My mom raised me and my siblings on adobo, bitter melon, and sinigang, a sour soup made with tamarind and fish head. As a first-generation immigrant from the Philippines, she basically outlawed anything that didn’t come with white rice or stink like fermented shrimp.
So when I was with my friends, all I wanted to eat was pizza, hot dogs, and burgers. Hot Pockets, that microwavable triumph of the industrial food era, were a natural next step. Like all of the foods I wasn’t allowed to eat, Hot Pockets represented America, to which I so wanted to belong. If you tell your friends at school you like sinigang, they look at you funny. Tell them you like Hot Pockets, though, and you blend right in.
Thing is, I didn’t try Hot Pockets for the first time at my white friend Sean’s house. I didn’t sneak them home, like an issue of Hustler. I found them, hidden behind gallon bags of mung beans and repurposed margarine containers filled with water spinach cooked with salted fish, in the back of my mom’s freezer. Hot Pockets were her secret weapon. As her kids got older and harder to control, and as she got busier trying to deal with us, she needed something that she could feed us if all else failed. Why Hot Pockets? My guess is they were on sale. The only thing my mom was more passionate about than force-feeding us shrimp paste was finding a good deal.
To eat what, to me, seemed like a pepperoni pizza-filled egg roll in my own home felt revolutionary. I flipped my shit the moment my teeth crashed through the flaky crust and a glorious sludge of meat and cheese scalded my tongue. I loved it both for what it signified and for how it tasted. No matter the filling—ham and cheese, Philly cheesesteak, whatever’s in those wack-ass Lean Pockets—I loved them more than ThunderCats and Michael Jordan combined.
Then one day, I didn’t. I still had affection for them. I had fond memories of eating them. Yet whenever I ate one, it just, well, sucked. For a while, I gave up on them. I went to culinary school. I worked in fancy kitchens. I was busy cutting carrots into brunoise, perfecting velouté, and nurturing my creativity (and making some really bad food in the process). When I opened Talde, in Brooklyn, I ditched fine dining and embraced reimagined versions of the foods I loved as a kid. I combined lo mein and the classic American roast-chicken dinner (carrots, celery, thyme, etc.). I merged my two favorite breakfast foods—ramen and buttered toast—steeping the fat-soaked bread into a Japanese-y broth. And I revisited the Hot Pocket, setting out to improve it, but not by so much that it lost the qualities that the tenth grader in me had loved. The result is one of my proudest achievements as a cook.
Now, in my kitchen, Hot Pocket is a verb, not a noun. When I tell my cooks to Hot-Pocket something, they know I mean to encase that something—whether it’s a Greek omelet, the elements of pepperoni pizza, or Chinese-style roast pork and cabbage—in flaky dough. I Hot-Pocket, and so can you.
The secret is in the dough. Today I will reveal that secret to the world. Don’t worry, you don’t have to make dough. That would just be wrong, since the Hot Pocket is what you look to when you want a hot meal without a big deal. All you need is a package of plain roti paratha (also spelled “roti prata” and known as roti canai), an oily flatbread adapted by Malaysian and Singaporean cooks from the Indian original. You’ll spot it in freezer section of Southeast Asian markets and some Indian markets, and online. I use the ubiquitous Kawan brand. Because the wrapping process is basically the same whatever filling you come up with, you’ll be prepared to experiment as soon as you make the pepperoni-pizza version you see here.