Before my mother went to work as a medical technologist in Saudi Arabia in 1991, she made handwritten lists of things my younger brother and I should always do and remember in her absence, and posted them on our closet and bedroom doors. “Eat your vegetables”, “Don’t stay up late”, and “Always follow your father” were some of my absent mother’s favorites. As the eldest, I had my own set of lists concerning my younger brother. The little git was my responsibility. I was to mind him, set an example. He was starting elementary school and was two years younger than me. I was nine when my mother left. The Gulf War was beginning.
Between my parents, my mother was the intelligent, levelheaded one and her absence left my father clueless on even mundane, everyday things. She knew that he would stumble, which he did, magnificently, hence the lists.
For all her intuition on household disasters, my mother did not leave lists of the foods we liked nor her recipes for our kitchen-challenged Dad. Thus, for almost two years, my brother and I were stranded in a gastronomic hell. Nietzsche and the motivational speakers were right: what won’t kill you will make you stronger. Or, as in my case, will force you to venture into the kitchen and take charge.
My father, like most fathers, had very little idea of how to raise kids. There were times when he woke us late for school or failed to leave enough lunch money. Once, he miscalculated my tuition fee and if not for the last-minute help from family friends, I would have been a third-grade dropout. Fortunately, like other kids with overseas Filipino workers (OFW) for parents, an army of cousins, aunts, and close neighbors often looked in on us and reminded our father that we needed to take vitamins, that a visit to the dentist should be scheduled, and that we had outgrown our uniforms.
But I forgive my father for his faltering parental skills; he was a man unmoored. But fathers, being what they are, should be fluent on even the basic needs of their children. My father, the poor, clueless man, made us eat the most disgusting foods. We felt like we were being experimented on. It was unforgivable. I probably could take consolation had the dishes he prepared been nutritious. But my father liked to sprinkle MSG (monosodium glutamate) seasoning on our meals. MSG imparts umami, that full-bodied flavor that gives depth to a dish. And according to some studies, it also increases the risk of cancer.
Aside from feeding us poison, my father used to pack us pinapaitan for lunch. People actually feel sorry for me when they hear that I, as a nine year old, had to eat cold pinapaitan on an almost daily basis. To be able to eat pinapaitan requires developing an “acquired taste”. A lot of people find pinapaitan a bit disgusting, and some can eat it only with their eyes closed. It is a soup made of coarsely chopped beef gizzards, tripe, and other internal organs that I assumed, even though I wasn’t a squeamish kid, were better for me not to know. But no matter how finely chopped they were, one could always identify the unpleasant ingredients. That small, curved bit of meat, for instance, was enough of a clue for me to realize that what I was eating was the intestines of a cow. Another ingredient in pinapaitan is called tuwalya, the Filipino word for “towel”, because the meat looks exactly like the surface of a weathered, unwashed towel rubbed hard against charcoal.
The soup is flavored with chili and bile, thus the name “pinapaitan”, from the root word pait or bitter. Because of the nature of the food and its ingredients, it is not something that makes a regular appearance at dinner tables. But men who think they’re macho enough to handle it profess a love for it. Shirtless, sweaty, drunk men neck-deep in a pissing contest invariably have a bowl of pinapaitan in front of them. The stuff fuels their braggadocio, I’m sure.
I don’t mean to diss the dish. When piping hot, the soup can be delicious, a comforting balance of bitterness and the robust essence of beef, with the chili hotness kicking in at the last minute when the broth is midway down the throat. But when left in a Tupperware lunch box for too long, it doesn’t look appetizing. It emits a pungent smell, and the broth resembles garbage water. Nothing looks more like dead meat than a pinapaitan left in the cold. The revolting thing had a positive effect though: it was upon seeing the mass congealed like a moldy jell-o in my lunch box that I swore to myself that, when it comes to food, I would no longer be at other people’s mercy. I would learn how to cook.
I always knew that I had a certain degree of culinary inclination. I was always messing around the kitchen during fiestas. Eating has always been a favorite pastime, and I enjoy reading recipe books. (People who claim to be failures in the kitchen give up too easily. Next time, read the instructions more carefully). By the time I hit my tweens, I could do the grocery shopping and haggle at the market. Since I was a kid who haggled sweetly, preferential treatment came easily. The loose change from the grocery budget went directly to my pocket so I made sure that I got discounts.
When I hit the double-digit age, I was able to cook my own meals. I think the first dish I was able to master was the adobo. The dish is a no-brainer and pairs well with rice. It is also considered a national dish and everyone’s number one comfort food. Anywhere you go in the Philippines, which has about a hundred dialects, adobo is adobo. Because it is slow-cooked in vinegar and spices, adobo travels well and can stay at room temperature for days. It’s a source of pride, a crowd-pleaser, the food an expatriate Filipino would cook to show off to foreign friends. Filipinos who go abroad smuggle with them glass jars of the good stuff hidden under layers of clothes. It’s versatile. It can be refried or used as sandwich filling. Like other popular foods, adobo recipes vary from one province to another, from one family to another. An uncle puts sugar in his recipe and his adobo dish. Others put coconut milk. I like mine with a chili or two.
