I’ve been playing more games than ever since I moved to Windows, and I’ve been half-joking that it’s the bulk of my social life right now. I used to think of gaming as a waste of time and an expensive one at that, but the pandemic has completely changed my opinion. Gaming has kept my sanity intact now that I rarely see friends in person.
The game that opened the floodgates was Animal Crossing because it let me “visit” friends—even friends who are living in Singapore and Germany and Canada. It really showed me that games can be another way for me to socialize with friends outside of Zoom. Yes, it can be a waste of time, and yes, it is expensive, but it’s all worth it for me.
These days, I’ve been playing quite a handful of co-op games. My favorites so far are:
I love the taste of kombucha. Since I already do some fermentation at home, I figured that I could try fermenting my own ‘booch at home, too. So last month, a friend gave me a jar of kombucha with a gelatinous, leathery-like film floating at the top. It was pretty gross-looking, but this was the SCOBY or the “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” and it was essential for making my own kombucha.
There are plenty of kombucha-making tutorials online, but my friend recommended that I watch the You Brew Kombucha channel on YouTube. Andrea and I learned that it’s actually pretty straightforward to make kombucha, and it’s also really cheap! It’s just tea and sugar (and time). There are basically two parts to kombucha making:
We put sweet black tea (we use Assam tea at home) along with the SCOBY in a large jar, and we just basically let it sit there for 7-10 days. We should be okay as long as we have a piece of cloth over it (to prevent contamination) and that it’s away from direct sunlight. We also try and taste the tea from time to time to see if it’s good enough for our liking.
We technically have kombucha after the first fermentation, but the second fermentation adds additional flavor and carbonation. This is fun for us because we get to mix in different fruit juices and try out different flavors.
We first puree the fruit and put them in bottles. We then pour the kombucha into those bottles and shut them tight. The sugar will turn into carbon dioxide as it ferments for a few days (4 seems to be the sweet spot for us), making the kombucha fizzy.
My personal favorite so far is honey with lemon juice. It makes a really refreshing kombucha.
These days, I expect electronics companies to be unhelpful when it comes to repairing. When I replaced the batteries on my iPhone 7, I had to buy unofficial parts, buy prying tools, read community-made tutorials, and pray that I don’t break my device while I force it open.
I was surprised when I learned that iRobot (the company that makes Roomba vacuums) doesn’t just sell spare parts, they also have tutorials on how you can replace them yourself. Wirecutter reports that they even sell parts for the original Roomba from 2002!
Last week I got to make bagels with my coworkers over Zoom. We were supposed to get together in person for our annual meetup, but we opted to do everything online instead because of the pandemic. That bagel-making class was honestly one of the highlights of my week! I feel like it’s such a treat to see people in their own kitchens.
I rarely bake, so bagels were a bit of a mystery to me. I heard that bagels are boiled and then baked, so I assumed that it would be difficult to make them at home. It turns out to be pretty straightforward, and you can check out the whole recipe here. The hardest part for me was probably kneading the dough for ten straight minutes.
I think learning how a particular dish comes together is what I find enjoyable in cooking. And that I get to eat it if it all goes well! Even though bagels can be found in just about any grocery store, I feel I have a better appreciation of it now that I know how to make it.
Last week, I also got to make Bibingka for the first time. It’s a rice cake that’s usually sold as street food during Christmas in the Philippines. Andrea thought that since we had just made salted duck eggs, we should use it to make Bibingka, too. You can find the recipe that we followed here.
Bibingka and salted duck eggs were things that my family never made back in the Philippines because there was really no need for it—you could easily get them from a street vendor or at the store. But now that I don’t have easy access to Filipino food, I feel like it’s become a bit of a necessity for me. I’m feeling proud of myself for learning the dishes that I ate growing up, and that I’m seeing them in a new light now that I’m making them as an adult.
