I was never raised in a kitchen. Growing up, the vivid memories of cooking I had were of frying pre-processed food, boiling eggs, and adding sauce to instant products. Both of my parents were working, so cooking needed to be fast and efficient. There was no room for tutorial blunders. Instead, I was often told to focus on my homework while waiting for dinner to be ready.
I had childhood thoughts that when I reach my twenties, I would be able to afford my own apartment and even hire househelp. Work hard now so that someone would work harder for you later. Someone taught me that. Until now, I still feel misled. Life is hard enough as a cog in this capitalist machinery. It is kinda pointless and inhumane to earn more just to make someone else’s life attend to my whims.
My early twenties was a period of shifting houses and working multiple jobs to earn my rent. I was living in San Juan, the heart of Metro Manila, and it was generously peppered by restaurants ranging from quaint to familiar. Eating out became a habit until I realized that I was spending 500 bucks a day. Standard for some, but I was only scraping 10,000 a month. I barely survived the next fifteen days on cup noodles and almost expired bread.
Local eateries became my next sanctum. Word of mouth led me to a small carinderia near P. Parada Street. It was singlehandedly run by a mid-forties woman who responds to the endearment Ate Baby. At lunchtime, office workers would flock at Ate Baby’s house, checking the day’s meals in pots displayed at her front store. She doesn’t have a consistent menu. She usually cooks what she feels like cooking, or what she could buy from her weekly market trips. Nevertheless, hers was the closest meal that reminded most of us of home. She doesn’t even charge much and would often let her patrons keep a tab until the end of each month.
I relied on Ate Baby’s generosity for home-cooked meals until conditions forced me to relocate to Makati and eventually to Taguig. A well-off friend adopted me as a house pet, and I was grateful for the free food in exchange of companionship.
It was from Twinky that I learned the basics of home cooking. She’d let me watch at the sidelines while she minced onions and garlic. She’d show me how to cut beef strips thin enough to melt in my mouth. I’d listen to her day’s stories as she seared chicken on the griddle. The pan sizzled at the touch of butter and oyster sauce.
At weekends she would take me to the grocery. Being a freeloader, I was grateful for whatever that would be served on the dinner table, but I took pointers from her shopping list. Premium canned goods. Organic dairy and vegetables. Meat— in different cuts. And spices. She couldn’t live without her McCormick shakers.
Eventually my friend ended up adopting three dogs, and I found myself overstaying at my partner’s apartment. We haven’t really wrapped our heads around the concept of cohabitation yet, so the first few weeks were romantic. We’d go out and try a new restaurant then look for a new place for afters. When we got (
lazier) more comfortable, we discovered excuses to maximize delivery apps. Still, we’d share meals together on his bedroom floor. The take-away was the realization that we didn’t really need to go out to have an interesting conversation.
As weeks turned into months, I’d occasionally pick up the knife to show off. Call it pride, but I wanted Marc to believe that I was wife material. Tasty videos made it seem simple enough to fillet a chicken breast and turn it into a paprikash. I thought I could do the same if I visualize it repeatedly. I spent hours at the kitchen counter wrestling with a semi-defrosted chicken until his brother, an HRM graduate, came over to check on me.
“You’re about to chop your fingers off if you continue to hold the knife that way,” he said. I was exposed at first glance.
With his help I persisted, and oddly enough my dish turned out to be fine. What I lacked in knife skills, I made up for taste. It was as if the years I spent eating out and trying new and familiar things were translated to tastebud knowledge. I didn’t know I had developed an innate understanding of how flavors worked together. I felt like a kid who unlocked a secret feature from a toy I always play with.
The subsequent days were lost on me being proactive with meal prep. This time it was not entirely for Marc nor for appeasing any social conventions expected from a woman. It was largely for myself— an outlet for my culinary curiosities. I wanted to try what flavors would complement a chicken; what sauce has more depth to pair with a particular white fish; what happens if I substitute sesame oil for vegetable oil. The permutations are endless.
There is something about cooking that requires both discipline and imagination. It is an exercise of the senses. Frying fish, for example, seems simple yet becomes complicated in terms of texture and seasonings used. I remember getting too excited and serving an undercooked dish for dinner. Then there was this incident when I overestimated the frying time and had burned off the skin from the meat. It took me a lot of trial and error until I learned to rely on the hiss of the oil, the color of the meat, the temperature of the pan, and the familiar smell of meat being cooked. I had to spend time being acquainted with these other sensations just for frying to become natural.
As for taste, I noticed that I cook based on how I imagine ingredients would interact with one another. I tend to go for flavors that blend rather than burst in the mouth, so I usually stock up on butter and salt. Seasoning is intuitive for me. I pour and sprinkle based on what feels right, and it works just as well. Marc, on the other hand, is baffled that I don’t use measuring spoons and cups to balance flavor. His cooking is also good, but tends to rely more on precision. He is very meticulous about following the recipe to the exact unit. Mine is more liberal or conservative, depending on how it tastes on my tongue. To each his own.
Of course it wasn’t always perfect. Like the time I cooked shrimp alfredo and I overloaded on cream and cheese. Rich at first taste, but it got too heavy on the next few bites. I learned that using too much ingredients is an assault not only to the budget, but also to the tongue. Oftentimes, the basic is the best way to go.
Still, the kitchen has always been forgiving about my mishaps. The act of cleaning countertops and placing dishes in their racks is cathartic after a botched experiment. The same credit goes for the people I cook for. Marc and his brother give me generous space to explore, yet they are quick to lend a hand in case I get lost. The best part is that they finish whatever I cook- regardless of its taste. It is always a joy to serve these people.
After all the things I have written about food and cooking, It is still surreal that I have gone from being just an avid diner to someone who would actually take charge in the kitchen. It feels so good to be empowered, and I realized it didn’t happen overnight. It is an accumulation of varied experiences coupled with supportive people, and nurturing environment. To these, I say grace.
I still want to continue exploring and conversing with food. I believe that my tastes and my cooking will change and develop as long as I practice it. For better or for worse. That being said, it will always be a private activity— a worship to my God, a gift to my loved ones, a joy that I get to savor in my solitude.