Favorite Things | A smorgasbord of delights

Nigella discovers the Philippines.


INTERVIEW  JOHANNA D. POBLETE

Nigella Lawson cannot be faulted for underappreciating food, Filipino cuisine included. A dedicated foodie — “It’s one of my gifts… eating,” she says, with her trademark saucy grin — the British TV personality and best-selling author (10 books as of last count, with over 10 million sold worldwide) recently meandered through Manila, trying out local delicacies, while on a promotional tour as brand ambassador of Del Monte Foods’ Contadina line of tomato products.

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You name it, she went for it; just browse her Instagram. She describes sinigang as “sublime,” crispy pata as “divine,” and owns to being “obsessed” with adobo. If you’d gone to market recently, you would’ve also caught Ms. Lawson checking out the local produce, and helping herself to a mound of calamansi. “I can’t stop with the calamansi, I put them on everything,” she admits.

It’s all part and parcel of her discipline as a self-made cook: learning by observing other cooks (initially, the women in her family), parsing flavors, familiarizing herself with the ingredients, and trying her hand at recipes. She acknowledges cultural tradition, noting the “historic Spanish influence” of, say, tocino del cielo, and deems heritage important, as evinced by her personal collection of wooden spoons (inherited from her mother, and her sister).

This boundless enthusiasm for everything that has to do with food, however, makes it a little hard for this domestic goddess to play favorites.

What facets of Philippine food were you interested in learning about, while you were here?

Obviously, I knew I was going to be in the Philippines for a short time only, and just in Manila, so I couldn’t be too ambitious in my eating plans, but I knew I just had to try as many adobos as I could. I also knew that I wanted to eat food cooked in homes, rather than just food cooked in restaurants, and I was so fortunate and grateful to be invited to a private dinner at someone’s home. The host also let me come early and watch her cook, which is always the best way of learning. I should be embarrassed to say how much I ate that evening, but I’m not! I really wanted to try as much as possible of Filipino food—and I did. This was such a wonderful, delicious, inspiring evening, and I cannot wait to try to conjure up these flavors in my own kitchen at home.

Any standouts? 

I ate three kinds of adobo: a classic one; and one that also had onions and liver in it; and one with coconut milk. I also ate menudo, sinigang, sisig, pancit, puto and leche flan…I tried another adobo, in a local restaurant, made with pork belly, where I also ate, and adored, lechon pata. And I went to the weekend market in Manila and ate a wonderful chicken skewer, a pandan rice cake, and had a glorious time looking at the beautiful stalls of fruits and vegetables, some of which I had never seen before. I just couldn’t get enough of calamansi. So, while this was a short trip, I did manage to learn something of Filipino food, and now I just have to come back to the Philippines and travel more widely to learn about more of the food.

Do you bring anything with you, while you travel, that is just simply essential in the kitchen?

Well, I didn’t come with any cooking ingredient, as I wanted to eat Filipino food, but I did come with my own teabags.

If you were to be stuck in an island with just three condiments at your disposal, which would you pick?

I wouldn’t want to be stranded on a desert island without English mustard. That is the one condiment I couldn’t live without. But I know I would feel at home there as well with a jar of my homemade coriander, garlic, lime and chilli salsa, and now I have tasted the wonderful Filipino shrimp paste, I would have to have that, too.

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What’s your pantry like?

There are certain staples I would never allow myself to run out of: good sea salt, extra virgin olive oil and also pure olive oil (to cook with), lemons, pasta, and avocados.

Is it possible to make a good slap-dash meal using canned items?

Good canned tomatoes are the home cook’s best friend. And I would not want to pretend these didn’t come from a tin, and there is absolutely nothing shameful about using them. In fact, so much of Italian cuisine relies on them, and for a good reason. I also always have frozen peas, a good ready-prepared chicken stock.  If the ready-prepared ingredients we buy are good, then it’s a wonderful way of imbuing food with flavor when time is short.

What’s your go-to “I have to impress someone with a fancy dish” recipe?

I strongly feel that cooking should not be to impress, but to give pleasure, as much to the cook as to the eater.

You recently tweeted “Snobbish disdain for iceberg lettuce an idiotic and status-conscious neurotic pose.” Do you find that food has become even more of a status symbol now? 

I think for some people, food is a status symbol, and they are the ones who like to know what the latest trend is, the most inaccessible ingredient, and are frightened of admitting to eating any foods that they worry will make them seem unsophisticated. But those of us who like to eat are not worried about what the foods we choose say about us: we just want to eat food that gives us pleasure. For example, I regularly make a fantastically easy ice cream (that doesn’t need to be churned with an expensive machine) using condensed milk. But just as I am not ashamed of liking ingredients that many people would be snobbish about, by the same token I am not an inverted snob either: great chefs have access to wonderful, luxurious and rare ingredients, and when I’m in a restaurant I am more than happy to sample them!

If you were to sum up your philosophy on food in one sentence—so we can make it into a bumper sticker, nail it to our inspiration wall, or scribble it across the kitchen chalkboard as a reminder until the end of days—what would it be? 

“Keep it simple.”