I grew up eating a lot of itlog na maalat or salted duck egg when I was growing up in the Philippines. My family usually makes a simple salad out of it that you either eat with rice or on the side of the main dish. It really only has two ingredients:
Hard-boiled salted duck egg
You can also add onions, fish sauce, or black pepper if you want to add some variation to the taste and texture. Salted duck eggs are usually sold in Asian markets, but because of COVID, it’s not easy to go to one. Fortunately we got a delivery of fresh duck eggs from Imperfect Foods, and we thought that it might be fun to try and make our own salted duck eggs at home. It turns out to be easy, but it takes a long time to make: 3 weeks. Here’s the recipe that we followed: Salted duck egg recipe (video version)
It’s a success! It tastes exactly how I remember it to be. I’m not sure if it’s worth doing, but I’m glad that I know know how salted eggs are made.
Yesterday, I learned how to repulgue or crimp an empanada to get that beautiful braided edge. I had trouble doing this the first time when I was following Bon Appetit’s video on making empanadas, but I finally got it when I followed the technique in this other video. The difference is that the second repulgue used a flat surface to help with the crimping.
I think I’m starting to feel more at ease about my lack of productivity outside of work. At the beginning of March, I wanted to take full advantage of my time at home, busying myself with personal projects and hobbies. I thought I could go through the unread books on my shelf, write software, make candles, and work on different fermentation projects. Unfortunately, the reality is that I end up feeling spent on most days.
It was frustrating at first, but I’m grateful that at least I have work when 30 million people in the US don’t. So these days, I’ve focused more on maintaining a routine instead of striving to do more.
Setting up a routine was difficult at first because I’ve gotten used to matching my activities with the right environment. If I wanted to exercise, I’d be at the gym. If I wanted to work, I’d be at the library or my coworking space. If I wanted to relax, I’d be at the park.
So the challenge in the first few weeks was to build new habits in the same environment. There was this excellent and surprisingly practical article from retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly that I found useful. He talks about how crucial schedules are for helping people adjust to a different environment.
6am to 9am: Booting up and doing chores
Having some time for myself in the morning to shower, drink coffee, journal, budget, and meditate has been an essential part of my routine in the last two months. I feel that it’s almost non-negotiable. It gives me some space to slowly ramp up my day instead of immediately jumping into work. This is also the time when I write on this blog/newsletter.
9am to 5pm: Work time
I find that running a website blocker and putting on some background noise helps me switch from lounge mode to work mode. I’m fortunate that I didn’t have to adjust the way I work since I’ve been working remotely for 7 years now. Still, I do miss the option of being in a coworking space/library/coffee shop.
5pm to 6pm: Exercising
Since I no longer sprint to catch the bus, climb up the stairs, or carry heavy loads of groceries, I’ve been prioritizing exercise at home. I got a pull-up bar and some resistance bands in March, and I’m actually surprised by the exercises that you can do with minimal equipment. I also got creative with some empty milk jugs by filling them with water and cramming them in my backpack to make a weighted vest.
6pm to 10pm: Spending time with people
I used to fill this time with personal projects, but now I’ve opted to dedicate this block of time for people. I’ve recently been spending this time with Andrea (making dinner, watching TV, or playing games) and calling my friends/family. I rarely called people on the phone before all this, but I find that hearing people’s voices is almost necessary for me these days.
Fried sardines with fried rice and fried egg were one of my favorite meals to eat when I was growing up in the Philippines. It’s really easy, and it’s basically the same as this Jamaican recipe. I personally like to eat it with vinegar on the side, but that’s optional.
1 can sardines in oil
2 cloves garlic
1 Small onion
Heat up the oil from the sardine can in the pan
Sauté garlic and onion until caramelized
Add sardines and cook for a little bit
Add pepper to taste. Depending on the sardines, it might already be salty.
Fry the egg and the rice in the residual oil
Mackerel in Coconut Milk
I had some mackerel in my freezer that I didn’t know what to do with, but Andrea found this Filipino recipe online called Ginataang Mackerel. Ginataan means “done in coconut milk.” This was also pretty easy to do, and I like how forgiving it is when you’re missing some of the ingredients. Instead of fish sauce, you can use salt. Instead of chili, you can use cayenne and chili flakes.
Shrimp and Tilapia in Coconut Milk
After I ran out of mackerel, I made a modified version of the ginataan but with shrimp and tilapia. It’s mostly the same recipe, but just make sure to add the shrimp at the very end. You don’t want to over cook it!
