Introducing Filipino cuisine to Ukrainian kids (my FIRST TIME making yema!)

I had never made yema before. 

Yes, that’s right, and I know it might revoke my Filipino card, but my palms had never molded the sweet and sticky blend of egg yolks, butter and condensed milk wrapped in colorful cellophane. 

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For anybody unfamiliar with yema, it’s a Filipino confectionary made with eggs, milk and sometimes sugar. It’s very popular among Filipino kids because of its sweet custard taste. Photo from Panlasang Pinoy who also provided our yema recipe.

Yet there I was, standing in front of six kids in Ukraine telling them how to make yema balls. 

How did I get here? Simple. 

I was tired of being stuck quarantined in Kazakhstan, living in an all-too familiar culture where I wasn’t growing anymore. The excitement had been easily robbed, local phrases rolled naturally from my tongue and the views of each city I wanted to head to were painted in my mind right before I even arrived: the drab utilitarian Soviet apartments stacked next to each other, a street named after the country’s first president, boosted bass music blasting from the flashy cars of citizens with meager salaries, supermarket chains standing proudly next to mom-and-pop shops, colorful mosaics depicting regional scenes adorning the dreary-colored brutalist buildings. 

I had been almost everywhere in the country, and I wasn’t making new memories. Worst of all, I had already opened their intricately ornamented closets and found felt-clad skeletons hanging lifelessly, bearing the people’s jarring individualism, their apathy, their blind worship of marriage and money. 

I needed to get out. The place I was heading to needed to fit the following requirements: 

  • Its borders must be open despite COVID-19, and it must have more relaxed lockdown regulations. 
  • It must offer an opportunity to stay longer than a month or until the majority of the land borders open the world is already declared safe for travel. This would mean finding work, volunteering or securing a digital nomad visa.  
  • It needed to lie Westward on the way to Europe from Asia. 
  • There must be a way to obtain temporary residency so I can fulfill my ultimate dream of visiting Schengen states without having to head home and applying for a visa in the Philippines. After all, if I was getting stuck somewhere again, I might as well use that time to save up and turn this dream into a reality. 

As always, the universe listened. I found a post looking for a native English teacher for an alternative school in Ivano-Frankivsk. Everything describing the opportunity was right up my alley: learner-centered education, outdoor learning (with outdoor days every Friday), language immersion, veering away from traditional and democratic school curriculum. The offer threw in free rent and visa assistance and highlighted its proximity to Ukraine’s premier hiking spots.

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First week in Kaizen alternative learning school in Ivano-Frankivsk. Painting with middle schoolers who are trying to build their own city.

So here I was, teaching six kids how to make yema balls in a school kitchen in Ukraine. 

From the look of their faces and how they suddenly grew wings on their feet the moment I announced a cooking activity, I could tell they were excited to finally be doing something for English that’s not on their desks or in their classroom. They’ve been wishing for it for weeks, especially after seeing my crafting with 1st graders, games with 2nd graders and city hangouts with middle school. 

Seeing their joy, I didn’t want to appear in front of them like a fumbling idiot, and as with many things in my life, I just pretended to know what I’m doing, letting the confidence to exude. 

There were three main ingredients: condensed milk, eggs and walnuts (I opted to add this one for a unique twist, thanks Panlasang Pinoy!). The kids could choose from 3 main tasks: opening the can of milk, separating the egg whites from the yolks and crushing the walnuts. 

Naturally, Ustym chose to crush the walnuts. I knew he’d pick the task in a heartbeat, and away he went pounding the pack on the table with Mariana and Maya. I let Maya pick music to cook to, and she chose a Russian pop track she enthusiastically sang to. 

Yara decided to do eggs, and Roman and Zheka chimed in. Roman decided to open the can as well, and he got a tiny cut on his index finger for it, which he washed up and cleaned. He didn’t freak out about it. If anything, he seemed even more interested in what we’re doing and was asking me to write down the yema recipe on his little notebook. 

