My cooking is a lousy business. My mother makes it worse.
No one is born a great cook. One learns by doing. So I don't understand why mother expected me to know already what to do in the kitchen.
My kitchen is as tidy as the ones in the Ikea showroom. In lovely green and an environmentally conscious themed kitchen. For weeks, the pans have not touched anything but thin air, and the most useful thing in this place is the microwave.
And then mother calls me and shatters my completely perfect circle of life. She's coming.
So here I am, in the middle of my visually appealing kitchen, staring at the ingredients in front of me. Pork belly, potato, dried bay leaves, peppercorn, soy sauce, and vinegar – still sealed to freshness.
It always feels new whenever I cook. It’s like a battle I have to face. My stage fright heightens even though my audience is a band of pots and pans. My mom's nagging recorded at the back of my head doesn't help either.
'You haven't marinated the pork yet? When do you want to eat dinner? At midnight?'
I was only ten, and my mind was just about playing Ghost Fighter Teks Card like my life depended on it. What do I know about marination?
i. Let the pork belly socializes with soy sauce and garlic for at least an hour first so the flavor seeps into the innermost core of the belly.
That's the secret. Patience. Preparation. In life, the flavor comes from the external things that get through you. They enrich you and give you soul.
'Who told you to put oil in the pan? You are cooking pork adobo, not fried pork!'
I was only twelve, and my mind was just about watching Dragon Ball Z in the afternoons. What do I know?
ii. Heat the pan, put in the marinated belly, cook for a few minutes, and pour all the leftover marinade.
The oil comes from within the fats. The longer it simmers, the more oil is extracted, and the tastier it is.
Unhealthy as it is, what does not kill us makes us stronger.
'So you didn't add water? You want us to die of kidney disease by eating food with pure soy sauce? That's if the sauce will not evaporate. Put in your mind that there are six of us in this house. We need to have more sauce. Otherwise, the meat will not be enough.'
What do I know about adding water to increase the volume of the food? I was only fourteen, and I was only interested in reading romance pocketbooks, the ones I buy for twenty-five pesos. That's two weeks' savings from what little allowance I had.
iii. Add water, then the peppercorn and dried bay leaves.
It's the little things in life that matter most of the time, and you only notice how dull your life is when it's missing.
'Who told you to put pineapples? Is this Hawaiian pizza?' This is the main dish, Dina! Not desert! Why waste money on a can of pineapple?'
What do I know? I was just fifteen, and I just saw it on a noon-time cooking show. They said it's delicious so I wanted to try it.
iv. Add vinegar and let it boil.
Classic adobo comes with vinegar to balance the saltiness of the soy sauce. Pineapple could replace the vinegar and also adds a tinge of sweetness. We all need some tenderness.
'Who told you to stir the pot after putting in the vinegar? It will taste raw!'
What do I know? I was just sixteen, and my mind was messed up with this boy from school whom I could not get off my mind. So I just suddenly picked up the spoon and unconsciously stirred the pot.
v. When vinegar is added, one should not stir the pot anymore.
I don't know if it only applies to adobo or in general. Anyway, I do the same whenever the recipe comes in with vinegar of any type. Rather be safe than sorry. So I left it as it is after adding in vinegar. Allow it to boil. Sometimes we have to let things happen. The more you hold on to love, the more you spoil it. A bit of space. A bit of time. We mature, then we understand.
'Who told you to add potato in your adobo? You already eat adobo with rice; what's the use of potato?'
I didn't know why I can't add potato. I was eighteen, and all I know was I saw my roommate in the boarding house adding potatoes on her adobo, and it tasted terrific. The potato adds up to the balance, its mushiness, especially after reheating it mixes on the sauce.
vi. Add the potatoes. Simmer for 10 to 12 minutes.
I have always put potatoes in my adobo because I liked it. For some, it tastes strange. For me, it's a variation from the classic. For them, it's insubordination from the norm. An unnecessary embellishment to the simply savory dish. A form of rebellion. Discreet. Yet evident.
'Adobo is meant to be salty and sour. Who told you to put sugar?' By then, I was already twenty, and it was the last time I cooked home. After university, I immediately took the first job that came. It didn't matter if I liked it or not as long as it could pay rent.
I took a small room in a boarding house. There was a kitchen that was mainly unruly and occupied by the landlady, day and night. It made me sad not to be able to cook at the beginning, but it didn't take me time to realize that I enjoyed not cooking, and it is even more economical.
I usually go home every now and then during Holy Week, during Christmas and New Year's, and when a family member celebrates a birthday. I make sure I arrive when all the cooking and talking are done, and I won't be questioned about my life. When visitors are present, so I have other people to pay attention to. I love it when people bring in kids. I'd take them out and watch them play. They are a noisy bunch, but I found peace in their innocent brawls.
That my mom called and told me she's coming was very strange and rare.
I'm not sure what she'd pick on this time. My being single at the age of thirty-eight or having a job that is not real - virtual assistant is not real for her. For sure, she'd have something to say. I won't be surprised if she picks on the color of my curtain.
She rings the doorbell, and when I open the door, I see a smiling woman made smaller by age. Her gaze is a lot gentler than the last time I saw it. She steps forward and embraces me tight. I don't know what to say but ask her how her trip was.
'It's only an hour. Fred, our neighbor, dropped me. Do you remember him? Your friend who always cries when you beat him and you take home all his Teks cards?
Of course, I remember him too well. He was that fragile little boy spoiled by his very loving mother, who was always a baby and never once beaten by a stick. Unlike me.
'It smells nice. You cooked adobo?' Her face is so bright. I never saw her in this kind of happy mood. Well, people change. I must have been, really, out for a while. Or I'm too stuck in the past, in what kind of person she was that I fail to notice what she is.
'Ah, have a seat Ma. I'll prepare the plates.'
I served her rice and topped it with that dark brown pork belly and tender potatoes. I look at her and try to find words to crack the deafening silence.
'Ah, bon appetit.' I rubbed my cold sweaty palms on my pants.
She smiles and drinks a glass of water first.
'Dina, do you know it's healthy to drink water first before eating?' She scoops up rice and a small piece of meat on her spoon into her mouth. She chews and looks at me.
'You cook so well. This is very tasty. The pork is tender.' She takes in a little more.
‘It’s a bit sweet. But just right.’
vii. Add a dash of sugar.
The sweetness balances the overall taste. It tenderizes the salt and acidity.
In life, sprinkles of tenderness come in the most unexpected ways.