When It Is Much More Than Just “Ugly Delicious”

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Ugly Delicious. Salted Pork belly fresh from the grill. Photo by JAH.

 

I spent one weekend binge watching Chef David Chang of Momofuku and food writer Peter Meehan‘s Netflix documentary “Ugly Delicious,” and I am not ashamed.

I once binge watched an entire series of Netflix’s “Chef Table” and was so inspired by the many stories–and the photos of food porn–behind what makes a chef so passionate about their craft, and how it projects onto the composition of the food they create. I’m not ashamed of that either. The stories of these chefs had a common tread that weaved desperation of creative expression and the practicality need of survival into numerous braided realities: they are driven by the nature to create. A point that was not lost upon me.

So, the reality that was the driving force in “Ugly Delicious” had several threads that were creating this very unique braided story. The thread of food and its history, cultural and racial identity, and how displaced people have brought with them the greatest gift of all: their food.

The first episode featured the origin of Pizza. Chef Chang, and Peter sits with a pizza maker from the Bronx and discusses what is authenticity when it comes to the pie? Both David, and Peter then explores the Bronx version of the pizza pie along with pizzas made in Connecticut, and in Italy. The Italians in Italy don’t consider the American version as the authentic pizza—merely a copy cat version of the original. The Bronx version of pizza considers itself as the authentic in comparison to the one up in Connecticut. To put the matter to rest, the pizza chef from the Bronx travels to Connecticut and there he meets the famous pizza chef from that area. The two men sit down for pizza and beers. They talk about their family, and how the history of pizza making goes back to the early 1900s and how its tradition has been passed down to the generations that followed. What they learn from each other is not only the techniques and their unique approaches to making pizza—but the familial history behind their craft.

The historical thread follows all the other episodes—from Mexican food to Chinese food to Japanese food.

The history weren’t all sunshine and flowers though. In the episode that featured Mexican food, Chef Chang and Peter explores how Taco Bell became Taco Bell. Apparently, Taco Bell was “inspired” by a small family run Mexican restaurant offering authentic Mexican food. One day, this white man came in and sat for a dinner and had an idea to bring Mexican food to the masses. He did so without acknowledgment to the family. When asked about how they felt about this betrayal, the family indicated that while this was upsetting, this was to be expected—but, they will continue to make genuine and authentic Mexican food.

I have not eaten Taco Bell in years, but now, I have more reason to flip them off whenever I drive by the local Taco Bell.

There was a scene in this episode, when both Chef Chang and Peter were riding in a car with two food critics from Los Angeles (one being Jonathan Gold of the L.A. Times), one of the food critics mentioned that to always order the food whose name you cannot pronounce because then “you’ll know that it is truly authentic. It’s the real deal.”

Perhaps my most favorite episode is when Chef Chang spent Thanksgiving at his parent’s home. In that episode, he took Peter with him to experience both a Korean and American Thanksgiving.

In that episode, the Chef talks about his time growing up and he said several profound things that resonated within me.

He said something along the lines of “there were moments in my childhood where I wished I was white and not Korean because I didn’t eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch and I was embarrassed that my lunch consisted of rice and a Korean dish.” He also went on to say it was because being white seemed so much easier growing up.

I felt that many times before.

I felt that when I didn’t know what a peanut and butter jelly sandwich was.

I felt that when I wished that my Dad cooked cheeseburgers everyday the way he did for our Saturday lunches.

I felt that each time I was reminded that I am an outsider regardless of how many years I have considered myself Filipino-American.

Here’s the shining and truthful beacon of hope though. When the Chef was talking to his Mom at the dinner table, he mentioned how there was this one time when he brought his friends (all Caucasian) home and they asked for snacks. His mother whipped out some curry and rice that she created herself. The dish permeated the house with spices and his white friends didn’t understand what it was that she was making and they were hesitant to eat it. He said that when he looks back at that time and what his mother created—he realized that today—people are paying tons of money to eat those types of dishes. People who once thought such dishes were ugly, and disgusting by the ingredients that they’ve never heard before. In fact, this very same realization also surfaced in one of Anthony Bourdain’s (RIP) Parts Unknown episode of Okinawa–Anthony also mentioned as he interviewed a Japanese-American, who also experienced the same thing growing up.

I find Chef Chang’s realization to be profoundly true and real. (I also realized profoundly and true that I need to scale back on binge watching food documentaries).

