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Served by the heart

Food, in many ways, is synonymous with home. It’s the taste of the day-to-day, the palpable part of the worst and best days and the pining that can’t be sated with fast food. At least in my house, a meal means as much as any gift, and anywhere we go, the first and last expectation is always something to eat.

That’s usually the situation when visiting my mom’s Filipino side. Her relatives are few, so the extended family who we consider our tito’s and tita’s (uncles and aunts) are actually just close family friends.

Unlike my father’s side, they’re scattered across the United States and other countries. Any food from them is a glimpse into their livelihood, with their dinner table inviting the silence of a good meal.

Those meals are usually the ones that home is tied to, the one looked for whether coming or going, a communication only a special someone can make.

Caldereta, from my dad, is the dish that reminds me the most of home. A straightforward dish—stewed beef or goat with vegetables like bell peppers and carrots simmered in a tomato sauce—with many memories captured in its flavor: evening dinner tables heaped with rice, spying it at parties in catering tins and hovering around houses cradling paper plates laden with it. Steeped with these experiences, I can’t help but long for it.

This richness isn’t all there is to it, though. Filipinos aren’t shy about the unglamorous dishes either. Take sinagag, otherwise known as fried garlic rice. This versatile dish can be served with an egg, meat from shredded chicken (pastil), corned beef or tapas.

I could probably make this with the little kitchen chops I have. That’s what I appreciate about the humble nature of Filipino cooking; you don’t need a lot nor do you need to know a lot in order to make something delicious.

My mother has things she’s particular about with her own cooking, too. There’s at least one thing I know: she has no qualms about ginataang. She’s always brighter whenever this coconut-milk based dessert with tapioca, corn and jelly is out anywhere. I’ve known it through the way she lords over the stuff, compelling us to bring it back home. Because of this, picking a favorite food is difficult for me. I’d much rather remember my family’s favorites than my own!

My extended family relationships, like many other Filipino’s, are held together by food. Their food brings together a pastiche of Spanish, American, Chinese, Pacific Islander and indigenous cuisines that, like their culture, regards difference only as means for spicing up what’s being brought together.
Eaten with hands and served over the simplest of set-ups, humility forms a core of what these dishes mean, paying no heed to how high or low in life one goes. Really though, all we care about is how very delicious it is or, as we say in Tagalog, masarap.

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