Nana said that it started with playdough pizzas, and pretending to be a server. The iconic food network, even. But I say it started within the shuffle of instant ramen packets, boxed macaroni and cheese, and cans of oil packed sardines. Cake mixes took up a lot of the top shelf, only giving way to - what seemed like – an unnecessary amount of frostings, in almost every flavor imaginable. The next shelf was filled with chocolate. So much chocolate. Chocolate bars, baking chocolates, cocoa butter, even cocoa beans every once in a while; but I always reached for those “whack and unwrap” chocolate oranges. The shelf above the rusty gardening hand tools bent to the straining weight of dusty-topped soup cans.
Packs of dried shrimp and bonito flakes neatly fell into place behind the chestnut stained wooden sliding doors. Sometimes, when I had to realign the door into the tracks, I’d bump the shelves a little too hard and a pack of hopia, or dried mangos would fall to the ground (which I happily picked up and enjoyed). Rice noodles and nori took up one side of another shelf, with Shrimp Chips and Pocky sticks on the other. Miso paste and spam were always towards the front, with many varieties of rice sitting comfortably alongside them. But after that, everything was a mystery. This absence of general familiarity birthed some kind of innocent childish curiosity inside the still moldable heart, brain, and soul of my ten-year-old self.
Nana was Filipina. She was the short Asian lady who carried an umbrella and wore over-sized hats to protect her from the sun when she went out. By just looking at her hands, you could tell that arthritis had taken its toll. Her skin, slightly fair, looked fragile. Her veins showed through her skin, the way a body builder’s does as they’re “pumping iron”; but hers lacked the protruding muscle of those mentioned prior. She spoke softly, but stern. Caring, but confident. It’s still that voice that I hear in my head, now. Every time I do anything, even remotely familiar to those days cooking with Nana, it always comes back to that soft, stern, confident voice.
I remember the adobo. It was always a little too salty, and a little too vinegary for me. But that’s how she liked it. The eggs, green onions, bean sprouts, and last night’s dinner meat in my instant Top Ramen started out weird when I was a kid. Now, most nights I’ll crave that over a well-made dashi accompanied by perfectly prepared alkali noodles from any beloved limited seat ramen shop.
There was a chicken-rice soup that was always made for me when I was sick. It slowly carved itself into my memory until it became a part of me. Now, every taste or scent of ginger and juniper, bay laurel or chive brings me back to my prepubescent runny-nose days on Nanas blue upholstered reclining lounge chair.
I fell in love with the fresh apple pies and the warm chocolate chip cookies. My infatuation with baking grew with every over-mixed angels food cake, or fallen soufflé that I tried to put together while trying to keep up with Nana in the kitchen. I enjoyed the deep, rich, yeasty smell that filled her house when fresh bread was on the to-do list. And even more so, the sweet, buttery, nutty aroma of fresh caramel sauce had me burning my tongue just to get an early taste.
From the back door, I watched the persimmon tree grow all year, until the orange-red bunches begged to be let down; and when that time of year came, I would confidently wield her orange basket apple picker like an unassuming soldier prepared for battle. My skin would go red while trying to slap the ants, and occasional spider off of me. Dirt always got into my eyes, and scrapes and cuts would cover my arms after fighting for every piece of beautifully ripe, succulent, priceless orange gem Nana and I could get my hands - apple picker - on. But finally, once in our possession, they provided us and our neighbors with all the baked goods we could possibly put up with.
But, the suman. That’s what I remember most. That, out of everything, is what stuck. It used to be only Christmas time when it came around, but after some begging, it became a staple. The soft chewiness of the rice seemed to melt away slowly, letting you know you’re ready for another bite. And the perfectly balanced warm, sweet, nutty, coconut flavor, was always strongest right at the end of every mouthful. Identical to a good [foie gras] torchon, or a perfectly thin slice of cured Jamón Ibérico, Nanas suman seemed to dissolve from the warmth of your lounge, into a literal nothingness. My beautiful, perfect, immaculate version of indulgence and gluttony.
