My music pairing for this story is an all time favorite that takes me back to my Jersey days and also reminds me of the love I have for my family. This was on my birthing playlist that streamed while I was in labor with my daughter so it holds a very special place in my heart as well.
Spring has always been a season for new adventures with the freshness of sunshine that brightens the days. It was time to bring back Mama’s Kusina and what better day than Mother’s Day! Who is “Mama,” you wonder? It’s a nickname that friends made up for me back in high school, but even before that I was always known for cooking up a storm and prepping things like a mama would for friends. Kusina is kitchen in Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines, the country where my family is from. So many of my fondest memories with family were based in the kitchen. I was constantly surrounded by extended family throughout my childhood and food was always at the center of our gatherings.
Thinking back to the lessons I learned from some of the most important women in my life, they were connected to food. Some of my role models are: my mother- Sofia, her godmother whom I called -Mama, my maternal grandmother- Grandma Leocadia and my paternal great grandmother- Lola Ana epitomize what true Filipinas are to me and I thank them for the vibrant spirit they help to nurture within me.
First is my mother Sofia. She gave me life and continues to give me more, and I thank her for my sense of individualism and perseverance. It is a fortune of strength that she symbolizes, a lot like the fortune plants that are her prize possessions at home. Each day rising as high as the cathedral ceilings that shelter them, no matter how many times the plants are trimmed they continue to grow even stronger. This plant is known to bring prosperity if it blooms; at home our plant is like my mother, bringing much prosperity to everyone, especially our family. She is tenacious and no matter what obstacle comes her way, she faces it with such grace. I’m inspired to be a Supermom like her!
She would work endless sixteen-hour shifts as a nurse and even on her days of she could not keep still, always doing something, always going somewhere. No matter how tired or weak she felt; she never let it get the best of her. Even after back to back work shifts, several loads of labada (laundry), a table full of bills and several grocery runs, she could whip up a full spread for a family party of fifty plus… Trays of pancit, lumpia, skewers, empanada, baked rolls of espasol, brazo de mercedes and puto just to name a few of the dishes that she made all from scratch! My all time favorite special occasion dish made by my mother has always been palabok. It is coined as one of her specialties and she receives special requests all the time from visiting family members and myself, any chance we get. Palabok is a noodle dish with shrimp sauce and usually topped with sautéed seafood (ie. shrimp, mussels, squid), diced pork, fried tofu, crushed chicharron, flakes of tinapa (smoked fish), scallions and fried garlic. The mix of flavors and textures is unbeatable, a true seafood lover’s delight. My mother’s sense of adventure is like this dish, the boldness of flavors keeps you running for more!
Another favorite food that my mother would always make when I was a kid, was an egg sandwich. This was her usual baon (packed meal) for her to take to work to eat on her break. She cooked up a simple egg omelet and topped it with mayo on toasted white bread and cut it in half on the diagonal and wrapped it in foil. Most of the times she didn’t finish the whole sandwich and would bring the leftovers back home and I would always ask to eat it. It’s as if she knew and saved some for me. No matter how many times I tried to recreate this, it never tasted the same. It just had the perfect balance of flavors and was so simple yet so delicious. Much like my mother, she is so simple in her ways yet always multitasking with such finesse!
I would get so excited for field trips because my mother would prepare a special treat for my packed lunch. I also remember her making a little extra so I could have some the night before or for when I returned home. She would prepare two mini fish filet sandwiches made with square potato rolls, breaded fish filet (also square), topped with a little ketchup then wrapped up in foil (we always wrapped sandwiches in foil), along with a Hawaiian Punch juice box to pack for lunch. My mother was always so thoughtful and I find myself often making a little extra of special meals that loved ones enjoy which I learned to do from her as well.
Going back to my toddler days with “Mama,” (my mother’s godmother) who helped to take care of me while my mom worked long shifts in Manhattan as a nurse and when life for me was all about “mamanook” (milk), instant noodles, Frosted Flakes and Sunny Delight! There I was, little “Michee” with the crisp-cut bangs in a rice bowl ‘do, Buster Brown shoes and Osh Kosh B’goshed out looking at Mama with my big whopper eyes always begging for “mamanook.” “No running in the house…” she always yelled. But of course little Michee does what little Michee wants to do. Despite how many times I fell and no matter how bad of a fall it was, she always reminded me to “Stand up, go ahead and get up!” I was taught to keep on going and to never let anything bring me down. She took me into the swimming pool when I was only a couple years old and I remember being so scared of all that water ready to take me down, but in the beginning she was there to hold me up until I was able to go on my own. She taught me to tread through the heavy water, keep my head up, move my feet, hands open but cuffed and while reaching out my arms to remain focus, calm and be aware of what’s around me. Later I realized the pool of water was there for me to enjoy and explore, just as life opens up opportunities to take and learn from.
Mama was a lot like the opo squash she used to grow. Opo is like a calabash, a long light lime-green squash with white flesh and subtle in taste. It has a tough layer of skin, never overpowering in taste, but always very firm. Just like Mama, elegant but stern. She was fearless, keen and carried herself with such certainty.
A favorite dish that she would make often was ginisang upo (sautéed opo) with pork, shrimp, onions and tomato. We would eat this with rice and the flavors were so fresh and light. She spent a lot of time tending to her garden of veggies. The love and care she put into the garden came through in the food that she made with the ingredients that she cooked with. It was this lesson of patience and appreciation for what nature gave to us, is what I also learned from her.
