Returning to My Father’s Kitchen
I take solace in knowing how to make my father’s chicken adobo, because when he died in 2017, it was one of the many dishes he had made for us that wasn’t lost to us forever with his sudden passing. Fate gave him no opportunity to prepare us for his departure; if it did, he would have written down all the recipes he knew, stocked up our pantry with all the essentials, and left instructions for my mother on where to find his designated sukis, or vendors who had earned his loyalty at the public market, for the choicest eggs, rice, fish, and meat. He would have shown my mother how to find the freshest fish, and how to prepare a native Filipino chicken for a luscious tinola soup. He wasn’t the kind of father who would leave his family in the lurch—he had taken on the responsibility of caring for us, and it was a role he wouldn’t readily abandon.
But none of us knew that death would come to him as early as it did. Even he didn’t know what awaited him as he prepared merienda, or afternoon tea, for my mother and himself an hour before he died. I cannot depend on my mother to remember what they had for merienda that afternoon, and I cannot force her to remember the details of the saddest day of her life. My guess is that he made his favorite hot chocolate by melting unsweetened tablea in boiling water, and whenever I imagine this, I am brought back to afternoons spent inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of pure native chocolate as my father stirred the thickening beverage in its pot. Chocolate was good for the heart, he told my mother, and since she suffered from hypertension, he was always worried about her heart.
He watched what we ate so closely that we never expected him to die of a heart attack.
My father used chicken breasts for his adobo because it was the leanest meat of a chicken, and before he soaked the meat in a mixture of soy sauce and calamansi juice, he’d peel off its skin, trimming away whatever fat remained clinging to its flesh. “The skin is where the cholesterol is concentrated,” my father said, ever conscious of his health, as well as ours. Two years after his death, I find myself trimming away whatever fat the butcher has failed to cut away from the breast, a habit I’ve formed from years of conforming to my father’s admonitions against the dangers of fat while preparing his version of this dish far away from home. It may not have saved him, and it may not save me either, and yet I slice off these tiny bits of fat, feeling enshrouded by a familiar sense of safety as I follow my father’s instructions. Any deviation, at this point, would feel like a betrayal.
I first learned how to make my father’s adobo when I was about to leave for the United States in 2010, where I had been awarded a fellowship to pursue an MFA in writing at the University of Texas. My father was concerned about my abilities to feed myself in a foreign country, especially since I had yet to learn how to cook. He taught me how to make his adobo, guiding me through a step-by-step process as he prepared our dinner for us a month before my departure. Half a kilo, or about a pound, of chicken breasts, trimmed of their fat and cut into small cubes. Cutting them into tiny pieces would allow them to soak up the calamansi and soy sauce mixture as the dish stewed in the pan. Ten tablespoons of soy sauce, preferably Silver Swan (the best soy sauce in the world, my father claimed) or any appropriate Filipino brand. The Chinese brand Lee Kum Kee came close, and was readily available in the US, but not the Japanese Kikoman, which was great for sushi but fell flat when one used it for adobo. Half a head of garlic, the cloves peeled and thrown in uncrushed and whole: I would need an entire head of garlic if making this dish in America, he said, since their garlic wasn’t as potent as ours. Half a fistful of whole peppercorns and three bay leaves. Calamansi, a tiny citrus fruit native to Southeast Asia, was what gave my father’s adobo its full-bodied flavor: its tartness was nuanced and layered, rounding out the dish by complementing the salty, spicy, and tangy flavors of the marinade. Other Filipinos use vinegar to fulfill the requisite sourness of the dish, but not my father: he would patiently slice up these tiny calamansi fruits and pick out their many seeds just so that he could squeeze their earthy, full-bodied juice into his adobo. The trick wasn’t just to balance out the saltiness of the soy sauce with the sourness of a complementing juice, but to add something that enhanced this mixture of flavors while bringing them together. This was what ten tablespoons of calamansi juice did: it rounded out these flavors, resulting in a single, explosive bouquet.
There was no calamansi in the US, he told me, speaking of the five years we spent there as a family when I was much younger; five years of substituting cherished ingredients of our native cuisine with whatever was available in a foreign land. You’ll have to use limes or lemons instead, he told me, and make do with their one-note sourness. I remember him saying this with a note of regret: my impending departure was painful, though necessary. As a writer himself, he knew how little our own country had to offer me in terms of opportunities, and as a former expatriate, he also knew the losses I’d have to endure in order to accept the gifts that other countries offered me. The Michener Fellowship was my first big break as a writer, and no institution in the Philippines was willing or capable of providing me with the same level of support for my writing. For a writer like me who wrote within the peripheries of the English-speaking world, such separations were necessary for me to fulfill my potential. My father understood this, which was why he set me free into the world while wanting to nourish me with home-cooked food from afar.