That’s what I remember, at least. Nana passed away shortly after mother’s day 2014. When it all happened, they said my smile changed. They said that the way I walked had lost it's step, and that the look in my eye desperately begged for something... Some kind of tangible entity, maybe to hopelessly replace what I had lost. They said that I had lost my focus, my work ethic, and with that… my talent. Self-esteem depleted, while an empty pride took over. They said that selfishness now started to peek out from the shadow that had always been with me, and emptiness overcame. But the way I saw it, my days got rougher, longer, and lonelier. My mind got cluttered. My nights, wasted, and my days, a waste. And food was all I had. I’m pretty sure they could see it at school. But at work, I hid it well. I surrounded myself in cooking. It was all I had. I tucked my head into cookbooks and distracted myself with everything I could. It’s still kind of like that, but I’m more okay with it now.
Since Nana passed, I’ve found myself trying to recreate what she had done before, only to realize that is it a lot trickier than it seemed. That little old lady held some impeccable finesse within her time-worn hands.
First, I focused on the suman. Sweet rice is used [not actually sweet, but only called sweet rice because it is usually used in primarily dessert applications]. The amount of gluten in this particular rice is higher than normal, which allows for the individual kernels to stick together, creating the desired “chewy” texture. Though, traditionally cooked in coconut milk, then wrapped in Corypha leaves, native to the Philippines (as well as Indonesia Malaysia, and parts of Australia), then steamed, Nana baked hers. If you add too much liquid [I use a mixture of water and coconut milk] the rice will over cook, ruining any hope for that desired chew. Too little liquid and you’ll end up with a crunchy, undercooked, glop. Too much sugar? Excessively sweet. Too much sugar, and not enough liquid? Burnt and bitter.
The funny part is, though, that no matter what, I always loved what came out. Every crunchy, or overcooked, or burnt, or bitter rice whatever-it-was, I still loved it. They still had the familiar flavors that brought me back to what I knew. Like the scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego takes one bite of Remy’s dish and immediately is taken back to childhood? It’s like that. Or when Twenty One Pilots said “Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young.” Or when Eric Church sang “funny how a melody sound like a memory.” Yeah, that’s technically in another sense, but by now you should know what I mean.
What I find ironic, however, is that as a chef, cook, or foodie, you’re supposed to love food for what it is, or how it tastes; but sometimes when that fails, you still love it for what it gives you. Not sustenance, per se. Not really pleasure, or joy, even. But I find it funny how, sometimes you can love something for what it brings back. The memories. That’s what I mean. Every time I taste the distinct flavor of coconut, or brown sugar in anything, I see Christmas lights, I hear Nanas voice in the back of my mind, I smell the honey glazed ham, the roast turkey, and the evergreen air fresheners hung from our faux Douglas Fir.
That’s what I became. And now, that’s how I cook, also. I never understood how cooks and chefs can put together a dish solely with their head in a cook book or a “flavor bible”. For me, food never makes sense unless it’s relatable. Genuine. True. Heston Blumenthal refers to food and dining as a “multi-sensory experience.” Food should carry “wonder and awe” a “childish curiosity”, in his words. In a way, I’ve adopted that philosophy, but I’ve also molded it around. All the food literate people out there know that this has been said before, but I feel it’s appropriate here as well. Food, to me, isn’t recipes. It’s not following what someone says, but stepping back on to the stones that you’ve laid down throughout your whole life, thus far. I’ve been in kitchens where chefs and cooks would create a dish based solely on what an author says goes well. Or what a chef they idolize says is cool. And even if they do create a dish, or meal that means something to them… they lack the explanation. Communication isn’t just a necessity when putting a dinner service together on a line. Communication is also a necessity when describing your food. Tell me your memories. Share your story. Influence me with whatever influenced you. Please. As a young chef. I beg you.
In the beginning, they said that if I want to be good, really good; not the kind of good where people like your food, or where you get the stars… but good meaning you have peoples respect, when people believe in what you’re doing, good or bad. Maybe even wanting to be like you in a way... they said that I would have to give into myself. They told me that if I wanted to really, somehow mean something to someone, and that if I wanted to do big things, I would have to share my story. Everyone asked what my style was, and it’s changing. But only one person asked me where I started, what genuinely made me what to cook. And the more I thought about it, I realized that it all began, it all started in Nanas pantry.