When I learned that I made it to graduate school in Boston six years ago, food was the last thing on my mind. It was not something I immediately associated with the city, unlike Singapore or Bangkok. It was also not the primary goal of my visit — I was going there to study — and was more focused on last-minute fundraising, immunizations and the agonizing search for affordable housing.
What I discovered after living there for two years was how intimate my relationship with food really is, as a bootstrapping home cooker, fanatical diner, soup kitchen volunteer and dinner hostess. I was lucky to be living in a city that cared about its food. New England is nothing like the Philippines, but its seaside delicacies resembled and paired well with flavors from home. I was about to grow in the perfect milieu.
Bootstrapping home cooker
I lived in an apartment on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, my first taste of first-world living. It was always pristine, I can buzz people in, I had a dishwasher and the AC and heating were centralized. The rows of Manila shanties I would see in my daily commute were replaced with runners getting some cardio in along the Charles River. I was walking to school in a walkable city and smelling the fresh morning air. Motorists firmly stopped at STOP signs and new pedestrians such as myself could pass safely. It was weird, but very good weird I could easily get used to.
To afford to live like that, I had to spend a good amount of money I did not have just on rent, so I had to scrimp on other things, like food. The closest supermarket to my apartment building was a Whole Foods — tempting, but not helping. An unshelled coconut costs $4.50, four dollars more expensive than the fresh coconut back home. One stalk of lemongrass I would normally just ask from a neighbor was $7.00. It was torture, and I tortured myself with those unhelpful comparisons until I realized I was not in Kansas anymore.
There was a Trader Joe’s further down the street and that was not very helpful either. Every time I go to a Trader Joe’s I just want to buy the whole store. My senses run amok, rendering my grocery list useless. Whenever I plan to buy vegetables, I end up buying that and some cheese. Ooh they have a coffee grinder. Chips — gotta have those. Peanut butter cups — yes! Not. Helping.
Soon I started hanging out with my Asian classmates and they too had the same conundrum: where can we get affordable ingredients for our home-cooked Asian meals? We were an interesting lot: Indian, Chinese, Bhutanese, Nepalese, Singaporean and Filipino. When we cook, we always share. And the more we cook, the more we party, so we urgently needed some intel!
Alas, finally, some overstaying alums pointed us in the right direction. (Now if you live in Boston and plan to cook for the first time, this is your cue to start paying attention). The first great tip I got was Haymarket in the North End. Everything is cheap on a Friday or a Saturday (I went for the first time on a Saturday morning). The best way to tackle this is to invite other amateur cooks to share an Uber with you and venture into the market together. Taking the T with a trolley was a painful experience, especially when fresh strawberries are just $4…for two. It was a heavy load. So split a cab and market goodies with friends. Otherwise, you will end up overbuying and throwing away a ton of rotting produce that is impossible for one person to consume.
One time my Chinese friend wanted to cook for me and invited me to go shopping with her. She took me to Chinatown, which was an easy trek from Central Square on the red line to Downtown Crossing. She was looking for a specific bok choy variety while I was happily checking out the other products in the store: fresh young corn, pechay, and almost every kind of mushroom. It was like being in a fresh open market in Manila. The difference is, I used to take these things for granted and let our helpers do all the shopping and cooking. My attitude towards market shopping has changed since.
A month before graduation, the Korean grocery store H Mart opened in Central Square. It was like manna from heaven, only this time God took down all our specifications on our way to the Promised Land. Choc Nut from the Philippines — check! Fresh uni — check! Thai fish sauce — check! All at reasonable prices. So a lot of catch-up cooking was done, and the class of 2014 was well-fed with memorable weeks-long fiestas before the last day of school.
To cook well, one needs a sophisticated, maybe even slightly adventurous, palate. Luckily for me, I love to eat, so I pretty much eat anything. I did abstain from red meats for a while, but when I lived in the States I knew I had to become a carnivore again. My shoestring budget would not be able to afford a purely seafood and vegetable diet, sad to say.
It was a good call. Cambridge is poppin’ with budget-friendly dining options that specialize in America’s favorite: the hamburger. I went to all the joints: Tasty Burger, Flat Patties, Mr. Bartley’s, Charlie’s Kitchen, Five Guys, and Shake Shack, the last being my top choice.
