Here at Preen, we’re fully aware that adult life doesn’t always go as smoothly (and look as beautiful) as curated Instagram feeds. We all face challenges amidst all the good things. Meet Mikka Wee, a former food editor-turned-working gal in Singapore, who’s about to share all the ups and downs that come with adulting and living. Welcome to Bless This Mess!
Just like many food lovers and gastronomic enthusiasts out there, I, along with what seems to be three-fourths of my Facebook friends, started watching David Chang’s Ugly Delicious on Netflix. Never mind that my husband likes to tease and say that David Chang and I look alike, or that the resemblance is uncanny because we both have ptosis, or that we both love saying the F word when we feel strongly about something. I take them as compliments.
I’ve been Chang’s fan for a really, really, really long time now, as well as his buddy’s—Peter Meehan, whose writing I instantly fell in love with. In fact, Lucky Peach was the biggest inspiration when we kick-started a food website (rhymes with “pecker”) way back in 2012. What I admire the most about Chang and Meehan is their intelligent, clever, and no bullsh*t approach to food. There are so many big words thrown around with food these days, but I’ve always believed that it’s about keeping it simple, hearty, and real. Authenticity for me isn’t really about the truest of the true, because let’s face it. There are so many iterations of every single dish in the world—and most of them taste fantastic! So is it wrong to say a certain version of this particular dish is blasphemous? I don’t think so. To me, authenticity is about heart. It’s about how the cook remembers enjoying a particular dish so much, so he or she prepares it so that others can experience that same joy as well.
Food to me has always been about bringing people together—because it is the centerpiece of any get-together, really, which leads me to the core of this article. In the third episode of Ugly Delicious, Chang and Meehan explore “Home Cooking,” and how the joy in home cooking is not a performance but a language of love. In this episode, they visit various chefs and their families (Chang’s included) and have a bite of what’s being served on the dinner table. Stop reading here if you don’t like spoilers, but even if you do choose to continue, there really is nothing to spoil.
This episode got me so emotional, especially when scenes of Chang and his mother cooking together for Thanksgiving dinner were shown. They really outdid themselves in this episode. As a viewer, it was an entirely new level of #feels that got me feeling all grossly warm and mushy inside.
The reason why I love food, just like many people who end up with an immense passion for it, is because I grew up around food. My grandmother (a-mah) was always in the kitchen, cooking something Chinese. Whenever there was a birthday, she would cook her signature Birthday Misua that I’ve always had ever since I could even stand. I got so tired of eating it (because she cooked it quite frequently), but after not having it for a year, I came home for my birthday and she cooked it for me. Damn, it’s delicious. And I missed it terribly. It’s one of those flavors that can only be associated to home, just like her very un-Chinese Russian salad (which I could eat several containers of in one sitting), her duck soup, her steamed clams, the tsokolate she thickens with egg, lengua, and my favorite: chicken hearts and livers in ginger sauce. My mom also picked up her cooking skills from a-mah and would make hearty tofu omelettes and lemongrass chicken. But the one thing I’d always look forward to from my mom’s cooking was her version of paella, which was our New Year’s tradition up until I moved. Also, whenever we’d visit my mom’s family in Cavite, her aunt would make this delicious adobong puti. We’ve asked her for the recipe, but no matter how many times my mom and I tried to recreate it at home, we just couldn’t do it the way her aunt did.
Whenever I’d go home after kindergarten, I’d watch two cooking shows with my a-mah in her room: The Urban Peasant starring James Barber and starring Caprial Pence. That was way back in 1994. Sometimes, we’d try the recipes in the kitchen, but most of the time, I was stuck with Play-Doh. The first dish I ever cooked by myself in my entire life was a simple fried rice with garlic, egg, and Knorr. I made it on my own because I was hungry and there were no leftovers. I was five years old and made a mess in the kitchen, partly because of my tiny hands, but mostly because I made a LOT so my mom and a-mah could try it. I was glad they liked it, but I hope they weren’t just being nice because I was a kid and it was my first dish. I guess without knowing it, it was the start of my long-term affair with food—that food was going to be a huge part of my life, and it was because of my family. Come to think of it, some of my most vivid childhood memories involve food. Biting into the ripest peaches from China with the syrupy juices running down the sides of my mouth; the stick of grilled chicken hearts coated with five-spice powder that I sunk my teeth into without knowing what they were until a-mah told me; learning about comfort food after biting into the best street food sausage in Causeway Bay because I was a sad four-year-old missing our puppies in Manila.
My family isn’t into fancy food. They don’t even give a crap about these Michelin Guides and 50 Best Restaurants, but they sure know how to eat well. Despite the many Chinese restaurants I’ve been to in this lifetime, we always eat the same thing when we dine as a family—there will always be the sweet and sour pork, the crab, the beef brisket, the drunken chicken with cashew nuts, the steamed garupa. But what these dinners do is that they pull as out of our busy schedules and bring us to a table where we can get together, eat great food, and enjoy each other’s company. I am happy to have grown up around food and people who love food, especially my a-mah. Without that, I probably wouldn’t be who I am today.
If you focus on the intent of a home-cooked meal versus a meal that aims to be on a list, it’s very different. One wants to impress, the other wants to love. To tell you the truth, my a-mah’s dishes will never wow the palates of all these high-strung food critics, but in each dish she cooks and feeds me with, to say that I feel so much love is a huge understatement.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.
Art by Yayie Motos