It is a few days after New Year’s Day, and here I am, still wrapping presents and writing Christmas cards. I love it. It is a time that is more quiet, but still as joyful as the best of December.
This Christmas, I packed thousands of cookies I specially ordered to give away, and fell in love with the dozens that found their way to our home. There were hard ones and soft ones, gaily wrapped individually in foil or arranged neatly in tin cans. They presented themselves under lovely names, pedigreed and rich with the history of the kitchens they came from. I fell in love especially with shortbread cookies for some reason (where have they been all my life?) and I thank my very new sister-in-law Rica for making loads of them over the holidays. When that ran out and I was no longer in Ormoc, Marks and Spencer thankfully had a good supply. And the fact that they come in adorable tin cans is a plus.
I ate a lot of lechon, too, too much in fact, so I actually said I would give it up till Christmas this year. Not! I desire it too much. Lechon comes in all forms during the holidays; in its original roasted form and then, in its many reincarnations — as paksiw, sinigang, adobo, the ulo as sisig, refried. The latter is my favorite; I remember how our cook would cut up what was left of the lechon (if there were leftovers at all) and salt it again, frying the pieces in hot oil with lots and lots of garlic. That, to me, dear readers, more than paksiw, is lechon love.
I sometimes wish we had fixed traditions but our family has always been quite fluid over the years. WhenLola Carmen was still alive and we spent either Christmas or New Year with her, dinner would always be sit-down. I’ve never seen a table as big as the round one Lola Carmen had in Cebu. It could seat over a dozen people all at once, and Manoy Pael would set each place formally with special plates and cutlery that came out only at Christmas or New Year. As children, we felt very special about the fact that we could sit where the adults were and — this is the best part — at some point in the long meal eavesdrop on conversation we were not supposed to hear. My sister, my cousins and I became very good at decoding words and sentences that our parents, uncles and aunts would jumble up to protect our innocence. It was fun.
I remember that it would not be buffet-style, and it felt so special being served the way we would expect to be in restaurants but in the comfort of Lola’s home. Always, there would be mechado but this version would be like roast pork except that the whole slab of beef would be cooked with fat right smack in the center, such that when the mechado was cooked and then sliced, the fat was like a white jewel that sat at the center of it. It was saucy and delicious. I have not tasted it in years, as though it were a dish that died with Lola Carmen. I wish I could have it again soon. Maybe Tito Gabby knows how to make it.
Chicken salad that Tita Liclic famously made was always present, also. And then there was TitaMonette’s fruitsalad made with no cream but some Sprite. I miss it and each time I do I can almost taste it. The memory is so clear. There are a handful of other memories that are almost exclusive to Christmas — Tita Milagring’s bitin-bitin which is actually a pili cake called such because it has been formed into a big ring to resemble a coiled snake. The length of the body is frosted in crisp white icing in a crisscross pattern to resemble snake’s skin and, considering how sinister it looked with glazed fruit or raisins as eyes, it was always heaven at first bite. Nobody makes it quite the way she did. Like Lola’s mechado, it has been years since I last tasted Tita Milagring’s bitin-bitin and I wish one of her children or grandchildren know how to make it. Bitin, by the way, is bisaya for snake. Tita Milagring passed just this December, God bless her soul. She was 90 years old.
What else does the season bring? Fruitcake! Oh, I love fruitcake. It has gotten such a bad rap though that this year not one single fruitcake found its way to me (sad face). Where did all the fruitcakes go? Did people not make them at all?
For all the rich food I indulged in there was a point when all I wanted to eat was linung-ag na hilaw na saging dipped in guinamos (boiled unripe sababananas dipped in fish sauce very similar tobagoong Balayan). I ate that a lot growing up and it is sentimental favorite until now. I had that twice in December, as a breaker. Tuyo with rice is also always a good choice.
Now, enough of all the food I gorged on over the past weeks. I just bought a book that is about — you guessed it — still food. No regrets. Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat is a lovely read, bursting at the seams with little stories here and there that make you feel like you were allowed access to a wonderful conversation. Yes, it is a cookbook, but it is not too technical or boring to read as some are. In true Nigella fashion she demystifies cooking (which is perfect for non-cooks like me who love to eat) without making the whole process, and outcome, less gorgeous than it is. She also makes eating butter and fat sound like a very good idea and I like that fearlessness about her. And insofar as actual cooking goes, this book makes you feel that even if the dish falls short, I will at least have enjoyed trying to make it work. There is a sturdy and sensual simplicity in her approach that is inspiring.
Now, let me leave you with a little story that happened mid-afternoon on Dec. 31, 2011 in Hong Kong. Richard and I were craving roast goose as we are wont to do each time we find ourselves there. A quick question on Twitter came back with the top recommendation: Yung Kee in Wellington Street, Central. We got there past lunch, hungry as wolves, only to find a long line. We were given a number, 141, and were told it would be a 30- to 45-minute wait behind about 40 other people. Then they started calling out numbers 123… 124… 125. Dear Lord, we were a long way off. I entertained myself by counting the uncooked roast goose that I could see being transported from one room to the next, two at a time laid flat on huge stainless trays. There were about 60 of them (that makes about 30 trips by different waiters) that I saw from where I stood, I presume they were for the night’s crowd. The girl spoke into the mic again: 128, 129… and then this: “We ah sowee to infom you that the woast goose is oh sowd out. Again (and this she said very slowly for emphasis) WOAST. GOOSE. IS. SOWD. AW. SOWEE.” And she really did look sad for all of us crestfallen customers. Another announcement: “Oh, and the woast goose is sowd aw untiw Jan. 3.” What!? How can Yung Kee run out of roast goose!? Not fair!
For my part, I was so hungry I was willing to go to their kitchen and roast the goose myself. But when she said that, something good actually happened. Half of the foyer cleared out immediately and the series from 130-140 passed by in less than 10 minutes with no takers. Richard had the good sense to wait it out — he said we were all so hungry anyway we would enjoy lunch just as much without the roast goose. I was dead set on having it though and decided to still ask the waiter for it anyway. There had to be some left, I was sure of it. Then I prayed to God and told him that because we waited so long (over an hour), and especially because we were just visiting, to please magically produce roast goose sometime during our meal.
Number 141. That was us. We were finally seated at our table and we ordered roast pork glazed with honey, fried taro dumplings, shrimp dumplings, fried rice, some other dishes I cannot remember. (I told you, we were hungry.) Of course I just had to push my luck and ask for roast goose. The kind, fatherly man sadly shook his head, there was none left. He recommended a few other dishes, all of which we said yes to. When he was all done I said. “Maybe you can check in the kitchen. Maybe there is roast goose hidden? Even just a little. Please?” (Big, hopeful smile). He paused for a moment, as if mentally going through the inventory in the kitchen, and then left. About two minutes later a different man came out and said they found enough for one regular order, and asked if that was okay with us. Okay? Alleluia! I wanted to break out in song! A full regular order did come, alongside plum sauce, and it did not disappoint. Juliana, Richard and I were the three happiest people in that room that day. Faith really does move mountains, and in this case, produce roast goose where none was supposed to be found.
And that is how I will meet and greet all the days of 2012, with a lot of hope and faith. All I have to do is remember my roast goose story.
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