Cooking With Your Mother—With an Ocean in Between

Most Filipino girls (and boys, actually) learn to cook at home with their mothers, helping out with tasks like chopping the vegetables and stirring the stew while Mom potters around and makes subtle-if-well-meaning criticisms about what they’re doing and why they should’ve added less of this and more of that ingredient. I never really got to do that, though: I was pretty dedicated to my schooling even when I was younger, and I was constantly one of the top students, with a reputation to maintain. If I wasn’t busy doing my homework and going through textbooks in advance, I was away as one of the representatives of my school to some national—and sometimes, even international—contest or another.

This continued pretty much through high school and eventually to college, when I actually had to live away from my family since the school I was attending was far away. And once I found a job, I found myself living even farther away, since I accepted an offer from a Singaporean company. So I somehow managed to go from womb to workplace without ever cooking with my mother.

spare-ribs-pechay

Now, I had cooked by myself already, it must be said: you learn to fry and microwave stuff in college, besides also getting ultra-familiar with that staple of university fare, pasta. But I never managed to learn how to make the true staples of my childhood menu, precisely because I’d missed out on all those opportunities to cook with the family. And I realised it one day, sitting in my Singapore apartment with a barely-nibbled ham sandwich in one hand and assailed by the most powerful hankering for—of all things—sinigang.

Suddenly I regretted all those missed opportunities. I knew no Filipino restaurants in my area and I knew, all of a sudden, that not even the best foie gras from the nearest French restaurant would appease me the way a good sinigang would. So there was nothing for it but to call my mother, who nearly laughed my ears off when she heard the request.

“This,” she said, amidst the ear-splitting cackles. “You call me for this?”

But after her fun was done, she set about guiding me through the process. We switched to text messaging to make it easier and after I got together all the ingredients from the local Filipino grocery, she helped me with the actual cooking. Midway through, though—with the pork in the pot and several vegetables as well as the actual soup mix still out of it—she stopped responding to my queries. There was a moment of brief panic. Perhaps she was busy, perhaps the networks were clogged, perhaps she was typing the reply already… and all the while, there was the pork boiling away, perhaps approaching the point of no return.

I gave in and called her.

“What next?” I said. “You stopped helping me.”
“No I didn’t,” she said. “I’d never stop helping you. I ran out of cellphone credits.”

“Okay,” I said. “I sent you load. Now what’s next while I’m still here?”

So the cooking continued. Eventually, I (we) finished the dish and I was sitting in front of a steaming pile of rice and the most delicious-smelling sinigang I had encountered in… well, ever since moving to another country, which means the first bowl I had encountered ever since leaving the Philippines. I spooned the broth into my mouth and sipped happily.

Until my cellphone beeped to indicate another text message, that is.

You should’ve added more fish sauce, it said.

I’d like to say it was just her way of making up for the lost childhood experiences in our kitchen. But here’s the awful part: she was right on the money.

AUTHOR’S BIO

Author’s Name: Jonalene Cabral

The author is a Filipina working in Singapore as an associate editor for a development-focused publication.  She enjoys writing about a wide range of subjects (a contributor to Morbie Blog), including food (with which she has a serious love affair) and everyday comedy (which she also often supplies to her friends and family on a daily basis, quite involuntarily).

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