With only two more weeks left in the Philippines, I find that I am about ten posts overdue. It’s not a lack of food to write about or that memories are failing me. It’s primarily due to the fact that I have had next to no control over what I eat on a regular basis. In the three months that I have been here, I have only cooked one soggy potato gratin. Nothing to write home about there. Being in Manila has spoiled me rotten. I have not had to think about what’s for dinner, or what is in the fridge. I either eat out or I am cooked for. Spoiled rotten, I tell you. It’s not that I’m complaining – but I do miss making my own decisions about the food that lands on my plate, and ultimately, in my belly. It has also meant that I am confronted by new foods and dishes that I have yet to make a serious connection with. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But it has led to a blankness in my head when it comes to writing posts.
It is not all doom and gloom. I have eaten my fair share of amazingness over the past few months. A few highlights, as it were. In the shape of dumplings. Just the word “dumpling” is amazing all on its own. Fat and plump in the lightest and most playful of ways. Hiding a multitude of gorgeousness behind their otherwise bland-looking exterior. But the word “dumpling” can also be entirely confusing depending on who you’re talking to and where in the world you are. Admittedly, when you get down to it, dumplings are no more than cooked balls of dough. Which may or may not be filled with…anything. Or nothing. And still,dumplings in their various shapes and sizes are…amazing. If you’re in Germany, dumplings are quite a heavy-handed affair. Even the word, knödel, sounds a little heavy. Whether sweet or savoury, they tend to be on the large side. Great fists of dough, seasoned with nutmeg and parsley. Good for mopping up gravy. Or filled with apricots and drowning in vanilla sauce. My German loves these. They are his childhood. Definitely not mine. But I was determined to make him some back in June or July when the trees were full of fruit. Edible or not. So I did battle with potato dough and filled firm, little apricots with sugar and schnapps. And cursed the fiddliness of burying the fruit in the dough. Before boiling them and rolling them in fry pan full of sugared breadcrumbs. See? I told you – definitely not my childhood. Happily, I was weirdly successful. He was thrilled. I was smug. We both patted our bellies.
The Asian dumpling is just as difficult to pin down as its European counterparts with its many expressions of form and content. But I love them all. From the moon-shaped jiao-zi, filled with pork and leeks, dunked in soy sauce and vinegar, to the various kinds of dim sum. The little shrimp siomai are a favourite of mine. I guess mooncakes, with their stamped foreheads and red bean paste centre might also count as a kind of dumpling, no? And the fluffy siopao asado that you can buy on practically every street corner in Manila – cloudlike buns filled with chunks of pork stewed in hoisin and soya sauce. This is the one thing I make sure I have a few pesos for when I’m at the airport before getting on a plane. The last taste of the Philippines. My mother used to make these when we were children in a big metal steamer. To stop the siopao from sticking to the steamer you place a thin sheet of paper on the bottom of the bun. Mama used to use squares of newspaper. Once these were peeled off, you could still see the print of the newspaper on the bottom of your dumpling. Hilariousness ensues for five year olds. You do have to make sure that the pao are hot when you peel the paper off. Letting them cool first means either peeling half the dumpling off with the paper or eating paper. My dad tends to eat paper. I have to admit that the Philippines borrows heavily from China when it comes to dumplings. But I don’t really care where they are from so long as those tiny (sometimes not so tiny), little (not always little) packets of goodness end up in my mouth.
Because of their form, dumplings typically encourage a lot of sharing. I’ll have one of these, maybe one of those. Ooh, have you tried these? On the other hand, dumplings are also individually wrapped portions of food. Mine and no one else’s. A neighbour was telling me about the joy she felt at finding a superb dimsum buffet here in city only to be confronted by the conflicting feelings of “to share, or not to share.” She then told me how she resisted inviting her husband to join her for lunch. Because without him, it meant that she could sit there for hours, happily eating her way through the afternoon, without interruption.