Why Mum is still the best cook in the world

I wrote this for PINOYexpats, but this article was also the starting point for a similar piece that I submitted to the Australian Filipina magazine.

My extended family has produced some excellent cooks and my mum is one of the best. I, on the other hand, avoided the kitchen for as long as I could.

Cooking seemed to me a messy, laborious and thankless chore. When I moved out to an apartment with a brand new kitchen still gleaming in its stainless steel glory, I vowed to turn over a new leaf. Who better to experiment with than my new husband, who promised to do the washing up?

Naturally, I wanted to learn how to make my favourite Pinoy dishes. ‘Can u pls send rcpe for sinigang?’ I urgently SMS-ed Mum as I prowled the Asian food aisle at Coles. ‘Use packet,’ she replied. Unfortunately, Coles doesn’t stock sinigáng powder.

Lesson #1: Find the nearest Asian store and buy supplies.

OK, I thought, there must be something easier. I settled for bisték. Who would have thought a dish involving beef, onions and soy sauce could take so long to master? First, the beef was too tough. Then, I put too much cornflour…or not enough. I used salt-reduced soy sauce and discovered there was a reason Filipinos love salt.

‘Are you sure this is bistek?’ Hubby asked as I was congratulating myself on finally achieving perfection. I found out that his mum’s bisték has potatoes and tastes completely different.

Lesson #2: There’s no one definitive taste for any Filipino dish.

I was reminded of this when I tried cooking corned beef. It comes out of a can, I thought. How hard can it be? First, I forgot the garlic. Then, when I put the garlic in, Hubby complained that he’ll have garlic breath at work the next day. Then, when I thought I finally had it right, Hubby asked me where the peas were.

‘Peas?!’ I yelled in outrage. ‘Do they even have peas in the Philippines?’ As it turns out, his dad’s corned beef is a totally different kettle of, uh…peas.

What, I wondered, is the most common denominator of Pinoy dishes? It seemed the best time to try sinigáng. The packet of sinigáng powder called for 1kg of meat, which I soon learned was enough to feed…well, two people for about three days. Hubby went on a business trip and I ended up eating sinigáng for four days straight.

Lesson #3: Pinoy recipes are designed for volume.

Well, I thought, no one minds leftover dessert. Champorado consists of rice (malagkít), cocoa, milk and sugar. Simple, right? My first attempt was too watery; the second was like chocolate bico. I gave up and sent Mum an SMS: ‘Will visit 2day. Pls make champorado. Luv, Kat xox’

Lesson #4: Masarap magbaon.

I hit the jackpot with tahô, although the arnibal took a few tries. I almost gave up on sagó when I found out it takes days to prepare, until Mum discovered the 5-minute version.

Lesson #5: Mum knows the best short cuts.

One of my best recipes is a 15-minute paella. Mum passed it along when Hubby accidentally-on-purpose mentioned we were back to eating take-away because my dinners were rarely ever ready before 9pm. Wouldn’t you know it, our rice cooker blew up. I was assailed by ghastly visions of cooking rice in a palayók – flashbacks from days at Girl Scout camp. To the goddesses of gas stoves and Teflon: I salute you.

My experiments in Pinoy cooking have been painstaking but rewarding. I haven’t worked up the energy to try adobo, kare-karé, ginataán or the many other dishes I’ve missed eating. But when the urge eventually hits me, I won’t be offended if Hubby wants to add peas. I’ll know to reduce the recipe until I get it right. And I’ll remember to book Mum for dinner in case it all goes horribly wrong.

This piece was first published in the September 2005 issue of PINOYexpats, an e-zine for Filipino expatriates.

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