Cooking in the family

By Alex C. Delos Santos

Lunch on Sundays is always a nostalgic affair. Having left my parent's home for more than seven years, and dwelled in apartments in the city, I long for that time when on the dining table, I sat with the family before a steaming bowl of tinola, the green of the boiled papaya contrasting with the yellowish flesh of native chicken, and we children quarreled over who got the liver. My father would calm us down, saying he will raise chickens with five livers so that each one will have a share. Meanwhile, he would scoop the gizzard and assign it to my mother's plate - no one would like to have it because it's rubbery. Now, having just risen from a long Saturday night, I sit before my dining table - bare except for the Sunday magazines that remain unread - waiting for the water to boil so I can cook my instant noodles. Fine.

I will always remember Sunday lunches of my childhood. It's the only meal of the week when everybody's home. Sometimes my father would cook, because my mother, who, I suspect, just wanted to stay out of the kitchen, was rinsing her laundry (she bleaches the white school uniforms on Saturdays, and rinses them on Sunday after mass; she's quite meticulous when it comes to her laundry). His specialty dish is sweet-sour fish, a sure hit among us. It is a recipe I can duplicate from memory, but it needs plenty of fresh medium ripe tomatoes, a perfect sense of proportion - just the exact amount of vinegar, sugar and salt - and proper timing - wait for the correct consistency of the sauce - and good luck so you don’t burn the fish.

Once he did fish balls. He ended up quarelling with my mother, because she insisted that the fish be boiled first, while he wanted it the fast way: chop the fish, mix with the spices and bread crumbs, make them into balls, and fry. He had his way of course, and we had great tasting fish balls, I remember, but my mother refused to taste it. His other dish was calf's brain sauteed with tomatoes, onions and eggs, but he usually did it for breakfast. The first time it was served to us, we dared not touch it. My older sister warned me it was brains ("and you'll never know who's brains they are," she said), but ever the gourmand, I just pretend it was all scrambled eggs; it's all light-yellow stuff anyway. It was delicious. My sisters followed me, and it became a breakfast delicacy. We couldn't have it often because in a small town like San Jose de Buenavista, Antique, only one cow is slaughtered a day, so only one household can have the brains for a meal.

Oh, of course, the ultimate Father's Dish was "corned" chicken adobo. This one's for supper. But this was not a happy meal because what we would actually be eating was my father's rooster that lost a fight. He would cook it himself, because my mother wouldn't touch the dead fowl. We would leave him alone in the kitchen to dress his prized fighter, and boil it for hours until the meat loosen from the bones. While he was cooking, he'd ask one of us to buy him a bottle of beer to nurse his broken heart.

My mother didn’t cook very often, leaving the business to the maid - when we still had one - or to my older sister - when she was old enough to cook. But when she did cook, we were all waiting at the dining table as soon as the rice had boiled. She had mastered the tinola, which, unlike the Tagalog tinola, doesn’t use paminta ( black pepper) at all. Hers has only the gentle bite of ginger, the pungency of boiled dahon ng sili (pepper leaves), and the subtle aroma of green papaya in the stew. She told me the secret starts in the sauteing - "tinlag" she calls it. Wait until the chicken is fully sauteed before pouring the water in. It puts out the flavor for the broth.

Her adobong baboy is something I crave, except that I've made a vow not to eat pork (although I fail, sometimes). It is simmered until it's almost dry - even the fat - but it's not burnt. She said she learned it the traditional way: adobo, a way to preserve pork, should be rid of moisture to make it last more than a week. The longer it lasts, the tastier it becomes. On our birthdays, she prepares, and still does, the best-tasting pancit bihon (no atsuete, please). If something goes wrong, she blames the noodles of poor quality.

My older sister cooks the best pinangat, which may be the Karay-a version of langka ensalada, but not quite. Hers has eggs in it; the soup of coconut milk a pale yellow to orange, with just a bite of katumbal (chili). It’s a tedious recipe, but she does all from selecting and slicing the langka, to grating the coconut.

The langka is the perhaps the most versatile ingredient. Common fare, not only on our family table but in most Antiqueño tables, is KBL. This is not a political dish, but short for kadyos, langka, baboy. Kadyos is black, round beans, not very common in Manila. When I found some in a market in Pasig, I cooked this in a friend's house. I did not quite get the beans to a perfect tender, but my friend enjoyed it just the same. It is best to use pork pata (legs), and the langka should be neither ripe nor very young. The brownish red soup is heavenly. KBL is so popular it is still preferred even alongside more saucy (and fatty) dishes on fiesta tables. Another langka dish I know has beef , mongo, and gata. In bleaker days, beef can be substituted with baog (dilis) or pinakas (daing). Even boiled langka and panga (head of tuna) can be sumptuous, when soured with batwan, another rare entry in Manila. Batwan is a roundish green fruit, often preserved in brine. This is a favorite souring agent in Antique; sampaloc, manggang hilaw or bayabas, are almost never used. In one fiesta I attended in the barrio, they used langka as extender in dinuguan, and I couldn’t tell it from the pork.

My first significant contribution to the family meal was fried eggs, sunny side up. I cooked the best-looking fried eggs, because I didn’t break the yolk (well, unless the egg is stale). I became the official egg-frier for breakfast. I also introduced canned sardines with scrambled eggs when I tired of plain sauteed sardines and tomatoes. They also lauded my escabecheng lamayo (tuyo coated with a syrup of vinegar and sugar), though only for a while - it’s hard to clean the frying pan with all the hardened syrup stuck in it. It was actually pulutan I learned from La Padang, a friend’s maid. Later, when I became more experimental with my cooking, my sister objected whenever I volunteered to cook. She had always been the conservative in the family. Her only dish I consider inventive is fish embutido with strips of buko, something she learned in summer cooking class at the trade school. I was relegated to frying, maybe because I am brave enough to face the oil spraying from the pan.

An unforgettable dish is ground beef with kalabasa (squash) and alugbati leaves. I always look forward to having this on the dining table everytime I go home. This is the only kalabasa dish I ate, before I discovered ginataang kalabasa - my land lady’s specialty - in the college dorm, and pinakbet.

Something I’ve learned in Manila is sinigang na baboy, of course, with the aid of prepared tamarind broth packs from the supermarkets. When I first introduced this on the family menu in one of my vacations, they liked the soup but complained the pork was rubbery. I learned only later that the souring ingredient should be added in only after the meat or vegetable is tender. The other dishes I’ve learned from a friend I shared an apartment with are deep fried beefsteak and beef pot roast (huge chunks of beef in tomato sauce), but I’d never do these without a pressure cooker. Another dish I believe I’ve invented, and which my sisters loved, is chicken curry barbeque. Use frozen whole chicken straight from the freezer, put it in a dutch oven or deep non-stick pan, put ginger strips, onions wedges, and garlic cloves, sprinkle curry powder and barbeque spice, leave covered and allow to thaw, preferably overnight. Cook the chicken in low fire, letting it fry in its own fat, turning it from time to time to get an even golden brown. This can take from 45 minutes to an hour. After putting off the stove, leave the pan covered for another 15 to 30 minutes. This will cook the chicken tender to the bone, and seal in the flavor.

The biggest cooking secret I’ve learned is time. In whatever I am cooking, be it fried eggs or menudo, time plays a very important role, because there is a great deal of waiting involved. Never rush: wait until the yolk has stabilized before lifting it from the pan; wait until the sauce has thickened; wait until the beans are tender; wait until rice has boiled and cooked in steam; and so on. Even as I cook instant noodles, I have to cover it and wait at least three minutes before I can really enjoy my lunch.

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