When I make my father’s adobo in his kitchen years after that first parting, I patiently open, seed, and squeeze out the calamansi’s juice into a saucepan. The process is tedious and time-consuming, but I agree with my father that the juice of this fruit enhances the overall flavor of the dish with its complex notes. My father died while I was living in New Zealand, just a few months shy of completing my PhD in creative writing and coming home to end our prolonged separation. I am following my father’s advice to touch base with the motherland after spending years away from home, and it is strange how his death forced me to heed his advice, for I had resisted the idea of coming home for more than just a short vacation while he was still alive. In New Zealand, I felt unmoored after his passing, and I had to return to the earth my father knew in order to regain my bearings.
In my parents’ home, I write, and I cook. My mother still hasn’t learned to prepare many of my father’s dishes and depends on me, the girl who spent entire afternoons and evenings with her father as he prepared their meals, to remember how he made our food. I have had to depend on the Internet to recreate some of his dishes, like his chicken tinola soup, and even this I only got right after multiple attempts. I had to make the mistake of including multiple parts of the chicken with their skins on before creating a heavy, oily soup that failed to capture the light and fresh flavors of my father’s chicken tinola. It only occurred to me, on my fourth or fifth try, that my father had also used chicken breasts for this recipe, skin and fat completely shorn. The version I follow, which I found online, includes sautéed onions, which I don’t remember my father putting in, as well as fish sauce, which he avoided because of his gout. But I still include malunggay or moringa leaves, which he swore by: these are tiny leaves that stick to your fingers as you pull them off from their stalks, releasing a robust, tangy flavor into the tinola when boiled.
Many of the dishes I’ve made for my mother while living with her have been mere approximations of my father’s cooking, though it’s his chicken adobo that I manage to get right. Perhaps I had to return to the motherland in order to make my father’s adobo, because when I was living in America and New Zealand, I had to make do with the lemons and limes that I bought at the supermarket, which supplied the dish’s necessary sourness while failing to bring forth the unique earthiness of my father’s adobo. It was an earthiness I was raised on which I often took for granted as I ate my father’s adobo as a child, and which was absent from the many adobos I made while living abroad. Perhaps this was my father’s way of sustaining the ties that bound me to our homeland: by making my palate yearn for the flavors that it produced in abundance.
One small departure I’ve made while preparing his adobo is substituting his favorite soy sauce, Silver Swan, for another brand, Marca Piña, to express solidarity for the workers at the NutriAsia factories (where Silver Swan soy sauce is made) who have risen up against deplorable work conditions. My father always supported workers’ rights and would have likely done the same. I can even imagine him growing to prefer Marca Piña, which, in my opinion, is the better soy sauce: it’s tangy, just like Silver Swan, and possesses a certain fruitiness that befits the brand’s pineapple logo. Otherwise, it’s still my father’s adobo, and it’s a dish that my mother won’t tire of, no matter how many times I make it for her.
“This is just like your father’s adobo,” she tells me, as she eats.
Her words comfort me, and as I eat, I come close to convincing myself that my father is still around to make this dish for us, somehow.
* * *
When I returned to the Philippines for my father’s funeral, our refrigerator was fully stocked with items my father had bought for future meals, and leftovers from a large pancit canton he had cooked the day before he died sat refrigerated inside a Tupperware container. My mother nearly forgot about my father’s pancit until she was about to throw out a takeaway dinner my aunt had bought for her the evening my father was declared dead at the hospital. My mother had no appetite when my aunt brought her dinner, and it remained untouched in our refrigerator until we returned from the funeral home the evening after we buried my father. My mother still didn’t want to touch the takeaway dinner: whether it was because it had gone bad, or because it brought back memories of a painful night, I wasn’t quite sure. But it wasn’t my father’s cooking, and it wouldn’t bring us comfort on our first evening without him. Rooting around inside our fridge for something to eat, we found a Tupperware filled with my father’s pancit canton, a stir-fried egg noodle dish to which my father added vegetables, shrimp, and shredded chicken breasts. As I stared at a meal he had prepared for us, I couldn’t help but feel confused, and oddly comforted, that he was still capable of feeding us after death. As we ate his pancit, I thought of how typical it was for him to prepare a Tupperware full of food for us, making sure we had something to eat before he left town for a few days. It was quite tempting, in fact, to convince oneself that his absence was temporary.
