The Foreigner’s Guide to Cooking Tocino in the Philippines

The last time I actually tried cooking anything that didn’t involve a microwave was back in the States, and that was months ago. I guess I’ve just been lucky enough to have someone else do the actual cooking; that there’s no shortage of good, inexpensive cooked meals to buy in this part of the world pretty much whenever and wherever you feel like it, well, that explains why my culinary talents haven’t been put much to the test of late.

Well, I’m proud to say I managed to do my first “home cooked meal” myself recently. And I have to say it was a success! So, as a public service to any foreigners (<cough> Americans) who may find themselves in the country and too cheap or lazy to simply eat out, you can follow these steps to do the simple meal I prepared: white rice and tocino.

It’s a basic meal I enjoyed as a child, and tocino (toh-see-noh), a sweet pork dish, is something I would consider “foreigner-safe.” It’s easy! Just follow these instructions:

The Rice

No instructions. Just buy a dang rice cooker, some uncooked rice (the real kind, none of that fancy-schmancy Uncle Ben’s “let’s get them to pay more for the same thing” corporate packaging), and follow the instructions on that little sheet of paper that comes with the cooker. Or Google it.

Alternatively for the truly lazy: meet your neighbors. Then walk over and ask for some rice. In the Philippines, they’ll have some. Guaranteed. NOTE: You’ll want to time your begging just right, around mealtimes, otherwise you’ll end up with a cup of uncooked rice, and you’ll be right back where you started.

The Tocino

Step 1: Go to the supermarket and buy a pack of Pampanga’s Best brand prepared tocino, ready for cooking. It’s from Pampanga, and it’s the best, says so right there on the packaging. No need to get your hands dirty with sauces and spices and mixing and getting all that slop onto the meat (aka the really hard work). It’s all ready and done for you in that packet!

NOTE: I chose their “Fatless Tocino” product.  I seem to remember reading somewhere that fat isn’t terribly healthy for you, so I figured, heck, if these pigs are health-conscious enough to mind their diets, maybe even exercise regularly, to get themselves looking pretty buff, then eating them should be good for my health too! Onwards …

Step 2: Read the instructions on the back of the packet. The Pampanga’s Best instructions are short and easy-looking. Hence, they’re primarily there for motivational purposes. Read them anyway, even if you don’t understand them. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and figure out what tools you’ll need , and if you’ve managed to read this far, there’s a good chance you can “best guess” what the instructions want you to do.

Step 3. The instructions imply that you’ll need to fry stuff in 1/8 cup of cooking oil. It does not, however, say which cup to use, so go get the biggest cup you can find just to be safe. Pour all that slick goodness into the pan and tell yourself, “Man, cooking is easy!” to keep your spirits up.

Step 4. Fire up the range. Now this can get tricky for those of you used to electric ranges with Star Trek-looking shiny flat glass tops or gas ranges with those built-in clicky sparky thingies that automatically ignite the flame when you turn the knob. There’s a better than even chance here you’ll have a gas range that you’ll have to light manually to “flame on!” If you’re one of the lucky few with the non-caveman ranges, proceed to step 5. The rest of you, follow these substeps (sorry, can’t really skip these — fire is apparently one of those Critical Success Factors for cooking):

Step 4a. Find something to make fire with. In this age where cigarette smoking is very much frowned upon, for most of you that’ll likely mean matches. Since there is also a very high probability you have absolutely no clue where people store things in that kitchen you’re in, allow for at least an hour for searching all over the house for an old matchbook with those tear out cardboard matches. You know, the ones they used to give away all over the place, imprinted with company logos and ads and phone numbers, way back when Marlboro Men hadn’t started dying off from emphysema and lung cancer yet. (If it’s any help, I hit paydirt in the side pocket of my toiletry kit — matchbooks from a hotel I visited 18 years ago. No expiration date!)

Step 4b. Your range will likely have four burners, each with its own corresponding knob. Identify which knob goes with the burner you want to use. Since I have no idea what your knobs look like, you’re on your own with this one. You’ll notice that the knob will have notches and words and numbers on them. Those are the settings. Don’t worry much, there are only two settings that matter: Off and High. I hope that the knob has been on the Off position the whole time you’ve been reading this, otherwise you’ll be feeling very sleepy really soon, if not already (no, it’s not my writing).

Step 4c. Turn the knob to High, light a match and put it up against the burner to ignite it. But do it as quick as possible because you don’t want too much of the gas to escape and collect before igniting it and, you know, BOOM. You may want to keep your non-match holding hand as close to the knob as possible just in case.

Step 4d. You’ll suddenly hear a FWOOSH as the gas ignites. Naturally you’ll go “WHA-” and jump back while your free hand reflexively turns the knob to Off, all in one smooth motion. That will kill the flame. So do steps 4c and 4d as often as  needed until your nerves are so shot and ineffective that the burner stays lit (or until you run out of matches, in which case you’ll need to go back to step 4a).

Step 5. Now you’re really cooking! Put the pan with the oil on top of the inferno. Give it a bit of time, so the oil can heat up. I can tell you from experience, do NOT under any circumstances put your finger in the oil to check and see “if it’s hot already.” Here’s how you can tell: Screw it, just go on to the next step.

Step 6. The instructions on the packet say to put the tocino in the pan in a single layer. From the packet, it’s just a single rectangular mass of red-dyed meat, so no big deal, put that in there. That was easy!

Step 7. It’ll start to sizzle. That’s how you tell the oil’s hot enough. The instructions say to move it around and turn it over periodically, so do that. Don’t use your hands! Use one or more of those giant-sized utensils — a bunch of them will likely be in some container on the counter right next to the range. Use whichever one appeals to you the most.

Step 8. After a bit of sizzling, moving around and turning over, the lump of meat will start falling apart. That’s when you’ll realize it’s not one big lump of meat but a bunch of thin strips all stuck together. Move rapidly as you try to break them all apart and spread them out in a “single layer” as instructed.

Step 9. Just keep moving the meat all around and turning each piece over. The instructions say to keep doing that until the color of the sugar is “golden brown” and you can detect a “caramel-like odor.” You’ll have no idea what any of that means, so check the package again to see if it gives time info, which it does: “For best result, cook for five (5) to seven (7) minutes.” OK, so precise instructions aren’t really their strong suit, so just keep on going until you see something change.

Step 10. Soon you’ll start to see black spots popping up all over the place. Can’t miss them on that bright red meat. Doubt and question what you’re witnessing, during which more of the blackness will start taking over everything like a scene from The Blob. At which point, turn the knob to Off! Pay close attention and do this fast, since this change goes pretty quickly. Total transition time from red to Blob should be around one (1) second.

You’re done!

Don’t worry about the black stuff. You can eat or scrape off to taste. Perfectly safe. Put the tocino on a plate, some (cooked!) white rice next to it, and enjoy!