Chana Masala with Cauliflower
This is one of my go-to recipes when I’m feeling lazy. I follow this recipe, but I substitute heavy cream with coconut milk. I don’t have naan, so I use flour tortillas as a substitute.
So I’ve been making yogurt at home again. I figured it’s worth it since I eat quite a bit of yogurt every week, and it isn’t exactly cheap. Target, for example, sells their cheapest yogurt for about $0.09/oz ($2.99 per 32oz container), but it also sells milk for about $0.03/oz ($4.19 a gallon). Since a gallon of milk turns into a gallon of yogurt (unless you strain the liquid out to make greek yogurt), I can have yogurt for just a third of the cost!
The first time I made yogurt was four years ago, and I’m still surprised that all you really need are two things:
Plain store-bought yogurt
Of course, there’s the optional fruit or honey or sugar that you can add to it depending on your preferences. The milk can be whole milk, 2% fat, or 0% fat—as long as it’s not lactose-free, you should be fine. You need the lactose because that’s what the bacteria eats. Where do you get the bacteria? You can get that from yogurt that you bought at the store. Make sure it has live and active cultures in it.
There are good resources online that teach you how to make yogurt like Bon Appétit and NYT Cooking, but the gist is:
Heat the milk until it starts to steam. Make sure to heat it slowly and occasionally stir so that you don’t burn the milk.
Let the milk cool down. For me, I just let it sit to cool for around 20 mins or until it’s just warm to the touch. (Wash your hands! I’d use a thermometer, but I unfortunately don’t have one at home.)
Add your store-bought yogurt. Mix thoroughly until it dissolves to distribute the bacteria evenly.
Put it in the oven with just the light on. This should keep it warm enough to encourage the bacteria to grow.
Wait for 12 to 24 hours. The longer it ferments, the thicker and more sour it gets.
Take it out and put it in the fridge. The yogurt will thicken even more as it cools down.
And you’re done! You can use this yogurt to make even more yogurt in the future.
The first place that we stayed in was an Airbnb near the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. We had planned on staying in Old San Juan first, but we realized that we’d probably be too tired to do anything when we got to Puerto Rico at 12 midnight.
When we got up in the morning, we walked to a nearby restaurant and got a Puerto Rican dish called mofongo, a dense ball of fried-then-mashed plantains. Mofongo can come with a variety of sides, but we got mofongo relleno de bistec or mofongo filled with thin slices of steak. A heavy Puerto Rican breakfast and strong café con leche was definitely a good way to start our first day on the island.
We then got an Uber to check in to our next hotel in Old San Juan. We loved how walkable the barrio was and how beautiful the buildings were. It was a bit touristy, but that didn’t take away from our experience.
What we really wanted to visit was a citadel called the El Morro or Castillo San Felipe del Morro which, just like the Philippines, was named after King Philip II of Spain. (At least according to Wikipedia.)
The grass was so green and lush that we decided to relax on the lawn for a bit before we entered. It was also cold in Philly that we opted to just relish the sun while we were in Puerto Rico.
The citadel itself was massive. We wondered, as we walked along its halls, how much work must have gone into building this fortress. It tired us out a bit because it wasn’t only vast, it also had steep inclines that you have to use to get anywhere.
We were craving some food after all that walking so we went to a panaderia or bakery called La Bombonera and got a mallorca, a puffy bun that’s showered in confectioner’s sugar. We especially loved mallorca con jamon y queso which is a grilled mallorca with ham and cheese. It had a delightful mix of both sweet and salty.
That evening, we had longaniza de pollo or chicken sausage and sancocho, a traditional soup in Puerto Rico.
Andrea told me that the most useful set of words that you can say to learn Spanish is ¿Cómo se dice? or “How do you say … ?” For example you would say, ¿Cómo se dice ‘for here’? and they would say, para llevar.
Day 2 – El Yunque National Forest and Luquillo Kioskos
Ubers and taxis are only available in the metro area. So if you wanted to get around, you have to rent a car. (You can take publicos which are buses that can take you outside of metro areas, but we got a car instead for convenience.)
Since it was the second day, we wanted to do some exploring. First up was El Yunque National Forest. Getting to El Yunque was a little terrifying because of the narrow roads, but we were rewarded with some fantastic views of Puerto Rico as we went up the mountain.
