Remembrance of meals past

My mother would have turned 85 last week.  Instead of visiting her grave at Himlayang Pilipino, where she lies buried beside my father’s bones, I chose to go home to Betis, where she cared and cooked for a husband and thirteen children.  When she died in 2000, we restored our house as a tribute to our parents’ patience and selflessness, and as a diary of our childhood.

On her birthday, I went to her room and looked at the pictures and clothes she left behind.  I went to the kitchen and sat alone before the gleaming narra dining table, but I could neither see nor imagine her in any of them.  Her memory, I surmised, resides not in the things we could touch or see.  She lives, most of all, in our taste buds.

When I began to think of the meals she cooked for us, her presence became all at once palpable.  At eight in the morning last Saturday, I felt a sudden yearning for kilayin, a type of pork adobo laden with lots of pig’s liver and other organs.  Naturally, we didn’t have it in the house. The help had started to fry some eggs and slices of Spam for breakfast.  It didn’t seem right, I thought: the smell of food wafting from the kitchen collided with my reminiscence.  All through my childhood, I never had Spam for breakfast.

So off I rode to the neighboring town of San Fernando where some restaurants have kept alive elements of the local food tradition. At Holiday Land, they were still serving breakfast fare, but the kitchen was busy preparing the lunch buffet for the day.  I asked if I could order an early lunch from the range of buffet dishes.  They showed me what they had, and sure enough, there was kilayin.  It was all I wanted, with freshly boiled rice and coffee.

The meal was excellent, but it lacked something that, I realized later, could only be supplied by time.  The kilayin that my mother served at breakfast was almost always a few days old, left over from a previous meal.  This was a dish that improved in taste as it aged.  My mother would send it to me in a well-sealed bottle during my early years in UP, when I had to struggle with the relentless monotony of cafeteria food.

We did not have a refrigerator at home then.  By necessity, therefore, almost all the meals we took were freshly cooked.  The occasional meat dishes, served sparingly and stretched out to a couple of days by my frugal mother, had to be of the type that would not easily spoil. Invariably they had to be vinegar-based, like adobo, dinuguan, kilayin.

My mother would sometimes buy half of a pig’s head.  She would carefully take out the brain, dip it in eggs and flour, and fry it, assuring us that this protein-rich dish would enhance our retentive powers. She would trim the fatty layers of skin around the neck, slowly fry it to extract the lard, and put it aside to flavor some vegetable dishes. She would then boil the entire thing until the skin turned luminous. Parts of it – the ears with the soft crunchy cartilage and the cheek went into a clear sisig laced with nipa vinegar, red onions, red chilies, and crushed black pepper.  The meaty parts, the snout, and everything else were chopped and mixed with fresh pig’s blood and then simmered in vinegar.  We call it tidtad (chopped); elsewhere, it is known as dinuguan.

But we were mostly raised on fish and vegetables.  The bangus or milkfish was our staple fish.  Frying it was the quickest, and my mother made sure no part was wasted.  She meticulously dug out the intestines of the fish, washed them, and deep-fried them separately. Fish broth, sweet-soured with guavas and lightly salted with one or two pieces of tuyo or dried fish, remains etched in my gastronomic memory.  We call it bulanglang; elsewhere it is known as sinigang sa bayabas.

My favorite bangus dish, however, the rough equivalent of Marcel Proust’s madeleine cookie, the one taste that he says “takes shape in the memory alone” so that it is never easy to recreate it, is the simple grilled milkfish.  My mother’s way was to stuff its belly with a mixture that is a separate dish in itself – chopped pork, red onions, ginger, garlic, pepper, fresh bagoong (shrimp paste), and the young fragrant leaves of the tangle plant.  The fish is then wrapped in banana leaves and slowly grilled over charcoal.

Even this was already special.  We grew up on the most simple but equally memorable dishes.  After a rainy night, we would pick mushrooms from the banana clumps in our yard.  My mother would put the umbrella mushrooms in a small bowl of water, add a little salt, and place the bowl inside the rice pot when the rice is nearly done. The outcome is a light consommé that preserves the earthy taste of this edible fungus.

On stormy days, my mother would serve us a quick broth that is as delicate as anything special I associate with her kitchen.  It is a broth based on the lowly tinapa (smoked fish).  The tinapa is lightly sautéed in garlic, onions, and lots of tomatoes.  Water is added and the dish is brought to a boil.  Before it is served, a beaten egg is added, and then the whole steaming bowl is covered with the young leaves of the ampalaya.  The result is a symphony of three basic tastes: the seasaltiness of smoked fish, the subtle sourness of a yellow tomato, and a hint of ampalaya bitterness.

I don’t know how such dishes came about, but though they have vanished from our tables, they remain vivid in our mouths.  Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006) calls them “ritual meals (that) link us to our history along multiple lines – family, religion, landscape, nation, and, if you want to go back much further, biology.”


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