In the Filipinx Diaspora, We Are Remaking Tradition, the Recipe Edition

Source: Reynaldo Alejandro, The Philippine Cookbook (NY: Perigree Books, 1985).

As you can see, I have made some amendments to my oldest Filipino cookbook, which I have had since the 1990s.

No one ever really taught me to cook. I’ve been making kare kare for a few years now, for Christmas dinner with my mother’s side of the family. I now make kare kare once a year. Prior to this, I was in charge of the pochero, which also no one ever taught me how to cook. So I write this, not as a chef, but as a daughter.

I started with this cookbook, Reynaldo Alejandro’s The Philippine Cookbook, which, as you can see, is well worn. Each time I cook, I tweak some things. I was told, I should write this one down. I think of my fellow Pinay authors, who, when asking their elder women how you “know” family recipe measurements, you usually get a “just add some..” “just some…” “just a little of…” and I see how this can be maddening. But for myself, I think I get it. Many of us pick up these family traditions not through any formal education or rite of passage, but simply by having it in our lives, in our family homes, in our family celebrations. We may ask an elder woman, with our modern ideas of recipe, but the elder women just did it, and continued to it for years, for their whole adult lives.

By the time I was old enough to try to make any of these dishes, my mother’s mother had long passed. My mom and her sisters would tell me what they knew, and their knowledge, I can see now, came from having these things in their lives, in their homes for as long as they could remember. When I told my mom I was not so keen with cabbage or bok choy in kare kare, she said, just switch it out. She recommended Swiss chard, and so now, I use rainbow chard in my kare kare. When I told her I couldn’t find oxtails because I’d gone to the butcher too late in the Christmas season, she said, try shank, or try short rib. I started adding these aromatics to the broth because they were in my spice cabinet. A cinnamon stick, some star anise. This time around, since we were at the Whole Foods produce section, I said, let’s use lemongrass too.

I am writing this for those of you asking. And so I’m telling you to do it your way. I’m telling you to ask your family what and why and how. Why does your family do things the way they do. How did their/your traditions change over time, with migration and economics.

I am writing this, because I want to say a few things about tradition. In my family, it’s women’s tradition, I think, though my uncle, my mother’s brother, is also a pretty good cook.

As I’ve been teaching Pinay Lit for almost a decade now, one thing we talk about it where women create and convey narrative, when they do not have access to literacy, and/or to formal education. In my family, many of my elder women did go to school. And though they did have lives in the working world, they were also the keepers of family tradition. Many things did change, not from negligence or even rebellion, but just from economics, and availability of food items and time. In recent years, my mother and her sisters have given a lot of this responsibility to me and my sisters.

I have no family recipe book; I was recently watching Jacques Pépin on PBS, and he showed his books of meals — what was served for what courses on what days, and who was at the dinner party (I think there were recipes in these books as well, but now I can’t remember). These are artful heirlooms. These are the things that matter. I recently read Betty Ann Quirino’s “Last Christmas.” And here, she talks about what you take with you, what you hold close, what changes, and what matters.

I think a lot of people misunderstand these days and just want the cheap and easy answer that would best be answered through introspection and talking to their own families. A friend of mine just posted his photos of his homemade ensaymadas, and then he wrote, these are from my lola’s recipe, which he didn’t share. He shared a recipe that was already posted online. For him, his lola’s recipe is sacred. Others would demand he share, say he’s being selfish, hoarding knowledge. No, he’s holding his lola’s memory close, precisely because it is sacred. Sometimes, these are the only things we have left of our elder women.

For me, it’s deep. I think of my mother and her sisters handing this responsibility over to me. You see some bragging bitch with her Instant Pot. I’m thinking of my mother’s mother. I’m thinking, how can I have inherited so much from her, when I still have a million questions I will never be able to ask her.

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