Fearing, Loathing, Loving My So-Called Chinese Life

Apr 1, 2011 by

Fearing.  I went to a Chinese school.  The short and pudgy Chinese teacher always had this stick in her hand.  At that time when I associated sticks with the magic wand in fairy tales, that stick somehow closed the books of enchantment for me.  I got hit.  Not once, but more than thrice.  I even lost count.   Lola Coroy became my blue fairy then.  She made me feel safe and although she did not interfere with the rigorous Chinese discipline, Lola Coroy took my fears away.   She was also stern, but she loved me fiercely.  She had her own way of instilling discipline in me.  I’m sure the Chinese teacher was doing it out of her duty.  It wasn’t because she loved me, not like Lola Coroy.

Loathing.  I didn’t want to go to Chinese school anymore.  I couldn’t understand why because English was enough for me.  My grandfather’s English and the English of my cousins in Manila were staple modes of conversation.  The elders, however, would always remind me that learning Chinese would give me a good bargain in Chinese stores.  But I don’t have to buy in Chinese stores – I would always counter.  Mom always taught me to reason my way out in a civil and respectful way.  And so the “Chinese-good- bargain” proposition won over.   I continued to study Chinese.

Loving.  Dad sat me in a Chinese restaurant once in Manila.  He gave me two sticks.  Chopsticks, he told me.   If you eat Chinese, then you have to learn how to use chopsticks.  Chinese food will not taste the same with spoon, fork and knife.  I was to learn later that in the words of Confucius, no honorable and upright man will allow knives on his table.  It’s cultural alright.  Let’s not argue.

Patiently dad taught me to put the 1st chopstick in the base of the thumb and index finger and the other chopstick between the tips of the index and middle finger.  I don’t remember that I struggled through the meal.  I was more fascinated going through my authentic Chinese meal and, thus, began my love affair with the Chinese.  The best way to a man’s heart is……

Chinese cuisine had long been a part of our family tradition or for most Ilonggo family tradition.  Long before other restaurants were put up in the city, the Chinese dominated Iloilo’s food business.  Tita Fanny Uy told me that there was a Chinese restaurant called Happy Landing.  And no, it was not anywhere near the airport.  It was also in Calle Real.  These two restaurants – Happy Landing and Dainty –  saw many wedding receptions in the 1950’s.  Kong Kee’s claim to fame I heard was lumpia shanghai and siopao although siopao for me is Roberto’s.  Once I stopped rehearsals because I had this strange craving for Roberto’s siopao – especially King’s Siopao – that I didn’t want to rehearse anymore unless somebody made a mad dash for this steamed Chinese bun of a dish.

Roberto's QUEEN SIOPAO

Not so far from Roberto’s is Mansion Garden (formerly Mansion House, but from a different location).  For variety, one might try its Comida fair.  It’s the more authentic version of Chowking’s “lauriat value meal”.  And the aroma that comes from the variety of food on the plate is unmistakably Chinese.  Lately, some friends would buy pansit canton from Dainty as some kind of a reintroduction to the old Chinese restaurants of the city.  And why often pansit?  Because it’s fastest to cook. It follows its Hookien origin meaning something that’s easily cooked and prepared.  Dare I say the Chinese invented fast food with their pansit. And pansit has partly become a staple food for Pinoys.  In sitcoms, whenever somebody comes home with a pasalubong, it’s almost always pansit.  “Eto o, may dala ako’ng pansit” – has practically become a standard line in a tv dialogue.  And the family would merrily troop to the table.

Chinese dining in Iloilo has evolved.  From the downtown establishments where they all started – right in Iloilo City’s “Chinatown”, Chinese restaurants have found their way into the malls.   Hongkong Kitchen opened and was followed by David’s Teahouse.  And always I was there with friends to try out what these restaurants had to offer.  Hongkong Kitchen re-popularized Peking Duck.  But I tell you nothing came close to the Peking Duck we had in The China Club – an exclusive Chinese restaurant in Hongkong owned by David Tang.  From the interiors that brought me to the opulence of Bertolucci’s Last Emperor in China to the succulent Peking Duck I named Donald, it was an experience worthy of a Hongkong trip with this blog’s author, Bob Rodriguez and a friend, Susan Ong.  Unless you’re a member of the club or you know somebody who is a member, I bet you wouldn’t come close to a duck like that.  That’s one for bragging rights from a duck lover.

