Tuesday, June 9, 2009

food thoughts

This month, my book club is going gourmand, with the theme Philippine food and culture. We're supposed to read a book about food, but not to confuse it with a cookbook. It took me a while to pick out what to read because I was on a budget, I didn't want to spend on a title I wasn't sure I'd enjoy, and because 4 out of 5 food books in the bookstores ARE cookbooks. After browsing through shelves and shelves of books and salivating over more than a few cover photos, I finally settled on Tikim , a collection of essays on, serendipitously--- Philippine food and culture--- by Doreen G. Fernandez. It proved to be a very interesting read. Her essays on the durian farms of Davao, on Philippine wines, on shrimps in Manobo folktales and as part of our culture, on haute and indigenous cuisine, and on the influence of flavors of foreign origin on Philippine cooking are as entertaining as they are informative. Her descriptions of the typical Filipino kitchen, of the centerpiece on a fiesta table, of noche buena traditions, and of dipping sauces or sawsawan evoke nostalgia, filling me with vivid memories of past Christmases, ambrosial tastes and smells, shared experiences with loved ones while preparing to cook a meal...
I only just realized that a lot of my childhood memories revolve around food. We used to live in a house with a spacious yard littered with plants and trees of different kinds. We had roses, orchids, santan, calachuchi, poinsettia, sampaguita, ylang-ylang and other plants I can no longer identify. Throughout the year, the garden yielded papaya, langka, dayap, macopa, chesa, coconut, starapple, mulberry, kamias, guava, tanglad and siling labuyo. The most assiduous in producing were the coconut trees in the front yard, and it really is the Tree of Life. I learned how to be handy with a knife very early on because I was tasked to trim the leafy part off the twigs of a huge palapa to make walis-tingting. The coconut shells were left to dry in the sun, and later used to feed fire or as parikit when grilling. When the fruits were in abundance, my mother went wild with gata, cooking anything whose recipe called for it: kalamay, cassava, guinataang halo-halo, kanduli with gata, guinataang kalabasa and sitaw,guinataang mais or monggo, puto maya cooked in gata and topped with shredded coconut and sugar just before serving, biko, adobo sa gata, and creamy pastillas you scoop out of a jar.Though I sometimes hated being asked to help out in the kitchen, especially when I would rather be reading or doodling away quietly in one corner, I generally enjoyed riding the small kabayo to grate the coconuts. It made me feel special, as if the kabayo contraption had been designed for me, being just the right size for a child. It was tedious work to squeeze milk out of the grated coconut flesh: my 8-year old force wasn't strong enough. But when I managed to coax out the thick, creamy liquid, the feeling of triumph was unparalleled. When my mother extracted oil from the coconut milk over low fire, I loved the smell until the latik
started to form. At that point, it gave off such a strong fragrance that stuck to the walls of the house--- though not really unpleasant, it smelled thick and hot and oily and invasive--- that I had to resist the urge to gag. I've since learned to love latik, especially on sapin-sapin and biko, but the fragrance still affects me; more out of memory than its actual smell.

My sister told me that most of her memories are associated with smells: the pungency of newly-cut grass, the smell the parched earth exuded when it drizzles, oil of wintergreen on an aching body part, my lola's signature scent which Ate Alma remembers as a mingling of fresh laundry and Ivory soap. Most of my own are kitchen smells. When, unexpectedly, a familiar kitchen smell wafts through the air and beckons--- I succumb, and return to the time when life was simple and without care, food was uncomplicated and nourishing, and I was young and contented.


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