I was afraid of finishing his pancit, and at the same time I craved the solace that his food provided me. How could we live our lives without his food that nourished us and brought us together as a family, even as we maintained these ties across vast distances? A month before he died, he had given me a new, “no-fuss” chicken caldereta recipe he had come upon by accident in his kitchen, and as I tried to make it in my tiny apartment kitchen in Wellington, he kept coaching me on the phone. “I think he wants to go there and cook it for you,” my mother joked, as he kept issuing instructions about the amount of tomato sauce and cheese I was supposed to use.
How could we live our lives without his food that nourished us and brought us together as a family, even as we maintained these ties across vast distances?
When we finished the last of his pancit, I felt the familiar satisfaction of having just eaten a hearty, home-cooked meal my father had prepared for us. The reality of my father’s death hadn’t completely dawned on me, and the comforting, familiar flavors of my father’s pancit made me feel as though he hadn’t left us. It was a sensation, perhaps a delusion, that I continued to hold onto as the last dish he had prepared for us lingered on my palate that evening, and as I continued to cook our meals in the weeks that followed his funeral, before I returned to New Zealand to finish the rest of my PhD. I found myself seized by a frenzy in my father’s kitchen; I knew that we couldn’t just depend on neighborhood eateries and fast food joints for our next meals, because they would never fill our bodies with the same nourishment that my father’s cooking provided us. His cooking brought us together as a family, and served as a quiet witness to our shared stories, jokes, and celebrations. Cooking became my way of defying the fact of my father’s absence, of keeping him alive in our palates and bellies. Perhaps it was also my way of confronting the abyss I encountered whenever contemplating the reality of his passing: in his absence, I cooked, maintaining the rhythm of our days by filling them with his food.
I struggled to remember how he made our curries and fish dishes, and had to teach myself how to gut a fish, but by sheer luck, he committed to paper his own pancit recipe after having been invited to contribute a recipe and essay to an anthology on Filipino food writing. If not for this invitation, my father’s pancit would have been lost to us forever, since his version of this popular Filipino dish is complex and difficult to replicate from memory.
Unlike the pancit commonly served at roadside eateries in the Philippines that’s drenched in cooking oil and soy sauce and sprinkled here and there with pork and vegetable trimmings, my father’s pancit merges a generous helping of fresh garden vegetables with the meatier flavors of lean chicken breasts, mushrooms, and shrimp, to create a light but flavorful noodle dish. Cooking my father’s pancit is a painstaking process that requires soaking shredded chicken breasts in a mixture of soy sauce and ground pepper, chopping an assortment of vegetables, peeling and deveining shrimp, soaking dried mushrooms in water to be used for boiling the noodles, and cooking this large, unwieldy mixture in water and soy sauce. Following my father’s detailed instructions reminds me of how finicky my father was, how unwilling he was to take shortcuts in his cooking. Every pancit he cooked for us was like a poem he wrote: detailed, nuanced, and complex, a labor of love he refused to cut corners with. It took me several attempts before I was finally able to make pancit the way my father did, and when I succeeded, it felt like a summoning forth of his spirit.
My mother tells me that my pancit tastes just like my father’s, and whenever we sit down to eat it, I feel as though we are conjuring my father’s presence at the table. Eating becomes a spiritual act, a means by which our bodies connect with the invisible yet felt. I would like to say it is a form of prayer, but I feel it’s more than that, for the next world responds to our yearning by nourishing our bodies with my father’s food. It is the only form of prayer I know in which our entreaties are somewhat answered.
* * *
My father was praised for his cooking by relatives and friends alike, though he’d tell us that the true genius in the kitchen was his mother, my Lola Peregrina. When I was growing up, my Lola Peregrina, or Piring for short, lived in the island of Mindanao, in the southern end of the Philippines, while we lived in Baguio, a few hours north of Manila in the northern island of Luzon. Among his siblings, my father was the one who moved far away from his parents as a young man, and I could sense his chafing against the distances that separated him from my grandmother whenever he prepared a meal for us that my Lola had once perfected. “There was an extra something to this dish when your Lola Piring made this, and it’s something I can never quite capture,” he used to tell me, whenever I sat at our kitchen table while he cooked. It could be a certain complexity to the sweetness of her pork humba, or even just a special zing in her fried chicken. I could sense, in my father’s cooking, an attempt to bridge the distances that kept him apart from his mother whom he spoke of fondly whenever he cooked, whose laughter and cooking had helped him survive his father’s physical abuse. My Lola Piring passed away before the advent of social media and Skype, and even before she died, it was a challenge to get her on the phone. Long distance calls are expensive in the Philippines, and years of bountiful eating had taken a toll on her health by the time I was a teenager, so phone conversations with her were rare.
