My eldest, three years old and about to enter preschool in June, loves to pull a chair to clamber onto so he could watch whenever I'm cooking. His sister, only a year old, loves to do that, too, only she cannot pull a chair yet and has a bit of a difficulty climbing onto our dining chair. She resorts to reaching out her arms to me so I could carry her and bring her near the stove so she could say ampetáng! (mainit! hot!), but which sounds only 'petáng!
Just after we wake up in the mornings my son takes out from its box his sister's plastic play kitchen and proceeds to slice with a plastic knife his doughed up clay, telling me to wait for the breakfast he is preparing for me.
As such, that is the extent of kid cooking in the house, which is the theme for this month's Lasang Pinoy, hosted by Iska at Edible Experiments. So I'm harking back to my childhood to tell of my own adventures in the kitchen.
Which, truth to tell, does not amount to much. I am one of those kids who never took to cooking - I was not interested, and seeing that, my mother didn't see any reason to kindle a flame inside of me. It was a chore I was exempted from, and I have to say I was happy, because that meant I was exempted from the marketing chores, too. I was more interested in other things, like eating what others cooked (so I loved going to parties), for one, and feeding to the cats and dogs the leftovers from our meals. And my mother let it go at that.
Little would she know how I would take to cooking later on in my life, sustained, and borne out of necessity, by my love for food and eating, and which benefits me so much now that I have a family of my own.
But back then, I only had stints in community/family food preparation activities, like rolling and forming rice dough into balls (bilo-bilo) for kinilér (ginataang halohalo/bilobilo). Or burying cashew pods under live coals, to later unearth and crack for the sweet, toasted nuts of malóko within. Or the backbreaking tasks of shelling cacao beans, pounding chocolate mixture and forming them into the native tsokoláte tabléas that my family was known for in our hometown.
I was sometimes asked to cook rice. I washed the rice until the water ran clear, and I could never get the right water level (I don't know if this has something to do with my long fingers? For non-Filipino readers, this relates to a time-honored Filipino practice of measuring water to put in a pot of rice by the finger joints), so the family ate rice that smelled burnt but remained uncooked, or too watery that my dad once thought we were having arroz caldo for dinner.
I was marked for that, and until now I always think I cannot cook rice properly so I ask my children's nannies to take care of it. Sometimes when I have no choice, salt on the rice pot lid and some mumbled prayers do miracles, but I think I just get lucky.
I remember, when we lived in my paternal grandparents' house, having a miniature set of clay cooking equipment, complete with a pot, a clay stove, some ladles, which could be used to cook food like the real thing (primitive though as it was, a pot and a clay stove used to be the only means to cook when I was a child, and we still have it now to cook food that has to have the taste of a woodfire, and requires clay cooking for even heat distribution).
I never was able to cook anything in my play set, of course, but my dad's cousins, who took care of the cooking in the house, once cooked a real tinola (chicken in broth and vegetables) with it. Of course it was just a cup of it.
In remembrance of that memory, and of my days of self-imposed ignorance, which could have had debilitating effects on my stature as wife to a socially active husband, and mother to growing kids, had I not found the necessity of cooking and the natural instinct to do so, I celebrate this month's Lasang Pinoy with tinola. The tinola cooked in my paternal grandparents' house during family Sunday dinners, using free-range chicken raised in the backyard.
I don't raise free-range chickens, but they can be bought at the public market, alive, every Wednesday and Sunday, the market days in my hometown. I have seen "organic" dressed chickens sold by Rustans, but at the price of P500/kilo, it's rather a laughable idea.
When buying native chicken alive (identified by, at the least, colored feathers), it is best to tie it in the backyard for a few days, feeding it just grains. This so it could expel anything it has eaten from the soil, cleansing its intestines, assuring that it won't be very malansa when cooked.
A dressed native chicken has tawny or yellowish skin, bonier than the commecially raised white leghorn (especially the drumstick), and often has unborn eggs. It is the best, the one and only chicken to use for me, for cooking tinola, because slow-cooking for hours renders its fat and brings out the full flavors from its well-exercised bones, making the broth incomparable in taste.
The medicinal taste sometimes found in commercial chickens can never be encountered in native chicken, and you are sure that you are not eating anything peppered with growth boosters and antibiotics and other synthetics from the time it hatched from its egg.
Cooking native chicken tinola requries a lot of ginger, and a pot full of water, wherein the chicken is boiled for about two to three hours. In a pressure cooker it can soften in about 30-45 minutes, up to one hour when it has already hatched many a batch of eggs (the chicken locally called "cull" in slang).
When the chicken is cooked the choice vegetables are added. For us it is peeled unripe papaya from the backyard, cut to thick cubes, halved potatoes and carrots, and some whole peppercorns for flavor. When the vegetables are almost done, young marunggay (malunggay, moringa olefeira) leaves plucked from the trees in front are added to the soup.
The chicken, and the vegetables, and the soup, make for a complete meal requiring nothing else but steaming hot rice (not cooked by me), and maybe some sweets afterwards. It is healthy fare, invigorating, cold-chasing, but best of all flavorful and a celebration of things growing around you.