Moving on to the days of hopping down full flights of stairs to outrun and dodge Grandma Leocadia’s boomerang “tsinelas,” (slippers) was just one of the ways I learned to be perceptive and swift. I also remember the warm biko (sweet sticky rice mixed with coconut milk and brown sugar) aromas galibanting through every room of the house. I was entranced and lured into the kitchen where my Grandma Leocadia made calderos (pots) full of biko. I always begged to help her stir and each time she reminded me to “Be carepoool, keep stirring, keep watching, you might barrrn it, okay!” For some reason, I always struggled through the massive thickness and heat in stirring the biko. Even though I used two hands and stood up on a stool, it was still a challenge, but my Grandma could easily stir with one hand while the caldero stood in place and she never broke a sweat nor did she “barrrn it.” Biko is a lot like love, sweet and satisfying in many ways, but can only be enjoyed if you tend to it gently and continue to stir to avoid burning it, then eventually becomes easier to stir.
Another one of my Grandma Leocadia’s specialties was mustasa (pickled mustard leaves). The mustard was one of the many veggies that she grew in our backyard and made sure to preserve them as much as she could. It’s not just the leaves that made this her trademark; it was all in the timplahan (flavor and seasoning). I asked how she made the mustasa so good, and as she continued to mix that secret timpla (blend of seasonings) of hers, she answered, “I just know, based on what I feel and see…” From this recipe she also taught me to be resourceful and prudent. Her mustasa was so bitter and strong, but so tasty. Each jar was potent, yet so simply made. It was all in the timpla! Just like the bittersweet Filipina that she was, it was the timpla of discipline, composure, and wit that made her Grandma Leocadia.
The warm thoughts of vibrant guamamelas (hibiscus) and fresh buko (young coconut) in the Philippines always bring me back to my memories of Palawan, the province where my father’s family is from. But the most significant memory I cherish of a trip back home was my great grandmother, Lola Ana. She symbolizes family and culture for me. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet her a year before she passed. Each day we talked and exchanged stories and she shared tidbits of our family history as well. Visiting my father’s hometown and learning firsthand about our family was so meaningful to me. Whether it was underneath the stairs on a worn down sofa, on a bench in the handmade rattan gazebo, on a banka (native canoe) by the white sand beach, beneath a coconut tree in the plantation or along the roadside by the paths of the neighboring rice terraces, Lola Ana always had a story to tell or lesson to teach. She stood beautifully with her island floral duster, tsinelas, fine strands of hair held back in a bun like a tight bundle of sotanghon rice noodles and creamy pale wrinkled skin like gata (coconut milk). Her face lit up with pride and joy each time she spoke of our family.
There are a handful of health benefits from drinking tea made from guamamela and coconut water from buko. Both hydrate and improve health just as family serves as an important part of a person’s life and well-being. The distinction of the name guamamela is beyond calling it a mere “hibiscus,” and buko is prouder than “baby coconut”; the same way I am not just a woman, but I am a Filipina. It is part of who I am and what I feel. Family is a treasure and home is where the heart of the family is.
It is the Filipina spirit within each of us that opens our arms to WELCOME and accept each person, or culture no matter how different.
It is the Filipina spirit within each of us that opens a WORLD that no one else can ever take.
It is the Filipina spirit within each of us that opens our hearts to LOVE everyone as they are, including ourselves.
Favorite Food Memories with Mom... *Many thanks to my friends that shared their stories.
"One of my favorite dishes that my mom makes is her Octopus Salad. It's a colorful dish, light to eat, and taste so good! I always ask my mom to make it. Another special dish that she makes is arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), the perfect comfort food that makes me think of family since we would always have this on special occasions when we got together with family in New Jersey and Puerto Rico." - Javier
"My Mother was the best cook. I know, without a doubt that even if it was a pb&j, she put love in everything she made. We lived in Oakland and all six of us had a favorite thing from her repertoire! For example, my Sister Mable it was "chicken and dumplings," my Sister Mary "banana pudding" and for me it was "molasses bread" warm from the oven and dusted with powdered sugar. Now when she served your favorite, she could make you feel like royalty!" - Miranda
"Growing up in Burma gave me opportunity to try all the delicious and unique dishes influenced by Chinese, Thai and Indian cuisines, but my most favorites are my mom's cooking. There are so many of them I like that it is difficult for me to pick one. But if I have to choose, it's a dish that she makes with shrimp and tamarind sauce. The dish itself is very unique and something I cannot find at restaurants. I think the original recipes came from my grandma therefore making it a special dish for me and my family." - Danie
"I remember one holiday season when we lived in the East Bay and I was in high school my mom made some bomb-ass ginetaán (Illocano). Sweet, chewy rice balls (bilo bilo)...langka...tapioca pearls...yum! Just yum! She taught me how to make it that day. And I only made it once after college. Once. I really need to try and make it again. For nostalgia's sake and to please my taste buds." - Janice
"My mom used to make delicious desserts and snacks for me and my sister while we were growing up in India. My absolute all time favorites were English Custard and Jelly & Caramel pudding. For our evening snack she would make "Aloo Tikki Chaat" which is potato patty's with cilantro and tamarind chutneys. Street food and English desserts, Yum all around." - Pashmina
"I would definitely say the brightest memory of food growing up in Russia was when my mom made red huckleberry pie for us. Wild berries picked in the tundra forest taste sweet and tart and just melting in your mouth. I can't find these berries here and several time had dreams about the smell of the pie smile emoticon That brings all sweetest memories: spending a day with my folks in tundra, picking berries, our old home, drinking tea with amazingly delicious slice of pie." -Anna