My initial culinary experiences were a series of hits and misses. Cooking was a necessity and part of my responsible sister act. Over the years I got better at it, and the dishes became more complicated. My brother Denz, whether he liked it or not, became the guinea pig during the experimental years. He suffered the disastrous choco crinkles and the white bread that refused to rise. His stomach must be made of iron; not once did he ever get sick for all my “experiments”.
It never occurred to us to rush to the fast foods when we were feeling like fickle brats. We lived in the suburbs, a then-undeveloped part of the city, so a visit to the fast food restaurant would take us an hour to get to, at the least. It wasn’t worth the trip, my mother thought. My mother was very health conscious; she frowned on candies and chocolates, and kept us away from manufactured grease until we were old enough to succumb to its glossy ads and demand it.
When we were in college and spent most of our time at schools (I actually had to move out), my mother worried about our fast food consumption. She believed that all the oil and preservatives were responsible for my brother’s unstoppable teenage acne. I ate a lot of fast food then, but I never really enjoyed it. Despite the antiseptic surroundings, fast food joints always have that stale, unidentifiable smell that hits you like a blast when you enter the establishment. I also felt guilty every time I entered a McDonalds or its local equivalent, Jollibee. It was a time when obesity and 21st century corporate farm practices were being recognized as global problems. As if that weren’t enough, there were also the persistent stories and pictures circulating in the emails of genetically enhanced chickens with four feet said to be bred by this giant fast food chain that has, hands down, the best gravy for its kind.
In the early ‘90s, it was still possible for Filipino parents to shield their children from all that grease. These days, I am not so sure. There are more fast foods now, the mall culture has gripped the nation, and the advertisers (and the fast food firms) have become more aggressive, insinuating themselves even in tragedies. When a mudslide covered a small farming village in the province of Southern Leyte last month, the Defense Secretary announced that donations could be coursed through McDonalds.
The fact that I had a demanding, chubby little brat for a brother actually made cooking enjoyable. Looking back, I realized that my feelings towards the kitchen and cooking in general had some anarchic quality to it. The cookbook was there for suggestion. I approached cooking with dollops of gumption and a certain sense of adventure. What would happen if I add some more sugar? Surely, chicken can substitute for pork? Why doesn’t my banana-apricot bread resemble the picture in the cookbook?!
Traditionally, the kitchen is off-limits to kids, but in our case, my brother and I made it our territory. We were kids, yes, but we could impress and surprise the adults. We could reject the food they served us and cook our own. No more cold pinapaitan for lunch! We were independent.
Cooking was also an exercise in remembrance of our absent mother. We missed her, but other kids’ parents were also leaving. In a country that sends hundreds of thousands of Filipinos overseas to work as nurses, engineers, cooks, teachers, and domestic helpers, single-parent households are common. (At present, there are about eight million OFWs scattered around the globe). There was nothing special about our situation.
But the absence of a parent is always cataclysmic. Sure, some OFW kids survive the experience relatively unscathed, with no permanent damage done. Some kids have accepted the fact that sooner or later one of the parents will have to leave. Half of the 10 families on my street had been an OFW household at some point over the years. One neighbor did not see his three children grow up, having left his job in the Middle East only when the youngest finished high school. Another set of siblings have only seen their mother once for the past five years, and had been living under the care of their harried grandmother who suffers from high blood pressure.
Fortunately for us, my own mother left us long enough for us to learn what she calls “life skills” but not too long as for us feel the need to rebel over her absence and experience the social costs of the OFW phenomenon. In the kitchen, we always had our mother in mind. We’d try to replicate her dishes and use her techniques. Back then, and even now, I use my hands when separating the yolk from the egg white. When making pancit, a stir-fry noodle dish of Chinese origins, I cook the vegetables separately, just like my mother.
Almost two years after she left, my mother came back in one piece. Life returned to normal and lunches and dinners became satisfying again. I ceased being ashamed or fearful anymore of the contents of my lunchbox. The pleasant surprise in all of this was the change in my brother. Somehow, he took a lot of interest in cooking. He watches Rachel Ray’s shows and Molto Mario. There is even talk of him attending cooking classes.
Last night, I got home late and was hungry. But I didn’t open a tin nor make one of those preservatives-laden just-add-boiled-water noodle meals that could be found in college dorms anywhere. There was lasagna waiting for me, which my brother made from scratch. (I taught him how to make pasta dough: one cup flour, one egg, pinch of salt, a sprinkle of water if the dough’s too dry). It was pretty good. He can do the laundry, iron his clothes, cook meals . . . he’ll be all right. Unless he knocks up some girl and denies it, or commits a heinous crime. But as it is, I think I can claim that I did right by him. Maybe all I’ll have to worry about is the possible effects of that blasted MSG.