An Appreciation

Yes, I know. It’s been quite a while since I’ve written and posted anything.  I always have so many different tasks that writing always gets pushed further down my ‘to-do’ list. There have been many changes in my life as of late. My child has started school, I’m in a new phase of my culinary career and more importantly and much more recently, my father passed away. It’s been four months since his passing and life is slowly finding a new rhythm. My father’s death wasn’t a surprise or a sad tragedy. He was ninety-one and had lived nine of those years in a diminishing state of dementia as a result of his stroke. And while he lived in a wonderful nursing facility with caring and empathetic caregivers, it was still a life lived without his memories. A good portion of my father died the day of his stroke and never came back.  I can’t imagine how my father felt afterwards but I know it was hard for me to see this once cheerful and gregarious man become this quiet person without his advice and stories. His death brought me sadness and a sense of relief all at once.

Ever since his passing, I found myself retreating into the kitchen and cooking even during the summer heat.  I craved the food that my father used to cook when I was a child. I owe a lot to my father with regards to cooking and eating. My favorite memory of my dad was my first night in the US. I couldn’t sleep and joined my dad in the kitchen. He was fixing himself a midnight snack of Laura Scudder’s Peanut Butter on toast with a glass of Minute Maid orange juice. To this day, the taste of those two things together makes me think of him. While my mother was my first cooking teacher, my father was the one who taught me to develop my palate. My father worked from home while we were children and he began cooking not only to feed himself, but to provide my brother and me with our meals. I always helped out. My father was a practical cook. It was borne out of necessity- he was a teenager in the Philippines during World War II and lived through rationing and food shortages. Because of this, he liked to use convenience foods and ingredients in his cooking. I remember he had an affinity for canned foods like corned beef and dehydrated onions and granulated garlic. He thought of ketchup, worcestershire and soy sauce as invaluable and frozen vegetables and packets of powdered gravy mix featured broadly in our meals too.

He was a strictly ‘meat and rice’ man. It was my job to make the rice and the salad and he focused on the main course. He loved Filipino food and made many of his favorites using his palate as his guide- Arroz a la Cubana, Bistec Filipino, Pochero, Nilaga, Afritada, Tapa, Tocino and of course Adobo. He made a few kinds of Adobo- usually chicken, sometimes beef or pork or my favorite version made with whole squid.  He loved inventing new dishes based on whatever we had on hand. One of his favorite creations was sauteed shrimp with onions and a sauce of equal parts soy sauce and ketchup. When I was in culinary school, I was embarrassed at  the idea of using my father’s methods or short cuts.  But as busy wife and mother and more practical human being,  I find myself using some of his techniques and ingredients with a newfound appreciation.

My father had a pretty keen palate- if he enjoyed a dish at a restaurant, he’d come home and try to replicate it. I remember how he always tasted his food as he cooked, pausing and thinking carefully about the flavors. Tasting the finished product, I was amazed at how closely he duplicated the restaurant’s dish in flavor and appearance. He was also very sensitive to how food looked- Papa always admired how the Japanese presented their food and how they garnished each dish. When he served his food, he made sure each plate was beautiful. Rice was always molded into a small bowl and turned out onto a dish in a perfect half dome. He loved parsley and taught me to garnish with a pretty sprig by the main course. He encouraged me to cut cucumbers and radishes into artful shapes. It’s a very ‘old-school’ way of plating food but it made an indelible impression on me ever since.

I will always miss my father but perhaps never more so than when I make something he used to cook and share it with my little boy. Thank you Papa for all you taught me in the kitchen and in life. 

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