The large deboned chicken was soaked in a cream and citrus marinade overnight. The next day, her Papa Didi stuffed the chicken with ground pork, beef and chicken. More ingredients were added: sausages; boiled eggs; savory spices and sauces and enhanced with the sweetness of raisins. The procedure was so elaborate her papa only made seven chicken rellenos. The stuffed chicken entree was a special holiday gift for their immediate family and the Archibishop. Her papa hand-delivered the relleno to his Excellency himself before Christmas Eve.
For Malou Perez-Nievera this was the best Christmas memory she had from her family roots in Tuguegarao. She brought these memories with her when she moved to America.
Malou Perez-Nievera is a Filipina who brought Philippine cuisine to St. Louis, Missouri. Before living in the Midwest, she had had numerous roles: a recipe blogger on her site ‘Skip to Malou’; a YouTube star cooking with 7.5 million followers; a TV personality; and today a guest chef for brunch and Kamayan pop-ups at Hiro Kitchen in STL.
Malou is one of the few Filipina food bloggers who successfully transitioned a hobby into a full time, profitable culinary career. She evolved as a self-taught chef and established a firm footing and a steady following of fans that keep increasing.
Malou’s recipe for success was to share what was closest to her heart and what she knew best – her Ibanag-influenced cuisine.
“Everybody knows about other provinces’ regional cooking,” Malou said. Little is known about Tuguegarao, Cagayan where she was born.
At Hiro Kitchen, one of her staples is “sinanta,” a noodle dish with pho and sotanghon noodles swirling in a hearty broth, topped with clams, shrimps, chicken and pork. Customers rave, “It’s like a potion in a bowl.”
Her other specialties are: belechon (pork belly); chicken inasal, fresh lumpia made with a pandan-infused, cone-shaped wrap garnished with green onions, peanuts, roasted garlic and shrimps. Malou also likes to deconstruct traditional Filipino recipes like caldereta on skewers on a smear of sauce; kare-kare (oxtail peanut stew) sliders; dinuguan (pork blood stew) in a bowl.
Aside from her strong culinary presence in America, Malou is a much sought-after talent in the Philippines: She has been a guest chef at the multi-awarded Purple Yam Restaurant in Malate; featured on widely circulated food magazines; done cooking demos and recently helped create the menu for her brother’s restaurant aptly named after their late father.
“When you’re an immigrant, you try ten times harder than a local. You want to be accepted. So, as Filipinos we put our best foot forward when we meet new people. This is who we are – we excel so we can be at par with others,” was Malou’s take on life in the USA.
Her inspiration is her husband. “Christian is my hero. He tells me what’s good and what’s not,” gushed Malou.
Her voice takes on a special lilt when she talks with much pride about her three grown-up, successful children: Heather Nicole; Isabela Micaela and Joey. They gave her a reason to keep cooking and start a blog more than five years ago.
When I chatted with Malou for this interview, our discussion inevitably turned back to Papa Didi’s chicken relleno. It was always this dish that transported her back in time and space with the aromas and flavors. Each mouthful evoked feelings of being nurtured, cherished and loved.
Nowadays during the holidays, Malou has taken over the tradition of cooking five chicken rellenos for her family and a few close friends. “I feel sentimental about this dish. It’s like making our parents come alive again through these food memories. My dad made a big production out of it. There was a lot of stress and anxiety. He wanted it perfect for the people he loved,” Malou reminisced.
For Malou, there was something nostalgic about the recipes that came from generations before her. Maybe it’s the rich variety of ingredients. Maybe it’s the complex planning. No matter, it was always the delicious way to celebrate Christmas. After all, few things taste better than a magnificent, plump, juicy, baked chicken filled with a myriad of ingredients that together give a heady conglomeration of flavors.
I asked where in the world she was going to cook next. “I can take my cooking anywhere. My career is portable,” Malou said.
You can take this Filipina out of her hometown and on to America, but you can never take away her spirit and her love for our very own food.
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey is a journalist and author of the “How to Cook Philippine Desserts: Cakes and Snacks” Cookbook. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and blogs about Filipino home cooking on her site AsianInAmericaMag.com.