Soup opera

I’ve been thinking of soup a lot lately. Craving it. Enjoying it in almost absurd amounts, too. Our cook, who was with us many years and whom I sent to many different cooking schools, decided one fine day to fall in love. As she whistled and hummed lilting tunes with a twinkle in her eye our meals became even better, proof that inspiration and happiness could be very potent and very magical ingredients. But then, like recipes, love stories can get complicated. The cook had to leave, to follow her heart and/or simplify her life, and along with her went some of our finest meals. Sigh. For our convenience and because I really liked her I did not want to let her go. But. Tell me. How can a hungry household compete with the call of love?

I mention all that because her exodus marked the genesis of the love affair that I now have with soup. Maybe because I missed the shabu-shabu dish she made so well, something she learned from Sylvia Reynoso Gala’s cooking class. I never grew tired of it, and whomever we served it to would almost always end up loving it just as much. It looked plain enough, unassuming even, just broth with meat and bright vegetables.  But it came with two kinds of sauces served on the side that you mix into your bowl upon eating. I could eat it for lunch, then dinner, and the leftovers for lunch and dinner again the next day if I had to.

Thankfully heaven sent me a new cook, younger but just as nice, maybe not as experienced in the kitchen but with significant potential. Being from the province, she brought with her raw skills and recipes honed in her own home, her own mother’s kitchen. Naturally the first order of business was to put her to cooking school also, the way I did our first cook, but even before I could do that she showed off by making really good yema, and the best munggo soup I have ever tried. Now I was never really a fan of munggo soup to begin with, it was always sort of neither here nor there as far as I was concerned, something I never touched when it was on the table during meals. But this one — this one was different. The beans were mushy and the soup thick, just so. And my first taste of it happened while it was steaming hot and I was very hungry. So, like the ingredients of what is destined to be a remarkable love affair, I guess it’s safe to say that that meeting was fateful — it happened at the right place, at the right time. When I think about it now I can’t believe I missed out on all these years without munggo soup on the playlist of my appetite.

One night a few weeks back, Boyong, he who makes the best callos in the universe (I am still convincing him to, please, turn it into a business so that I have the flexibility to order anytime!), was whiling away the time in our home on his way to pick up his wife from the airport. A trained chef, he started tinkering around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and meat and getting some kind of stew going. Richard made cheese fondue and between that and Boyong’s concoction we enjoyed a lovely and spontaneous meal that night. The thick broth was the color of a sunset on the beach, reddish-orange with bright-colored bits of vegetables and bacon languishing in it like lazy jewels. It was warm and wonderful, like the giggle and gurgle of a little baby. I know there were other dishes on the table that night but those two are the only ones I remember clearly, whatever others were there sort of just dissolved into the background of my mind. Boyong was generous enough to share the recipe with the new cook, who I fondly refer to as the munggo master, but she is still on a hit-and-miss basis with it. Tonight she made a big pot. It was a tad too salty, but it was still good. An antidote came in the form of multi-grain bed from Uno. Dunked into the soup or eaten as little pieces torn off the big slice, it still made for a very hearty treat.

Now you would think that after a series of soups I would be wont to move on to dry food again. Not quite. Richard and Juliana were simultaneously challenged with bad colds and a nasty cough and the kitchen started dishing out chicken soup. The kind that tastes like it had time to steep in patience and get-well-soon kind of wishes. For that Yaya Lita used native chicken bought from the weekend market that was coerced by spices to surrender until it was nothing more than a tender, tasty mound of meat and skin falling off from the bones. As it cooked whatever grease rose to the surface was scooped out, and even after we let it sit a while for a last surface sweep of lingering fat. What was left was pure, healthy goodness, the taste of chicken and a hint of ginger coupling expertly enough to want to make you lick the bowl clean of every drop.

I now remember watching a very sophisticated lady I was seated beside at a dinner in El Cirkulo, many moons ago. She was beautiful in black, a rope of pearls around her neck, and gloss the color of ruby on her full lips. She ordered nothing more than wine and sopa de lentejas and with every spoonful she would close her eyes in delight and her lips would turn up in some secret smile. I now understand totally where she was coming from. Note to self: go to El Cirkulo ASAP and try their sopa de lentejas.

In Inagiku at Shangri-La Makati, there is this soup I always order that was initially prompted by food envy. Ben would often order it and that night I wanted what he was having. It has a name that I can never quite remember, and I always make a mental note to type it in my mobile phone, which I have never gotten around to doing. But the waitress, God bless the waitress, she smilingly always remembers what she now knows I will always forget. It comes to my place on the table, on what looks like an iron pot lined with thick parchment paper. It has chunks of sea bass, mushrooms, vegetables, joy. There is lots and lots of the latter with every spoonful.

And then there is Sheila and her authentic misua, the most magical of all soup recipes my taste buds have ever had the pleasure of meeting. She says her husband, who is Chinese, makes it from scratch and it arrives on my doorstep on the morning of every birthday I’ve had since I met her. Then it becomes the first meal and it really does make me feel like the day will unfold into a happy birthday. Unlike the misua soup I grew up eating at home through the years this one is dry, liquid-less if you may, but when it slips through the mouth like delicate silken ribbons you know there was soup involved in the cooking, somewhere, at some point. Except that some time during its cooking the white noodles decided to pull one over the liquid pool it was deliciously swimming in, hungrily sucking keeping it all in until not a trace of it was left. As a result all credit goes to the noodles, none to the broth it befriended and used. Many times in between birthdays I have wished Sheila and Teddy were our next-door neighbors.

Now that I am loving soup in all its many incarnations I fancy a great big pot, from where kind thoughts are ladled alongside the perfect recipe that it almost always is into thick, big bowls. I so wish I was one of those who could make it effortlessly. If I only had the time.

Nevertheless, it can be had in many wonderful days and even more wonderful ways. There is something soothing about it, something quite mysterious, too, if you were to think of how it comes to mind when the rains fall, when hearts break, or the sniffles come. They can come in very handy when the night seems bleakly empty. Maybe it is because there is something innately nurturing about it, and sometimes we need something more tangible than a hug yet more gentle than a big steak. When it comes to this most delicate and patient of recipes, with the last spoonful I am strangely reassured. Always I find myself basking in the resultant feeling and glow of well being, thankful for soup that has soothed more than just the hunger growling in my gut.


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