Filipino Food, Filipino Fuel
by Charlize Miranda
A timezone or two away, there’s probably a country with a corrupt government. Maybe there’s a war. Maybe there’s a natural disaster, or severe poverty. And here I was, trapped with the difficult decision of deciding what to pack for lunch. The jars of spices were sitting in the corner, mocking my indecision. I glanced up at the clock above my head, as it tortured me with every ticking second. But I had twenty minutes. With a huge sigh, I waited for inspiration to strike. But I had nothing. Nineteen minutes.
I carefully steered my school blazer away from the droplets of milk on the marble surface. Someone could clean that up later. The various bowls on the counter were useless, mostly the formerly full bowls of cereal my older siblings had left amidst their rush to get to work. The sink is a strand of hair’s distance away. Are cornflakes ethnic? I checked the back of the cardboard box, where a small speech bubble describing the Australian family business was printed. Halfway through a monotonous Monday morning assembly, the school captains announced ‘Multicultural Lunch Day’. That was eighteen days ago; I now had eighteen minutes. There were some kids who were rather keen, but they were the extreme outliers; most of my peers were unphased by the event. And had it been any other occasion, perhaps a bake sale or a guest speaker, I wouldn’t have even given it a thought following the assembly. But something about the looming lunch bothered me. Every night for dinner, my family gathered around the mahogany table, feeling the warmth of each others’ hands as we blessed the food from our home country: the Philippines. Every single night. Yet my mind was as empty as my lunchbox.
Seventeen minutes. I had spent many evenings of my childhood in the kitchen, but now it felt foreign, like how my parents would have felt when they emigrated to Australia. My Lola would drag a stool under my light feet, as she taught me the food that fuelled her and her ancestors. With each dash of a spice, and each simmer of the pot, the aroma of the various stews and beautiful concoctions would float around the kitchen, bouncing from tile to tile, blessing anyone who inhaled the scent. Eagerly, I would watch as my grandmother stirred the sinigang, or the adobo, or the nilaga, admiring the meat and the vegetables that would soothe my soul. It was as if the wooden spoon, snuggled in her old, frail, and wiry hands, was a magic wand. And there she was, cooking up a potion better than any Hogwarts student had ever attempted. She didn’t speak English very well, and I never learnt a word of Tagalog, other than funny phrases I force my friends to repeat for my own satisfaction. However she communicated with me in ways none of my friends could. Through her presence in the kitchen, I felt her undying love, without her having to tell me. I glanced back up at the clock, as the short hand threateningly approached the eight.
For someone who consumed Filipino food every night, my knowledge of the cuisine was very limited. Dinner was always just dinner to me, something I needed to eat every day to survive. Ham and cheese sandwiches would satisfy me throughout the day, and then I would go home and eat ulam and rice. It had been this way since I was seven. Thinly sliced meat from one animal, and the byproduct of another, in between two slices of white bread and wrapped in slimy cling wrap, would give me just enough power to answer my math problems, and read my books. Letting the cool air wash over me, I stared into the white light of the fridge, analysing its contents. There was very little I could do with half opened jars of pasta, and vegetables that I had no idea how to handle. Still, no inspiration had struck. I continued digging through the drawers under the stove, as a plethora of metal and plastic cutlery rubbed against my sleeve. When my fingertips felt the smooth, cold, metal of my old, dented thermos, I paused. Time was running out, but there I was, reminiscing.
Before my school lunchtimes were filled with thin sandwiches, my mother would stuff warm leftovers into my thermos, equipped with a silver spoon. Back then, thirty minutes of my school day tasted of grains of rice, submerged in soup, and meat that my mother shredded especially for me. It was perhaps the last time I truly appreciated my culture’s food. Somehow ten years later I couldn’t replicate any of the food, nor muster up the courage to just ask my parents how to make the dishes that they gratefully savoured everyday. Perhaps I was embarrassed, embarrassed at my disconnectedness from my culture, and therefore from my family. Perhaps I was embarrassed because I knew I was disappointing Lola. I closed my eyes, thinking of all the Filipino dishes I’ve eaten in my lifetime, and all the unique flavours that had possessed my tastebuds. Had I really given up the comfort of my people’s food, for simple sandwiches? And why? Because my six year old peers laughed at the slight smell of my lunch? Because they all had stuffed triangles of bread, and I had a large metal container? Ten minutes.
I sprinted back and pulled the handles of the fridge. On the third tier was a bowl, covered in cling wrap, with last night’s dinner inside. I had barely remembered what I ate the previous night, but there were leftovers in the ceramic bowl. Carefully peeling back the plastic, I gently placed the bowl in the microwave, while I washed out the thermos.
‘Anak, what are you doing? Have you made your sandwich yet?’ my mother inquired, as she slipped into her black leather flats for work. The beeps from the microwave interrupted our conversation.
‘I’m packing last night’s kare-kare, if that’s okay.’ I emptied the contents of the bowl into the thermos. ‘Also, I was wondering if you could show me how to cook it?’ The corners of her lips lifted slightly.
‘Okay.’ No amount of food could ever make up for all of the flavours and lunches I had missed, tasting the food my ancestors blessed me with. But today’s lunch was a start. It was safe to say that frozen slices of individually wrapped packages of cheese would never find its way into my lunch box again.