Heart to hearth |


Ronald Villavelez

I NEVER imagined I could cook. For the most part of my adult life, I never cooked.

I never tried, made time for it or gave it serious consideration.

Perhaps the closest thing I could get to cooking as an adult, when I finally moved out of my parents’ place to live with my partner, was taking on the weekly duty of doing my groceries.

But, almost always, at home, I would leave the actual cooking part to our household kusinera.

Growing up in a family where my mother cooks and prepares at least three meals a day, every single day, I have learned to be mindful of what I eat, how my food should be cooked.

When I was in 6th grade, my mother taught me how to choose our produce (most of which we grew in our backyard), how to identify quality and freshness. When my mother had to assign household chores to her children, I was the quickest to volunteer to be the extra hand in the kitchen.

Because that was the only way I could escape the dreaded drudgery that was washing the dishes after a meal.

That was the deal among us, siblings, that when someone helped mother in the cooking, the others had to do the dishes.

(Eventually, my sister, Vevs, never learned to cook, and still does not know a thing about cooking. She’s lucky, though, her husband happens to be a trained homecook, having had kitchen experience in a restaurant. As for me, I have become too domesticated to actually enjoy doing the dishes myself now.)

So to speak, my first apprenticeship in a kitchen was under the tutelage of my mother, whose kitchen skills were largely acquired from her parents and her elementary home economics class.

(My mom used to tell us that she wanted to study Nutrition and Dietetics in college, which I guessed, was the closest thing to culinary or pastry arts during her time.

But then her parents sent her to study Banking and Finance, despite her obvious poor mathematical aptitude.)

Being the neophyte kitchen assistant, I was assigned the tedious tasks of processing the ingredients, making the mise en place.

No, the whole kitchen scene wasn’t as sophisticated as I make it sound here. On the contrary, my mother didn’t have any modern, sophisticated kitchen tools and equipment: no food processor, no pricey German-made knives, no pressure-cooker, no color-coded chopping boards, and we would sometimes cook in an abuhan for dishes that needed to be slow-cooked for hours. She taught me how to mince onion and garlic (oh, not the methodical way Gordon Ramsay taught me in our Masterclass), peel potatoes, squash and sayote; meticulously strip kamunggay leaves off their stems and stalks; manually grate coconut on a kudkuran and squeeze out its milk in two or three stages; clean and descale fish; and wash pots and pans, before and after cooking.

She even taught me how to start fire in our abuhan, how to arrange or pile up the firewood in a sug-angan to let air in and through, an essential part in maintaining fire.

Like I have always been, I was a fast learner, despite my inadequate knife skills because I could not get a good, firm grip of the knife’s handle. It didn’t take long before mother would let me cook her dishes myself.

She would guide me through every step of the process, though, and I would write everything down on a notebook, trying not to miss every detail.

There were times I did well in trying to approximate my mother’s cooking and seasoning.

Oftentimes, I’d miss, usually, burning the garlic, or overcooking the vegetables. But mother would always say, you would do better next time.

Cooking with my mother was like another household chore she thought I had to learn in childhood.

I never imagined cooking was something I would want to do, more so, make a living out of it, or pursue it as a craft, later in life. I never cooked again after high school.

If I could not cook like my mother, why bother cook, at all? But whenever I think about food, I think of how my mother spends nearly half of her waking hours working in and around the kitchen preparing food for the whole family.

There’s something transfixing as I would watch, rapt, when my mother would go about her business—seamlessly shuffling from the kitchen table to the sink to the stove, as though each step was perfectly timed to a certain rhythm, one hand nimble with a knife in one moment and then careful with a ladle in another.

It’s a spectacle, almost akin to performing magic, guided by sheer instinct and refined by daily practice and discipline, conjuring dishes, transforming the most basic and ordinary ingredients into tasty and nourishing alchemies.

Sustaining life, and familial bonds. So, my sense of taste was first shaped and sharpened by my mother’s simple, homecooking. It’s nothing fancy, or artful or ingenious in any way, but it’s good food, comfort food. It’s her cooking—from her humba to her specialty bam-i—that is now my point of reference when I come across similar dishes on the table.

And the memory of the flavors, the smells I imagine wafting from her kitchen, a mother’s outpouring of her affection in one routine task, have become my emotional compass, all through my adult life, drawing me back to hearth, home.

Later, with a place of my own, I picked up a knife, gathered my pots and pans, and opened the oven. I started cooking.

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