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Team eggs! My students trying to separate the yolks from the whites.

I found a wooden pestle and silver bowl to replace Ustym’s rolling pin and plastic chopping board. Gripping the tiny timber club, I showed him how to properly crush the walnuts. It wasn’t just about hitting them until they became smaller. It was about firmly pressing them and grinding to make the most minute particles. 

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Egg yolks and condensed milk pre-mix, looks so satisfying and cute

Once the yolks were separated and the walnuts were finely crushed, I asked the kids to put and mix all the ingredients together. I heated butter in the favorite Teflon pan that I brought from home and waited for it to brown a little before pouring our mixture. 

The kids took turns mixing with a wooden spatula. Excited as he was, Roman decided to go first, stepping on a stool to mix the yellow concoction. The other kids patiently waited their turn. 

We waited for our mixture to appear thicker, and part of me was nervous it would fail. I only brought a single set of ingredients, and we still needed 30 minutes for Math, but as Yara was stirring the yellow-turned-browned milk-yolk fusion we saw how compact and sticky it was turning out. The rich aroma of butter raveling with sweet milk filled the kitchen and wafted across the school halls. The kids continued to take turns with the spatula until our yema mixture seemed good enough to mold. We went from this….to THIS!

It already looked and smelled like success to us. 

We let the concoction rest for a while and came back for it at the end of the class for the most exciting part of making yema: wrapping it up and serving. I decided to skip the cellophane, primarily for ecological reasons. I knew the schoolkids would consume it all in a day, and the thin transparent sheet would just be discarded after five to 50 minutes of holding the yema together. It wasn’t a common item in Ukraine either, so it was good to skip scavenging for it in stores. 

Allowing them to be creative with their molds, I told them they can choose to shape their yema into things besides balls. I tried doing the traditional pyramid shapes, but without the cellophane, it was as clean-cut as it should be. Ustym went with flat molds, making the yema appear a little squished. He grinned menacingly at how different his creations appeared. The others decided to stick to balls, stacking some of them on each other to form what appeared like the bodies of little yema snowmen. Their hands were swift, and soon, we had two plates filled with yema balls for everyone in school. 

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Some molding action

I beamed and breathed a sigh of relief. The recipe didn’t fail, and we didn’t raze the kitchen to the ground. Most importantly, the kids had so much fun. 

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TA-DA! Yema balls, our finished product!

“So when can we eat the candy?” Mariana asked for the nth time that day. By the door, the first graders were already lining up for snack time. 

“Sorry but you have to wait for everyone to have their breaks,” I replied. “The 2nd graders also want some yema balls.” 

They all looked bummed. Waiting meant later in the afternoon after all classes, a few hours more till they can savor the sweet sticky goodness standing on the countertop, begging them to take a bite. 

But who was I to prolong their agony? I’d do the same for their synyrky. Frankly, I would die for syrnyky. I called them aside. In a whisper and with a wink, I told them steathily, “But you can get a head start. Take one each. It’ll be our little secret.” 

They all raced to the countertop, eyeing the biggest balls. As I looked at them take a bite out of the brown beads—eyes widening at the sugary explosion filling their mouths—and as I snuck a piece of my own, I heard the marching band blowing trumpets from a distance. The kitchen ceiling grew to houses with balconies and barred windows connected by strings of colorful banderitas. A troupe clad in vibrant imbel moved to heavy drumbeats and the high-pitched ringing of xylophones. Food was spread on tables on the street, nestled on banana leaves as they waited to be paired with white rice, dipped in spicy soy sauce or sour vinegar and scooped up with the hands of the hungry happy folk.

Kids were running swiftly on the streets in flip-flops, chasing each other and looking for a street side stall that sold yema, only they looked too familiar, and their fair skins stood out from the sea of sun-kissed ones.

*photos of the kids are either hidden or blurred for ethical and professional reasons

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