My mother, My Aunt Lu, and Siena at Coconuts in Palo Alto, California.
- Neighbors’ reaction to Filipino food
- My grandmother’s favorite dishes to cook
- How the killing of a pig got around to the village
- Naming pets that later become your meal.
My Aunt Lu (originally Ma.Lourdes, or MariaLourdes) immigrated to the United States in 1975 when she was 13. She was originally from the town of Matnog/province of Sorsogon (Bicol), which is located on the southwestern end of the main island of Luzon. Matnog is derived from the Filipino word “matonog” which means “very loud,” and some say it was named this because of the very loud sound of its crashing waves.
* in case you didn’t know, the Philippines is comprised of 7,107 islands but Luzon is the most commonly referred to because it houses the capital city of Manila.
I chose to interview her for some of her experiences with Filipino food because she was so entrenched in those authentic experiences from birth to adolescence. These are nostalgic years but for many, memorable baselines.
LOURDES: When I came to the United States, my mom and Dad we always ate Filipino food. I actually didn’t mind because usually our friends usually knew for sure that we were Filipino. Neighbors always want to come over because they smelled it or they knew about the food for some reason.
We came at 12 or 13. Neighbors would always say I like the smell could we have some? It was a positive thing. I was never ashamed that it was what we ate 90% of the time. We never ate out because we didn’t have the money. It just wasn’t an option. To me it was a good thing. I was not ashamed, I loved having a mother that cooked all the time.
K: What are some of your favorite Filipino dishes?
LOURDES: Arroz caldo (a rice porridge with garlic, ginger, and chicken), those were things you looked forward to when you came home. Usually the common stuff, like adobo (a meat, soy and vinegar stew) was always around. She made lumpia (meat or vegetable filling rolled in egg wrapper) but it was hard to make so it was only there on special occasions like birthdays, or when she just had time to do it. Pancit(egg noodles, meat, seafood and vegetables in a soy and calamansi marinade) was always usually common. I think we ate it more than most people because she was really into cooking. It wasn’t a lot of work for her. It made her happy to cook.
It was always in the “Sorsogon style,” I think it tasted better because the ingredients that she put in were fresh. She wouldn’t just get something from a can. She wasn’t lazy. She did the same thing with the main dishes, she would do something with liver and it tasted really good because it was a recipe she got from her mom. My sisters and I loved her fried chicken the most. It was my mom’s recipe. It might not be Filipino, but it was something fried and that’s my memory. Something fried. Always.
K: How would you describe Filipino food?
LOURDES: I always looked at it as homemade food because I think it takes a lot of time to make. A lot of food in America, I always look at it as fast food. That’s probably why I don’t always want to eat out because it feels too commercialized. It doesn’t taste like Filipino food.
K: What are your experiences with Filipino food in the Philippines?
LOURDES: In the Philippines we only ate food that was fresh. That was our only choice because we had no refrigeration. When I first woke up in the morning my grandmother would send me to the market and I would buy the fish that just came out of the ocean. She would tell me which vegetables what she wanted, and I would come back with all this stuff to cook for breakfast. I would go and get pan de sal (bread with salt). Sometimes, what my grandma would do is chase down local fishermen that were passing by and would say, “I need 2 of those tilapia.” Usually things you eat for lunch we ate for breakfast. We ate rice with eggs, sausage and fish.
We had to go to many stores in front of people’s houses. They had everything from candy to people who make their own clothes. Bananas, you could use for dessert as well as your vegetables, because if they’re still ripe we ate them like they were vegetables. Maybe they would make fried banana but the rest of the bunch would last for maybe 3 weeks. She bought in bulk. We could not afford meat, so we ate more fish and chicken. It was a luxury to have meat because it was not cheap, unless you were willing to raise your own pigs.
But, sometimes, she would find out who would be killing a pig that day. You know where we live, if someone is going to have a kill that day everyone had to know about it — everyone has to help each other out. We raised our own chickens and pigs and we take turns in the neighborhood butchering. Not chicken, because that’s only enough to feed a family.
K: How did that system work?
LOURDES: News that the pig was going to be butchered would go around, and people would say, hey, I’m going to owe you $5. It was kind of emotional because you know you raise the pig and all of a sudden you’re eating it. You do the same thing with the chicken, you name them and then the next thing you know, it’s your dinner.
I don’t know how they communicated it. Maybe they talked about it and said hey when are you going to be killing the pig? Anyway, you can hear the damn sound like a mile away. That’s when you know someone is killing a pig because of the sound. The squealing. We all just kind of watched.
When people had parties you knew they were going to roast a pig. So everybody knew [a pig was going to be killed] because you don’t want it to go to waste. People know they can save money if they know the person. Sometimes you just give it away, and say: come over. But the thing is, you can’t keep it for more than a day. It’s kind of like a big deal when you kill a pig because it takes 6 months or longer for this pig to be old enough to be butchered. It’s really living in the good old days.
Sometimes I saw grandma drying fish. When you dry fish out in the sun and salt them, that’s so good and it lasts longer. That’s what we usually ate for breakfast. Some people dry fish and you just eat it with rice in the morning.
In the United States, my mom took a lot of pride. When she went shopping she was happy. She would take her time just to go shopping. Sometimes she would have to take the bus just to buy the groceries. Cooking for her was always a prideful thing.
Many thanks to my Aunt Lu for contributing for this post.