My Life in a Lunchbox

Most kids would have killed to have my lunchbox in high school, and on most occasions, I was able to make a fair trade. A bologna sandwich for succulent fried rice gingerly tossed with oyster sauce and lup cheong, a traditional Chinese sausage, or a personal pan pizza from PizzaHut was always more welcome than savory (although leftover) homemade chicken katsu. It was only after I had left the aromatic confines of my mother’s kitchen, was I able to understand how fortunate I was to have such a skilled cook for a mother.

Because my mother was a “stay at home mom”, she always felt it her duty to make sure that there was dinner on the table every night, but she never found cooking to be a bland, mundane task. On the contrary, she enjoyed cooking to such an extent that her entire day would center around the meal she wanted to prepare for dinner — and to this day, it gives my mother great joy to watch the smiles on her family’s face as they savor each bite of the meal she has prepared, only to lean back in their chairs after every last morsel has been devoured, content and full.

My mom and I drinking Vietnamese iced coffee from a bag in Hue, Vietnam

However, my mother did not acquire her refined palate, particularly in Asian cuisine, from culinary school or from working in a restaurant. She developed her skill as a young girl, running around the streets of Honolulu, Hawai’i, delivering her mother’s traditional Filipino sinuman dessert to the neighbors on Sundays, buying manapua (a steamy Chinese bun filled with pork meat) from the “manapua man”, and most importantly, from helping her mother cook in her childhood home. My mother’s food is not a result of the culinary skill she has gained over the years, but rather it is a representation of herself, a story steeped in tradition and culture. With each spice she adds, she throws in a little part of her past until she has created a dish so aromatic and unique that you find yourself being transported back to the 50’s and 60’s to a small two bedroom house in what is now downtown Honolulu.

I soon discovered that the farther I traveled from home, the more I craved the flavors that had emerged from my mother’s kitchen during my childhood, and therefore, my mother’s passion has been passed down to me. The lumpia, fried rice and chicken katsu recipes that my mother has shared with me are a few of the recipes that were brought from the Philippines to Hawai’i by my grandmother, and it will be a constant and comforting reminder that I am never far from home.

I take great pride in the food that I cook for it is an expression of myself and it is rich with ingredients that form the history and culture which I come from. But more than that, I find that when I share my cooking with others, it often leads to my story — my childhood of growing up in a Filipino and Jewish household, getting home after school or swim practice to a house filled with the smells of cooking that were so bold you could taste it, which would only then result in the uncomfortable realization that your stomach was empty. On rare occasions, it has even led much farther into the past, to the story of my grandmother and her brave journey across the Pacific from the Philippines to Hawai’i.

Therefore, I have decided to peel back the layers and uncover the core of others — to share the sweet, sour, spicy and sometimes bitter stories that lie behind their food. I am on a journey into the lives of the individuals that share their flavors with me, and eventually to share it with you. And as is the tradition in my family, I will start by sharing a part of myself, growing up encompassed by the rich, bold flavors of Hawai’i, by sharing a recipe of one of my favorite dishes. My only hope is to fill your palate with the tastes and tales of other individuals, along with my own, so that they too can share a little bit of themselves to be served at your table.

Spicy Ahi Poke with Wonton Chips

Traditional Hawaiian Spicy Ahi Poke, Photographed by Amit Schulman

Poke is a traditional Hawaiian dish that is best served very chilled. Most locals usually buy a quarter pound from the grocery store and bring it to the beach to accompany a cold six-pack of beer, however, others like to enjoy it over rice. For this recipe, I have put my own little spin on it with wonton chips to scoop up the poke similar to tortilla chips and ceviche — an idea inspired after a trip to Baja, Mexico.

Ingredients:

200 g. fresh sushi grade ahi tuna

3 T. mayonnaise

3 T. Shriracha sauce (or another Vietnamese spicy sauce substitute — try to stay away from sauces that are a bit sweet)

1 t. soy sauce

1 t. sesame oil

Fresh green onion

Wonton papers (optional)

1 ½ C. canola, sunflower, peanut, or any other frying oil (optional)

Salt for dusting (optional)

1. In a bowl, mix the mayonnaise, Shriracha, sesame oil, and soy sauce.

2. Remove the sinews of the tuna and cut the tuna into small cubes (I prefer them very small although most grocery stores and restaurants in Hawai’i cut them a bit bigger).

3. Add the tuna to the spicy mayonnaise sauce and mix well.

4. Chop the green onion and add it to the poke and mix well. Then place the poke in the fridge for at least half an hour.

5. In the meantime, heat up the oil in a pan.

6. After the oil is hot enough for frying, add the wonton papers into the oil. After they are crispy and golden brown, flip the wonton papers to brown the other side.

7. Remove the wonton chips and drain them on a paper towel, then lightly dust the wonton chips with salt.

8. Serve the spicy ahi poke cold with the wonton chips for scooping the poke.

Originally published by Jessica Schulman for A Tale of Thyme at www.ataleofthyme.com.

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