My Lola Piring’s cooking was legendary in their family, and my father never tired of telling me the story of how she had baked a chocolate cake for his birthday in a tin can set atop a small fire in their backyard. They were poor and yet she managed to find ways to bake a birthday cake for her son without an oven, or to prepare a memorable feast without the resources of a modern, fully equipped kitchen. My father may have taken his inventiveness in the kitchen from his mother, and this shouldn’t be surprising since the circumstances surrounding his beginnings as a cook were similar to Lola Piring’s: he and my mother weren’t making enough money as young college instructors to dine out, and so he taught himself how to cook, relying on childhood memories to help him create dishes that my Lola once made for him.
But memory is indeed a fickle instrument, and like him, I beat myself up when I make a different stir-fry beef with French beans from what he made, and when I try, and fail, to make his tuna escabeche. I remember him grappling with his memories as he tried to recall one of Lola Piring’s secret techniques that would turn a dish into a magical affair. He often complained that he could never cook a particular dish as well as Lola Piring, but I think this wasn’t the main reason for his frustrations: cooking, for him, was a way of summoning forth the past, of shoring up what he had lost when he left his homeland of Mindanao. Like him, I also try to reclaim what I have lost whenever I cook, and though I succeed in making some of his dishes, some of his recipes have been lost forever to the ether. Our faulty memories aren’t always capable of granting our prayers with a dish that perfectly invokes the spirits of the dead, and this is a fact that sits uneasily with me as I cook.
* * *
A week after we buried my father, I began to prepare afternoon merienda for myself and my mother on a regular basis. I’d buy pastries or rice cakes, and pair them with my father’s favorite tablea chocolate, using the same brand of unsweetened chocolate tablets I assume my father used for his final merienda. It was my way of sustaining the rhythms of our household that were arranged around his cooking, for I could not allow our days to fall apart in his absence. My father scheduled our days around food, which was a convenient way of bringing us together for nourishment and conversation, and one meal he never failed to do away with was merienda, or afternoon tea. It was a time in which we could sit back and reflect about our day without the pressures of getting back to work or preparing for bed. Whenever I was visiting from overseas, he’d prepare merienda for me while my mother was at work, and as we sat in his kitchen, drinking his hot chocolate and eating heated pastries, he’d ask me about my life, my writing, and my loves, while sometimes pointing out a rare bird perched on our guava tree, or mentioning a woman he had met at the public market who practiced hilot massage and could possibly treat his aches and pains.
He did not teach me how to prepare tablea chocolate; I learned the process only from following the instructions on a packet of tablea I once bought for myself at a Filipino store in New Zealand. I bring the water to a boil and I lower the flame as I add the tablets to the water. I learned from trial and error how many tablets are needed for two cups of hot chocolate (four tablets) and how long it takes for the tablets to dissolve (usually around fifteen minutes). My father used a thick metal pot for making this beverage, but I prefer using a smaller pot with a thinner bottom, simply because it has a handle which makes pouring easier. It feels like a small betrayal, but I’m sure my father would understand. In his absence, I am simply making do.
My mother swears that I have the same patience as my father, which is why I can wait for the tablets to melt and disperse in the simmering water, instead of preparing hot Milo, which is easier and less time-consuming. But I have my reasons for making this chocolate drink, one of which is my fear of losing touch with the memories my father left us if I do away with this simple ceremony.
So far, it has worked for us: my mother and I have cakes and drinks in the afternoon, and it has helped us return to the normal cadence of our family conversations in which aimless talk is interspersed with jokes and laughter. Humor was such a fundamental part of my father’s personality, for it sustained him through personal tragedy, as well as the excruciating boredom of the day-to-day. It was a trait he inherited from my Lola Piring, whose joie de vivre was irrepressible, finding expression in her jokes and her cooking. Through war, dictatorship, and a difficult marriage, she cooked delicious food and made her children laugh through their pain.
Cooking, for both my father and my Lola Piring, was a declaration of love. It is how I keep them alive in my heart, because their love can only die if I stop loving.