I remember having friends (non-Asian ones) come over, and one of them would be bold and rude enough to open the fridge, and asked “what is that?!?”—pointing to a plate of pancit, and I’d have to explain that it was leftovers from a party that we went to the previous night (true), and that it’s Filipino noodles (also true), and that you’re also fucking rude and disrespectful (very true, but the words never left my mouth because at 9-years old, I didn’t have the courage to say it like it is).

My children would never understand this struggle—at all.

Their friends would come over only if they knew I had been cooking pancit, or pad thai, or lumpia. I’d know which dish each friend would prefer. I was once told by Kai’s (a best friend of the first born) stepmom, “Kai spoke of your cooking, and he tells me that it’s because you cook with passion and that’s why the food taste so good!” We both laughed. Well, I’m a sucker for that, so Kai gets to eat whatever the hell he wants when he comes over, and like a mother who enables her child—I’d cook his favorite pad thai and lumpias.

There’s also Allison, the middle child’s girlfriend of several years, she’s earned her own favorite dish in my kitchen, and whenever she comes over for dinner—I am cooking up some Thai Basil Chicken (Gai Pad Krapow). The girl is a connoisseur when it comes to Thai restaurants, and when she came with us on our holiday in Oahu, she had impressed the family with her palate. She chowed down on some saimin, and ate Hawaiian food like it was nobody’s business. The girl is also a runner so that impressed the Aunties and the Uncles even more–most especially, the Uncles since she actually put their treadmill to good use while she was there.

Here’s the thing, my best friend and I would agree that while our children would never understand the struggle—we have both experienced it at its worse. I still remember her telling me when this one guy who showed interest in her came over while her Mom was cooking crab curry (one of my favorites—in fact, in my next life, I’d like to be born in Sri Lanka just to be able to cook crab curry like Mrs. Singh), and he had a disgusted look in his face and asked what was that odor.

That jackass called the beautiful fragrant spices of curry—an “odor.”

But, today—that very same jackass is probably one of many people who now dine in Thai restaurants around Fairbanks, and in fact, probably also dines at the local Indian restaurant. I’d walk into our neighborhood Lemongrass Thai Restaurant and the majority of the folks sitting at the tables are all Caucasians. In fact, many of them are my age and I can guarantee that they once had some Asian friend whose fridge they opened, pointed to a dish, and with a disgusted look on their face asked “what is that?!”

Chef Chang had laughed at how profound his realization was, and when he told his mother how embarrassed he once was whenever his friends came over—he now realizes the importance of how cultural, and racial identity are embedded and projected through food.

What’s even more profound is that people who have been displaced in their lives, or even more so immigrated are the core element of our food culture today. Pizza didn’t just magically showed up in New York, and then like Dumbledore—apparated in Chicago. The Thai restaurants in Fairbanks just didn’t pop up because some white dude who travelled to Thailand decided to start cooking Thai food in minus 50-degree weather in the middle of winter. No, there’s a story behind the creation of those dishes, and if we think about it more thoroughly—how amazing is it to appreciate such dishes being shared with us today? We could be sitting in a restaurant enjoying a plate of pad thai, or a slice of pizza—and just imagine the story behind such dishes.

I am no longer embarrassed to have a huge jug of fish sauce (patis to Filipinos) hanging around my pantry, or the fact that I have several varieties of soy sauce in the fridge (I even have Paleo approved coconut aminos) along with fresh eggs (from locally raised chickens). In fact, I don’t even mind when the kids’ friends come over and they raid the fridge—not looking for jam to go with peanut butter—but to see what I cooked the night before.

Therefore, in honor of shedding this once childhood embarrassment, and finishing up a binge worthy session of Ugly Delicious, I spent a few weeks of cooking nothing but Filipino food.

And finally, to that kid from my childhood who opened up our fridge—I hope she’s somewhere eating a plate full of pancit sitting down next to her Filipino husband…or wife…as her kids are running around playing swords with their lumpias.

 

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Before. Lechon. Photo by JAH.

 

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After. My version of lechon cooked in the oven. Photo by JAH.

 

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Salted pork belly with tomato, purple onion, cilantro, rice vinegar. Photo by JAH.

 

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Congee to the Chinese, Arroz Caldo to the Filipinos. Photo by JAH.

 

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Menudo for days. Photo by JAH.

 

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Before. Lumpia. Photo by JAH.

 

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After. Lumpia. Photo by The Husband because he was frying it, and I may now have to fire him from ever cooking lumpia again –as I closely examine this.

 

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My Filipino lunch–quite ugly. That’s ube, leftover salted pork belly with tomatoes, and rice. I know one Uncle in heaven who’d be quite proud at this accomplishment. Photo by JAH.

 

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