(14 July 2011)
The kitchen is a world all on its own. It has its own rhythm, sound and time. It has seen faces come and go, rites of passage in its stoves, and masterpieces heralded by sonorous and rain-like sounds of thick stews and sautés. Within it lie silent witnesses to the ebb and flood tides of a family’s ever-changing circumstance – pans that may have fried best portions of meat or boisterously smelly dried fish, pots that may have boiled intense soups or glutamate-rich instant noodles, and ladles that have become sticky with clinging rice or have hit and scraped several pot bottoms.
For many families, the rite of passage to the kitchen world begins with rice. Ours was no different. Cooking rice is a primary necessity. And so, at one point in our young age, together with my cousins who lived with us, we all received our instructions.
It began by setting several scoops of rice from the sack using the “pulakan” (a very old coconut shell passed on by my grandparents to us) into the winnowing basket to separate chaff and small stones. Rice has to be washed thrice. The most important step is estimating the volume of water that will cook the rice. This will make or break a hearty meal. We all had to know how to start a fire in our “dapug” – the raised platform in the kitchen where cooking is done by fire mostly through earthen stoves.
Cooking rice requires a certain degree of mastery. Passing it once does not guarantee continued success. The amount of water after the boil needed for that perfect tacky firmness of cooked rice varies from one grain variety to another. We learned that we could always put excess water for the boil. After it has boiled, the excess rice water could be taken (which we call “suam”) to be mixed with a dash of brown sugar as a delicious remedy for sweet cravings.
Before moving on to serious culinary exploits, it pays to rehearse. And perhaps there is no better rehearsal than play – no failures, no scolding and no painful spanking for spoiling food. There was just the sense of achievement of having done a cooking feat, further re-enforced by enjoying a meal.
Back in those days, most of the world had this convoluted view that kids in the provinces were malnourished. Milk, bulgur grains and even green peas were regularly distributed to schools. My two older cousins, my younger brother and I all went to the same elementary school so our supply of bulgur grains were quite copious. I could not anymore count the times we successfully played with hard bulgur grains.
The staple menu was cooking it with coconut milk, brown sugar, banana, sweet potatoes and colored sago pearls. Another best seller was boiling it with diced cassava, malunggay leaves, lemon grass and chicken bouillon seasoning cube. Sometimes we just went for its simple blend with sugar and milk. We usually cooked the grains in the afternoon, and since the grains take a long time to really soften, we played while we do the cooking. And after many tiring games, we capped those afternoons with the bulgur snack.
All the play prepared us for the next big thing – cooking for the main dishes. The menu ranged from frying eggs to pochero, from mung bean stew to pork knuckles with batwan (a fruit used as a souring agent in Panay and Negros islands). There was no written recipe with exact measurements. The recipe was passed down in a series of instructions consisting mostly of the list of the ingredients, the sequence of adding them and the signs when to add them. Thus, cooking at home required near-incessant observations in both visual and gustatory senses.
Among many dishes, I have this penchant for those that begin with the sauté.
Sautéing is the kitchen’s proclamation to the world that a gratifying meal is being conjured. Never mind if the oil bottles are nearly drained or the garlic, onions and tomatoes are but sparing. Its wafting smell is at most times enough to stir the senses to believe on a coming feast.
The sauté is like rain. Its sizzling is like gleeful raindrops rushing down the roofs. Instead of the smell of damp soil, what follows is the aroma of garlic, onions, and tomatoes, suffusing the house and sometimes the neighbors.
Then there is the peculiar cry caused by the vapors coming from sliced onions. I realized early on that holding one’s breath while slicing them, whether diced, minced or julienned, lessens the tears. And I also learned of a way of mincing them without having to cry so much.
Ironically, the grandness of the sauté’s wafting smell effectively obscured the accompanying lowliness of most dishes like sautéed sardines from a can, sautéed dried fish, or sautéed mung beans. Nevertheless, it remains true to its proclamation – a gratifying meal is being conjured.
Perhaps none was lowlier than our “fried” salt for viand. My parents always told us that they used to fry salt without oil, turning it brown, with a finer texture. “Fried” salt they said fully enhances the flavor of rice. When we had “fried” salt, we were allowed to eat with our hands and to lick our fingers while we were eating. We also enjoyed making salted rice balls with a slight hint of vinegar. It was only in hindsight in later years when I realized that in those times we really had no money for better viands. Nonetheless, I treasure the memories of sharing those meals with so much childhood joy.
I also had my share of personal ups and downs in the kitchen. One time, I missed to remove some of the ink sacs of the squids I was trying to fry in batter. Eventually, the batter went black. And I earned a remark that the squids coated in black batter looked like dog poo. I also tried to develop a recipe for an eggplant torta (a kind of omelet) with one of my female cousins. I learned that the key to having a golden brown torta is cooking in low fire, otherwise it would all turn black just like what happened to those poor eggplant patties.
My kitchen adventures continued even when I had my independence and I had already started to work. I had many experiments with pasta. Fortunately, none of them flopped. One time I tried a recipe with a friend. We had so much spaghetti for two that we decided to distribute them to the other tenants in my place. Then there was the relleno overload. The same friend requested me to cook relleno for her birthday party. There were just so much milkfish to prepare that I thought I would do away with relleno for the rest of my life!
Nowadays, I miss the kitchen. Since I am living alone, it is far from economical to cook my meals. I could only do much cooking when I am at home with my parents on special occasions like Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Much has changed with our family’s circumstance. My cousins are not living with us anymore. We now have the luxury to include desserts in our meals. We seldom use firewood at home, and if we do, it’s probably due to sentimental reasons. And when I have the chance to cook, it’s like being home to a kingdom of my own, taking sole and full command of stoves, pans and pots with oil to sweat, with ladles to whip, and with knives to gash.
© COOLWATERWORKS, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to COOLWATERWORKS and A Series of Duration with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.