Joy in learning to cook without retail supermarkets

One of my favorite things about Thailand – and one I definitely miss – are the healthy, fresh, spicy salads. Green papaya or mango, hot pepper, a little tomato, carrot, green beans or sprouts, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, shrimp paste, cilantro , basil… OMG! My mouth waters. Add more hot pepper — tears! Chug cold beer. Heaven! Thailand.

Since leaving Thailand, I’ve ordered Thai salads from menus in other nearby countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines. Each time – disappointing. No offense, but somehow, they aren’t even close to what one can get on any street corner in Thailand for a buck or two.

Tonight, thanks to a handful of green mangoes provided by our hostess, Yolly, I made my own. The result: best since Thailand. No doubt.

Mmmmmm… it’s gone now, but I will make more soon. And better. I need some dried shrimp or paste and the ground peanuts. I have a few other adjustments in mind too. Tonight’s delicious batch was basically made with whatever we had at hand.

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Joy of feeding others

As my wife mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been practicing and improving my cooking skills throughout our coronavirus travel pause here in Malay, Aklan, Panay, Philippines. In the 10 weeks we’ve now been at the Hangout Beach Resort, it’s one of the things I’ve truly come to enjoy.

It’s fun to surprise and serve Ellen and mom each evening. And honestly, it’s pretty easy. We have a nice, functional and spacious kitchen set-up and plenty of fresh ingredients available nearby. And through these weeks of quarantines, I’ve had little else to do. Ellen even says I’m good at it!*

I’ve always been the cook in the Earth Vagabonds equation. During our global roaming, on nights we don’t eat out, I cook. And we almost always have a kitchen in our long-term rentals. Pastas, chicken, salads, all-day breakfasts – some of my specialties. As continual travelers, grocery shopping and cooking is one way we’ve kept our expenses down, while at the same time experiencing markets and local culture.

One of my most treasured and satisfying cooking experiences was the months of meal preps I did while Ellie was recovering from her surgery. It wasn’t an easy time for us – but we ate well and healthy! I will remember it always and proudly.

However, in Southeast Asia, we’ve honestly found it is often cheaper to eat at the ubiquitous outdoor ‘food courts’, malls, and small family restaurants – plus, it’s hot – so we’ve gotten away from cooking. But the Covid-19 travel, tourism, and restaurant halt has inspired me again.

Learning to cook without retail supermarkets

The convenience and affordability of amazing fresh foods is abundant here. Especially fish – but also, chicken, pork, and produce. Drive down the road, and every kilometer will find a roadside shack selling the morning catch. Tuna, snapper, marlin, bangus (milk fish) are our favorites; big, beautiful, solid steaks – cut to order.

The best part, the price; 200 to 240 Pesos per kilo ($1.80 to $2.20 per pound)!

In America, these cuts would be $10, $12, $15 per pound — and likely caught, frozen, and distributed weeks or months ago. For years, one of my New Years resolutions has been ‘eat more fish’. Now it is happening.

Smaller types of fish are even more plentiful and cheap – mackerel, scad, sardines – and more popular with locals. We watch spear and net fishermen harvest them every day. We’ve even helped drag in the big nets.

Finally, just look at the giant prawns that were delivered to our door by a guy selling buckets-full. Price: $10 per kilo (2.2 pounds). Unbelievable!

Hard-to-find American-style stuff

One issue we do have, however, is finding some of the variety that we are used to. In fact, this area does not have what would be considered a ‘supermarket’. On Boracay island there are big, modern food retailers. But Malay food shopping is all done at small ‘mom & pop’ grocers and fresh markets. It’s part of the ‘charm’ of this place. But fairly standard items can be hard to find.

I looked repeatedly for real butter and cheese before finding some. Refrigerated dairy is rare. And I have a list of items that we’re always on the lookout for: pesto, grated parmesan, pancake syrup, bulk nuts, olives & olive oil, salad dressing, Coke Zero. Even household items like paper towels, facial tissue, pump hand soap, are rarely seen.

To be fair, most of these items are not part of traditional Philippine cuisine/life and are expensive for local folks of modest means. But elsewhere in the Philippines, supermarkets did stock them.

The owner of a nearby coffee shop invited us to enjoy some brewed coffee after months of only Nescafé instant (which I am now used to). He makes trips to the provincial capital, Kalibo, for hard to get supplies and has graciously offered to pick us up anything we would like.

Undoubtedly, we will take him up on that offer going forward. Until then, I will continue to play chef and make due with the wonderful abundance of delights that we can get easily and cheaply. And another green mango salad is in the immediate offing!

As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails & more beer.

Life is NOW!

(*Editor’s note: Tedly is great at preparing and revealing meals each night!)

Thanks for reading, “Joy learning to cook without retail supermarkets.”

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Joy in learning to cook without retail supermarkets

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