Some trails were unfortunately closed because of Hurricane Maria, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the forest. It was especially beautiful when we got to the top of Yokahú Tower.
After a whole morning of driving and walking, we wanted to reward ourselves with some food. A local had previously told us about the kioskos in Luquillo, and how good the food was and how deliciously fried they were. They said that it was definitely something that we shouldn’t miss, so we drove over there after exploring El Yunque.
It didn’t disappoint. I’ve forgotten the names of all the fried things that we ate, but what I remembered the most was arepa rellena de camarones or shrimp arepas.
Day 3 – Cueva Ventana and Isabela
Our next Airbnb was in Isabela, a beach town which looked a bit like a tropical San Diego to me. But before we went there, we stopped by to go on a tour inside Cueva Ventana or window cave. Our tour guide talked a lot about the ecology around the cave and Puerto Rico in general. She mentioned a lot of facts, but what I remember the most was that there were no venomous animals on the island and that the fruit bat population was heavily affected by Hurricane Maria because they had trouble finding food.
As we entered the cave, our tour guide mentioned that you had to keep your mouth closed whenever you looked up because there were a lot of bats on the ceiling that could poop on you at any time. We did, in fact, see a lot of bats clustered on the ceiling. They looked a bit like this. We weren’t allowed to point the flashlight directly at them, but you could dim the light by using your hand to get a better look at them. The guide also showed us some petroglyphs in the cave that the Taínos—the indigenous people of the Caribbean—drew 600 years ago.
After that, we went to Isabela to drop our things off at the Airbnb and enjoy the beach. That night we had red snapper mofongo. We were unsure at first because we didn’t really know how red snappers tasted, but we ended up loving the richness and garlic-y-ness of the dish.
Day 4 – Isabela
This was our recovery day, and all we did was eat and stay at the beach. We started the day by going to a nearby panaderia to eat breakfast and get lunch and dulce or dessert to go. We also went to the grocery store to get snacks, and we learned that Puerto Ricans call orange juice jugo de china instead of jugo de naranja. The beach in Isabela had strong currents, so we didn’t spend too much time in the water. But we did enjoy reading books and lounging in our beach chairs.
We also drove to Jobos beach where we watched the sunset while the waves crashed against the rock that we were standing on.
Day 5 – La Ruta Del Lechón & Vieques
The next day we drove to the other side of Puerto Rico to go to the La Ruta Del Lechón or Pork Highway where we had some delicious roast pork (lechón), blood sausage (morcilla), and yellow rice with pigeon peas (arroz con gandules). We went to a place called Lechonera Los Pinos. The Lechón is very similar to the variant in the Philippines, except Filipinos grew up eating it with Mang Tomas sauce.
We then drove to Ceiba to take a ferry to Vieques, a small island municipality of Puerto Rico. We wanted to go there to see all the wild horses that roamed around the beaches and also see its famous bioluminescent bay. Also we learned that, golf carts are road legal in Vieques, so we rented one to get around the island.
That night we went on a tour of the bioluminescent bay. It was magical. I don’t have any pictures of it, but you can watch videos of it online. Apparently, the tiny microorganisms that live in the water produce a bright cobalt blue light with even the smallest agitation. So every time you paddle or glide your fingers across the water, a trail of blue light will appear in the water. We were lucky to have a transparent kayak because the fish that were swimming underwater also lit up the bay.
Day 6 – Vieques and San Juan
We couldn’t stay in Vieques for too long because we had to fly back the next day, but at least we were able to relax for a bit on Caracas beach. It was recommended to us by our Airbnb host, and it was probably the calmest beach that I’ve ever been to. There was no crowd, the sand was soft beneath our feet, the water was warm, and there were barely any waves.
Before we hopped back in to the ferry, we got to try salmon with trifongo which was a mofongo variety that’s made of cassava, ripe plantains, and green plantains. We really couldn’t get enough of mofongo, and I wish I could get it here in Philly.
We then drove back to Old San Juan and stayed at a slightly more upscale hotel called Wind Chimes Hotel where we spent the night watching Spanish-dubbed Air Bud on cable TV.