Two of Chinese restaurants can be found in hotels.  Other than Summer House, there’s Grand Palace Cuisine at Iloilo Grand Hotel with its scrumptious shrimp roll with black sesame seeds.  This is one dish that sets this restaurant apart from the others.

Summer House.  Since 1972, The Summer House has been a Chinese restaurant known for family gatherings.  Michael and Maileen Uy, siblings, and who run the family business gave us a quick course in Chinese Dining 101.  Chinese is always about a balanced meal.  That is why there is always a variety of dishes on the round table.  A round table in a Chinese setting signifies infiniteness of being together and unity in a Chinese family.  And the lauriat should sit twelve persons in the round table because 12 represent the 12 signs of the zodiac which also bring good luck.  Among the dishes on our table, I was more than happy to see tongkoykwey.  It is a dish introduced to me by dear friend Susan Ong and since then when time permits, there should be tongkoykwey on the table.  Time is part of the essence in cooking this dish because it takes about an hour to bring tongkoykwey on the table from the kitchen.  Twice cooked, the dish is an almost exotic combination of whole chicken (kwey) in a broth with Chinese herbs (tongkoy) called kamki and the root herb like ginseng.  Their bestseller, however, is pata tim, pansit sun yat sen and buttered chicken.  However, of the 165 or so dishes in the menu, Michael and Maileen Uy pride themselves with the fish ball soup made from real fish (not fishball stand kind of fish) and cooked in the Tsim Ho tradition where their father came from.


TOP Photo: Kusina Tsina's Soy Chicken; BELOW, Summer House's Crab Morcon. Photos by Paul Chiongson

Kusina Tsina. Owned by Eugene Chua, Kusina Tsina is unpretentious which is actually what a lot of Chinese restaurants are in Hongkong, and the Chinatowns of the world.  From Binondo to San Francisco USA, Chinese restaurants are far from fancy.  There are no fancy Chinese decors in Kusina Tsina. The lay out of the restaurant is typical with the kitchen upfront.  Chinese restaurants have their kitchens right at the entrance protected by glass panels.  I call this honesty in dining.  It’s basically this – show me your kitchen so I would know how clean the food you’re serving.  There are horrible kitchen stories if you’ve heard of hell’s kitchen.  Its one of a kind menu is featured on what might be a silk Chinese scroll with a typical Chinese stamp at the back representing the name of the restaurant in Chinese.  The food is typical Chinese from Asado, to Peking Duck, dimsum and siopao.  However, its soy chicken is I think the best in town.  The seafood roll is what I have found interesting and have had each time I visit.  The combination of steamed squid, fish and Kani crab meat wrapped in sotanghon noodles is a delicate balance of oriental flavors that is refreshing to the palate.  Another interesting dish is King Suan Fish Roll which is made from fresh bidbid (in tagalong) or awâ (in Ilonggo). It is like keekiam, but made of fish instead of pork.  Prices in Kusina Tsina are cheaper than other Chinese restaurants but the food is equally good if not better. In Kusina Tsina, plain tables for fours are arranged against the wall.  If you walk in late, you walk past diners who are already seated and you might find yourself negotiating through the busy service crew at peak hours.  Since there are only 7 tables they also do deliveries (telephone numbers: 3003030, 3013030, 8563656) so as not to inconvenient diners having to come over and not find a table available.   Kusina Tsina dishes evolve so you might want to ask what’s new in the kitchen when you visit.  Sometimes it is what’s not in the menu that’s worth a try.  And this is one place where you don’t pay for ambience.  Only fine Chinese cooking is charged on the tab.  Eugene Chua happily claims he does the preparation of the dishes since he goes to the restaurant early in the morning.  His happiness extends to seeing his customers satisfied with their meal he himself prepared.    One happy cook equates to many happy customers.

Kusina Tsina's Dimsum Platter and Summer House's Live Steamed Lapu-Lapu. Photos by Paul Chiongson

My friends say I’m solidly Chinese when it comes to food.  I say not. Most of my favorite chefs in Iloilo City do not specialize in Chinese cooking.  They’re into Italian, Spanish and Japanese.  But I grew up partly on Chinese food.   It’s the sumptuousness of what they put on the table that made me realize the stick has after all many uses.   When you put two sticks in your hand, just like what dad did to me in a Chinese restaurant, all the pleasant feelings come into fruition like eastern spices and aromas exotically blending into a tale of a so-called Chinese life, yours and mine.

This article was first published in Iloilo Premiere Magazine, (Power Issue, 2008). Published in myiloilo.net with permission from the author.

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