Only female visitors were allowed. If a male visitor arrived and wanted to see one of the female residents, he had to check in with a stone-faced security guard, who called the person they wanted to see, announcing that their guest was in the lobby. The female resident would then come downstairs, meet the man and from there they would leave to go elsewhere, whether it’s a date, a party, seeing friends, or to simply run an errand, like going to the city to purchase food from the few Filipino supermarkets scattered around Kuwait.
These were the hostels in Kuwait where nurses lived. The apartment structures were usually covered in dust, from the relentless winds that pushed sand all the way from open desert spaces. They were buildings full of dorm-like single rooms.
Filipino ex-pat nurses in Kuwait fit their whole lives into these tiny, studio-like boxes, working eight thousand kilometres away from home to make money to send to their families in the Philippines. Many of them spend decades in Kuwait, building a completely separate life from their families. Side hustles were common with them; they worked to the bone in the hospitals but needed to fill the extra time they had. These were gaps of time they would otherwise spend if their spouses and children were around, to not only combat loneliness with distraction but make extra money.
One of these side hustles was baking cakes, which was a huge part of my culinary childhood.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when international trade hadn’t completely allowed large, multinational corporations to take over much of commerce in Kuwait, bakeries didn’t quite have access to the high-end European nor American cakes and pastries. We had La Baguette and Sable, but that was pretty much it.
There were local Kuwaiti sweets that used saffron, rose water and nuts but these only allowed dessert aficionados to perfect Middle-Eastern desserts and nothing beyond. The cakes weren’t quite up to standard. They all tasted more or less the same; sugary, with some dryness and gritty frosting.
When my Filipino mother married my Kuwaiti father, she moved out of the hostel and integrated with his family. A year later they started their own. Three children later–two girls and a boy– she was running a household that required constant entertainment of not only her husband’s community but that of hers and her children’s. Endless gatherings–usually celebratory in nature–entailed having a culinary star desert as a finale. This accompanies an already crowded table consisting of a mixture of Kuwaiti and Filipino dishes.
My mother never severed her relationship with her fellow nurses. She kept in touch with her single friends (or those who were married but had their husbands in the Philippines) who lived in these hostels. The Filipino diaspora– like many others in Kuwait–was, and still is, alive and real. Yes, diversity existed amongst Kuwait’s population, but there was a distinct form of cultural secularism that everyone naturally fell into. Filipinos created hubs reminding them of their own homes through the people they made connections with and the food they consumed, and spiritually through the friendships they had with other Filpinos and in many cases, going to church.
One hot spring day when I was eight years old (before the invasion), I accompanied my mother into one of these mysterious hostels. My younger sister’s birthday was coming up and my mother ordered a cake from one of these nurses, who was known to create the best cakes in Rigai. And there, I was exposed to a world completely different from my own.
The nurses–all of whom I called Tita insert-name-here– had everything in place to create perfect cakes in a short space of time. Their rooms were filled with personal belongings and food items that would shame any convenience store or baqala. The culinary weapons were everywhere: ingredients composed of non-perishable items like condensed milk; powerful ovens, and utensils and mixing bowls that each of them guarded like a chef would with his or her knives.
Enter the Filipino nurse cake, what I fondly to this day call hostel cake. My sister, now a fully-grown adult herself, smiles with a gleam in her eye and knows exactly what I’m talking about. Her second birthday showing the mega-sized cake my Tita Merlie baked, made her toddler frame look minuscule in the photos of that chaotic day in May of 1990.
But in addition to having the right stuff to make the cakes, they also had a strong business system. These women were the OG Talabat or any food delivery app, whose only form of telecommunication was a rotary-dial phone, or a dial-pad one if they were extra fancy. Car phones–cell phones’ ancestors–were only for the super fortunate and rich back then, and most of these nurses didn’t have that luxury. Pagers, let alone text messaging were years away.
Phone trees of landlines existed back then. If Momma couldn’t get a hold of the baker-nurse she would call her friend, who would call the hostel. And not only would the cake be baked on time, but it would be damn perfect. Glitzy chef-show contestants on tv had nothing on these stealthy Filipino baker bots.
The cakes of goodness these nurses created turned me into a mad, wide-eyed sugar monster who shamelessly grabbed free chunks with my bare hands, much to the horror of my mother and our guests at home. But let me tell you, I didn’t care. Flavours I recall include chocolate (my favourite), vanilla, and Ube (purple yam). I want to proudly add that Filipinos have found unlimited ways to concoct dishes–sweet and savoury–using this versatile ingredient. In my books, anyone who can make a freak-of-nature-purple piece of vegetable into delicious ice cream might as well rule the world with a septor with a purple chunk on the end.
The cake–like any–contained three parts: the cake itself, the frosting, and the coloured frosting in which a nurse would use piping to spell out a message. The cake’s moisture was a cross between fudgy and fluffy–something I can barely find in bakeries, even the good ones. It wasn’t a brownie, but it wasn’t a typical (dry) cake. The frosting was the star in this three-component act. It was single-handedly responsible for turning me into a lifelong sugarphile that made Augustus Gloop look tame. It was dense but when dried, retained a certain moist softness that kept it fresh if stored properly. I would take a bite and the piece would hit the roof of my mouth, allowing the coolness to spread, especially refreshing if just taken out of the fridge. Juxtaposed with the fudgy-fluffy cake, I tasted the creamy, semi-liquid cascade of condensed milk–the critical ingredient to achieving its’ unique texture.
It was a product that required mastery through multiple iterations of trial and error –which probably took years. Baking these cakes was a skill that is only achieved through unconscious competence, after going through seemingly-endless frustrating stages of learning.
Decades later, I can say that I’ve travelled to quite a few cities, usually with my sister. We embark on self-guided bakery tours in almost every place we visit – a non-negotiable item permanently etched into our itineraries. Because of these Filipino baker nurses, we became cake snobs, using our discerning eyes as we surveyed a pastry case and then our taste buds to determine whether it was worth the eight-dollar splurge for a tiny piece.
Now that I live in Canada where many Filipinos also live, I come across many who own their bakeries and don’t have to moonlight their skills behind scrubs. I get curious when I see a Filipino bakery owner, and secretly smile if I detect condensed milk in their creations, reminding me of the joys of hostel cake while growing up in Kuwait.