I did find that my best restaurant experiences in Cambridge and Boston involved a lot of seafood. Reminds me of home in a way. The Philippines is surrounded by water, so I grew up loving the taste of the sea. I lived on crabs, oysters, and shrimp, usually during family holidays. But the crustaceans that abound in Cape Cod seem to have a richer flavor, and with a dash of Old Bay and hearty New England cooking, they showed me a different world best enjoyed by hand.
For as long as they are alive, I will keep coming back to the clam chowder at Legal Seafoods with oyster crackers, the clam bake at Summer Shack, the oysters at Island Creek Oyster Bar, the octopus salad and lobster roll at Neptune Oysters, the lobster roll at B&G Oysters and the lobster roll and steamed lobsters at Alive and Kicking Lobsters.
I think I can eat lobster rolls forever.
My friend Leslie, a Boston native, is my best food buddy. We discovered our shared passion for food on a school trek in Japan, in a queue at the old Tsukiji Market at 5 AM. We carried on with a degustation tasting at Uni (which is my all-time favorite restaurant in Boston, did that again this year), the corn and paella at Toro, and the arancini and insalata in Coppa. Everything in these restaurants is excellent.
Just off Central Square, I have fond memories of dining alone at Cafe Sushi. The sashimi moriawase there is so fresh and was still student-friendly, price-wise. The best brunches were at Craigie on Main and Henrietta’s Table, while the best group dinners happened at Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant, Eastern Standard and now-closed Via Matta in Back Bay where I celebrated my birthday.
Soup kitchen volunteer
Coinciding with that birthday was a chance to give back, which I did by volunteering for Community Servings. It was a truly meaningful experience that taught me lessons I am finding very useful now as I am setting up soup kitchens with partner church communities in Manila.
Community Servings is not your typical soup kitchen where excess food is brought in, turned into a meal and distributed to the poor. This particular organization creates food from scratch and delivers them to people with chronic and critical illnesses. They supplement this service with nutritional counseling.
The assembly line and industrial hardware at their kitchen in Jamaica Plain were impressive. We also followed very strict sanitary and hygiene guidelines for handling food. Since my trip there, I have been washing my hands for at least twenty seconds. I also continue to aspire to help in improving food waste management and direct those food resources to hungry, impoverished communities.
With graduation fast approaching, there was a call for volunteers to host “dinners for 6” for classmates they wish to get to know better. The number six is just a recommendation — an optimal figure to ensure intimacy. Hosts are free to invite any number of people they want. I was not picked at random earlier, so I happily stepped up.
I knew it was time to showcase the best of Filipino cuisine that this Filipina foodie had been cooking on her own, so I did. In my entire stay in Cambridge, friends have tried and loved the pancit canton, beef steak Tagalog, and afritada, so I ensured a repeat performance. The piece de resistance was the fried lumpia, which I rolled by myself the first time, and then rolled by my classmates on the second try. We all get smarter as we go along.
When graduation day did come, I still had a well-stocked pantry. I had a month to go before my lease expires so the feasts continued, and I did not make just Filipino fare. By now, I was already seriously experimenting, relying on pantry supplies and gut instinct to come up with something edible. I remember making vongole with manila clams using leftover pasta to reward my classmates who helped haul my bed out of my apartment. I turned leftover steak into beef with mushroom sauce and served it for breakfast at the Cape. I also made a coconut-based seafood dish for a rooftop picnic. There is, unfortunately, no such thing as leftover lobster in these parts, especially when you are dining with me. But in my head, a lobster omelet would probably taste great.
I stayed in Boston for another year and continued to discover its food culture with a few friends left. We did so modestly, mostly cooking and eating indoors with the dark veil of unemployment upon us. The job market was tough for non-residents but we still needed to keep our spirits up. By this time, I was already staying in Brookline before finally finding work in Waltham.
Boston is internationally recognized for its world-class schools and its world-class sports teams. I came to this city for all those reasons, including jazz and blues at Berklee. What I did not expect was this critical acclaim to transcend to its food, which I expect is the natural evolution for a melting pot of cultures. The best American universities that are located in Boston attract thousands of people around the world, and with that comes wisdom, talent, and diversity. We were in just one of 35 colleges in Boston — imagine how many hidden mixers are happening over exotic cuisine every day in every corner of the city!
I did learn a lot from my readings and my professors, but the best things I learned about my friends and myself were conversations shared over food. Boston has a lot of that, hidden and out in the open. It has a lot of character because of stories exchanged during intimate dinners, picnics, and study groups over wine and food. I think that beyond academics and sports, Boston’s ability to bring people together through good food is a genuine source of pride too.