart belongs to Maharlika's pork sisig in NYC, I need to eat this with some fried eggs and mafran. And maybe add a little bit more suka (vinegar).
Bottom line: who wants brunch??

I hope that reading this made you hungry! Now go and find yourself some Filipino food. Share it with some family or friends, and tell some of your own kitchen tales.