By Wilson Lee Flores
(Honorable Mention in the 2020 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award)
ALTHOUGH I grew up in a lower middle-class family, with our widowed mother having to eke out a hardscrabble life for us, her two children, via her teaching and also her sideline of tutoring rich kids at our small, rented apartment unit in Quezon City, which was just a few minutes’ walk from school, my younger sister and I nevertheless had a blissful childhood because mom showered us with boundless love and she cooked so exceedingly well.
Among mom’s best foods were pork and beef dishes which she had braised, broiled, stewed, fried, boiled, slow-cooked, blanched, or barbecued based on the rich traditions of the Philippines, the Hokkien region (the southern part of Fujian province in southeast China, centered near ancient port city of Quanzhou, pronounced as “Chuanchow”), Spain, or a fusion of these three in fascinating eclectic degrees. Below are some of her foods, as lovingly remembered by me and my sister.
Mom used to adeptly cook adobo in the Filipino style — with vinegar, various spices (bay leaves, garlic, black peppercorns) and with her adding pineapple juice. Though adobo is usually pork, mom also cooked it well with chicken and hard-boiled eggs, chicken liver, chicken with pork, squid, vegetables like kangkong (water spinach) or sitaw (yardlong beans).
Pre-colonial Filipinos were already preserving foods using vinegar and salt, despite the dish name coming from the Spanish colonizers’ word “adobar” or “marinade.” This is most likely another case of “lexical imperialism,” a term used by American food historian and journalist Raymond Sokolov. Can we rediscover the original pre-colonial name for this beloved Filipino dish?
Mom also told us early Chinese traders and migrants had contributed to the evolution of the unofficial Filipino national food, adobo, by bringing here the ancient Chinese invention of soy sauce, which is called “toyo” in the Filipino language and originating from the Hokkien or south Fujian term “taw-yu.”
One of my favorites from mom’s vast repertoire of almost magical concoctions was her Chinese-style adobo. She called it “loba” or “loma” in Hokkien. It is savory and sweet, different from her cooking of Filipino-style adobo because it didn’t have vinegar. This dish had additional ingredients like mushrooms, oyster sauce, soy sauce, star anise, chives, some drops of sesame oil, and black fungus which mom called “oh bok-ni” in Hokkien and which she said is called in Filipino as “tenga ng daga” or “rat’s ear.” Mom explained that according to traditional Chinese medicine, the delicious oh bok-ni is healthy, beneficial for better blood circulation, and can help lessen chances of stroke or heart problems. Wow!
Our mom also had her own inimitable version of pata tim. She told us this dish is another “yummy contribution of Chinese migrants to the rich diversity of Filipino cuisine.” Mom’s pata tim was almost similar to “paksiw na pata,” except that it had no vinegar. It had a heavenly smell during slow cooking, which my younger sister said was due to pork mixing with sesame oil and star anise. My sister also recalled that Mom first roasted the pork hock, before the next step of slow cooking in low heat.
“Pata” comes from the Spanish word for “leg,” while I believe “tim” comes from the Hokkien word “tim” or cooking food in a vessel within another vessel half filled with water.
Other unforgettable, wondrous pork and beef dishes which mom cooked well included pork or beef sinigang (sour soup); pork menudo (with liver stewed in tomato sauce); pork bistek (cooked in marinade of calamansi and soy sauce); fried porkchop, the healthy pork rib bone soup with radish or “makut theng”; bulalo or beef stew slow-cooked (with or without sibut or “four herbs” called “gu-ma theng”); braised beef noodle soup; kare-kare (ox tail with vegetables in a peanut stew); goto or cow tripe (from the Hokkien words “gu” for “cow or beef” and “to” for “tripe”); pork kidney misua or “yochi misua” (wheat noodles); stir-fried pork kidney or “cha yochi”; stir-fried pork liver or “cha ti kwa”; pork liver misua or “ti kwa misua”; pork siomai (dumpling); mechado (stew of larded beef); sweet and sour pork; shredded pork with tausi (fermented black beans); humba (from the Hokkien name “hongba” or red braised pork belly); tito or pork tripe (from the Hokkien words “ti” for “pork” and “to” for “tripe”); machang or savory sticky rice dumpling with pork belly and mushroom (a long process of overnight marination, then three hours final cooking); maki mi (soup with meat and noodles); taosi spareribs (cooked with fermented black beans); lumpiang Shanghai (fried spring roll with pork meat); pork asado (simmered in several Chinese ingredients); Ilocano pinakbet (vegetable stew); and many others.
Our cramped, rented apartment in Quezon City had a very small kitchen with only a scrawny forlorn gas stove, a sink, a refrigerator, and fraying, worn-out wooden cabinets atop the stove. However, under our mother as culinary wizard, that lowly kitchenette came alive as an enchanting place where meager portions of livestock, veggies, fishes, and spices were somehow concocted with love and resourcefulness into fragrant, zestful and delightfully sublime dishes.
THE DOREEN Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award (DGF Award) recently announced the winners of the 2020 competition. The subject matter was “Livestock,” which, in the Philippines refers to cattle, pigs, goats, carabaos, and horses. The DGF Award is now in its 19th year. Named after the late dean of food writers, Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, it was founded to encourage writers to contribute to Philippine food literature. The winning essays of the first 15 years have been published in two books — Savor the Word and Sangkap.