I love to cook. I love the person that I become when I am cooking.
From choosing a recipe to market shopping to chopping ingredients to heating the pan to the lovely aroma of garlic sizzling in olive oil, every step is a journey of discovery.
I first learned to cook in high school. We had a home economics course and I managed to whip up a decently baked chicken a la king, just by following the instructions to a T. This was an epiphany because it validated for the first time the axiom “If you can read, you can cook.” It was not as hard as I originally thought.
One summer, I took a week-long culinary course for kids, even though I was already about to enter college. It was one of those strange circumstances that managed to work out when the age limit is 16 and you happen to be 17 and there is really no program for a 17-year-old and it was just me and my friend so they gave us two slots. Each day, we would discover a different country through its cuisine: Monday was for Italian, Tuesday was Spanish, Wednesday was Chinese, and so on. The instructor made us taste everything we cooked and let us keep the recipes. It was fun, and it triggered a lifelong passion for food and cooking.
Making magic in the kitchen involves many moving parts, and my favorite things each have a role to play: books, music, wine, planning, and organization. I am the boss in the kitchen, at least during the holidays when everyone makes way and gives me the space I need. If you are not washing the dishes or chopping vegetables, you better get out, or help out instead by setting the table or buying some missing ingredients. The outcome of my culinary experiments are not always consistent, but I can assure you, nothing ever reaches the table that I do not find edible.
Over the years, life became busier and opportunities to cook leisurely have waned. I did cook a lot in graduate school because I had no choice – I was on a shoestring budget and wanted to eat Filipino food. But I am back to my privileged life here in the Philippines, where access to household help is affordable. It is easy to delegate the hard work to someone else, and just do all the eating. So I have a yaya that prepares home-cooked meals for me when I am unable to physically participate in their creation. She is a big help, especially since I want to stay healthy.
But every chance I get, I try to cook for myself, because it provides many benefits that far exceed its ability to give personal satisfaction.
I know what is in it
Cooking for myself ensures my well-being because I know exactly what goes into my food. I only buy the best ingredients and use spices that are not stale.
Dining in restaurants adds value to our lives, but we are oblivious to what goes on behind the scenes. I know that as a business, restaurants need to manage their food cost well to make a profit, so recycling ingredients may be inevitable. Frying oil they use today can still be used for frying tomorrow. How many times did they wash the mesclun greens? Nuts, bread, all those appetizers they offer waiting guests – do they throw the excess away? What about the fish in your chowder – is it still fresh? Who can really tell unless it is raw. And does this curry have MSG?
My food is healthier than what is out there
Since I personally handpick the tomatoes, avocados, onions, and limes for my guac, I know for sure it does not have any of those chemicals you find in the processed guacamole sold in supermarkets. I buy them fresh so the finished product will not have unwanted preservatives. I do tend to overbuy sometimes, especially avocados since they are much cheaper to buy in bulk. Avocados are tricky because they ripen quickly, so there is an impetus to consume or turn them into guac right away. Who would want to waste this expensive, delicious godsend of a fruit?
I save money and time
My weekly meal prep saves me a lot of money because I get to buy my food at the source. This means that I get what I need at cost, am not burdened by a sales tax and I do not have to pay a tip. Packed lunches that I bring to work also save me the time it takes to choose a restaurant or the commute to and from a neighboring restaurant.
I learn to become creative
This has a lot to do with my fear of food waste (and I discuss how managing food waste can help address climate change here). Before heading to the supermarket, it helps that I finalize first what meal/s to prepare and then do a quick assessment to see what ingredients are available in the fridge and in the pantry.
The NYTimes newsletter’s Cooking section never fails to nudge me to experiment while reading the news. I remember trying this Moroccan dish and it was utterly divine, but this Thai spicy coconut mussels by Melissa Clark is a winner at every dinner party I have hosted. I think I have made that ten times, and I myself never get tired of eating it. It just tastes so luxurious and healthy – you can taste the sea at the tip of the croissant. I prepare all these at home, and yet it feels like I am teleporting to exotic lands as the sauce coagulates in the pot.
It is likewise inevitable to resort to substitutes when making foreign dishes. One of my favorite local ingredients is calamansi, and when I was living in Boston, this was highly obscure in the neighborhood markets (I believe it is making a bolder statement these days, what with the many Filipino restaurants sprouting all over America that have it). So I had to use lemons instead for my version of the local Beef Steak Tagalog – beef cubes stewed in soy sauce, calamansi, black pepper, garlic, and white onions.
I tend to be kinder
Aside from cooking’s ability to heighten the positive aura within me, I do like to share the food that I make with my neighbors and friends. Dishes that have broccoli or cauliflower, say, could result in copious amounts of servings I am unlikely to consume in a week because I had to buy the entire broccoli or cauliflower head. It helps to have friendly neighbors, and to all be in a WhatsApp group. Once I am done cooking, I usually take a photo of what I made, and then post it on our WhatsApp group so my friends can come try it. Meal containers are encouraged so they can bring home some takeaway. I usually get a knock on my door in less than 5 minutes.
That is also one of my most treasured memories from graduate school – enjoyable conversations over food with good friends. It always makes me happy to feed them, so cooking never feels like a chore.
How to start
If you have not tried cooking before, the best way to start is to first love to eat! There is no point in cooking if you do not like food because you cannot cook anything good without ever tasting it. Think about your favorite meals when you dine out – what are some of the dishes you would like to eat repeatedly? I can tell you right off the bat that I can live on fluffy scrambled eggs and grilled cheese. Once you have made a list, search online for their recipes and instructional videos.
I advocate for healthy eating, so I highly recommend preparing meals that have fruits, vegetables, meat/fish and some carbs. Fruits like sliced and seeded cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple will have to be placed in small plastic containers. I like vitamin C rich pomelo because they do not require slicing, just peeling, and the taste alone can insulate you from disease. Salads need to be in one container, the dressing in another. If the vegetables are cooked, they can be stored in a stackable container together with the carbs and the protein. You will want stackable containers so your food lines up neatly inside the fridge.
I do meal preps on a Sunday, because no one tends to bother me on that day. I prepare meals for one whole week. Many people find this disconcerting, especially those who enjoy variety. But in its defense, I think eating the same food every day for one week makes life much easier with one less decision to make.
Once you get the hang of it, only then should you invest in good cutlery and knives so you can chop vegetables faster. Victorinox makes a good Santoku knife that is not as pricey as its Japanese competitors, is versatile and is perfect for beginners.
I am not a chef nor am I claiming to be a food expert, in case you question my views. I am just an ordinary professional who finds happiness in the mundane. May cooking bring you the joy and peace it has rewarded me for many years.