The comfort of food

It is October, and my daughter has a situation. We are sitting at the kitchen table, it is midnight, and we have just opened a can of Century Bangus. Poured over warm rice it is tasty and spicy and delicious the way only home-cooked meals can be, except that it is not, and that makes it even more appealing. I look at Juliana beside me and she is nearly in tears, literally. The saucy dish is too spicy for her to tolerate but she loves it and cannot stop eating it. I think of how a lot of things in life are like that — good even if it hurts or is uncomfortable, something you would still choose to pick up again and again, even as it stretches you beyond what is familiar. She decides stolidly to brave it out and we go on and devour the snack in happy if hungry silence, sharing a can between us, gulping down orange juice in between. The next time we enjoy the exact same meal together, several days after that, we already know what to expect and strangely enough the dish does not seem as hot even as it stays as delicious. We are prepared this time around, I guess; no more surprises.

November comes along and much of it is about Gustavus, located along Palanca Street. Being there feels like having shoulders wrapped around you, with its plush seats and earthy color scheme. We frequent the place, ordering the same food each time — salad, oysters, and steak (in that order) — so often that Juliana actually starts empathizing with the seafood in particular. “Motherrr, I feel so sorry for the oyster,” she drawls in her best Disney Channel voice. “There they are happily swimming in the sea and some chef from Gustavus plucks them out to serve to people like you who love eating them!” I laugh at the thought, and for a split second I actually miss that age of innocence when I also had time to ponder over random stuff, even if it wasn’t exactly about oysters and the luscious, short, lives they lead. I am a mommy now, on the receiving end of the kind of innocent joy that only a child can bring forth, and as I slurp down the fat juicy oyster, guiltlessly, loving the taste of sea and sunshine inside my mouth, I thank God for that. I love it — the poor oyster. I can murder a whole lot of them at any given time and be all the happier for it. I wonder how kids of this generation choose what they will wonder about?

I remember once, while we were watching TV, an ad for potato chips popped up and she asked why the potato was so happy to be chosen when in fact it will next be peeled, cut, fried into a chip and eaten by a human being. What happens to his potato life, she asked? I couldn’t answer, except to say that maybe they were destined to really land in a heap in crisp, noisy foil bags labeled very simply as “potato chips.”

December. What is December without food, food, and more food? Mine was dotted heavily with Patchi chocolates, and queso de bola, not necessarily together nor in that order. Patchi is now available at Bonifacio High Street and you must go and try it yourself, if you haven’t yet. Visually almost as precious as jewelry, they languidly lounge inside crystal bowls and/or show off their beauty in neat rows, in a “come hither” kind of way. I bite into each nugget and I cannot help but close my eyes in pleasure. God bless the day chocolate was made. If gold could be eaten, I pray it would taste like chocolate. Patchi also comes in sugar-free versions that still are as good as you can only hope they will be. My favorite is still the plain milk chocolate though, and I do not think I will ever quite outgrow the itch to, when I have a couple of little bars in one hand and warm bread in the other (preferably a buttery, flaky croissant), tuck the former into the latter until the two melt gently into one another, just so.

The queso de bola (either Marca Pato or Marca Pina) I would cut in relatively thick slices and stick in the microwave for a few minutes until it runs a little on the plate. I then top it off with a dollop of strawberry preserves, preferably the Good Shepherd brand from Baguio, half and half of each in every bite. Try it, please. I suspect you will love it, too. It tastes almost forbidden and strangely delicious, a little secret that is too selfish to keep to yourself. If you are, however, craving something more jolting and intense, like cheese crisps, you can always opt to cut the queso de bola very thinly, shove it quickly into the oven toaster until they shrink somewhat. You will then pull them out to discover that they have beautifully transformed into crispy little cheese crackers with a very premium taste. With that, all you will need is a good book for company, and maybe some sweet, fresh fruit and nice tea. Both variants are equally delicious, just in different ways.

A recent discovery: Max’s serves really good sinigang na salmon ulo and belly. The sinigang taste is spot-on and the whole dish has a homemade taste to it that is comforting and familiar. Canned sardines in tomato sauce — a favorite I revisited again very recently. Crushed with a fork into a coarse paste, I squeeze lemon or calamansi over it and smother it with just enough Tabasco to give it a kick. I add more of a twist by throwing in some chopped guindillas and I spoon the same over good, reliable Skyflakes. With every bite I remember my childhood, summers in Cebu with my sister and two of my naughtiest cousins, and midnight forays into the kitchen when all the adults are asleep and we, the younger ones, try to make heads or tails of conversations we would eavesdrop on among our aunts and uncles. It was so much fun, trying to put two and two together and the fact that such stories were not freely shared with us in the first place made us want to comprehend it all the more. These memories make me happy. They also make me realize that those days are far behind me and I am glad I enjoyed them when I did. When we all get together now we are still very much the same people, just older, scared now and again, maybe a tad crazier but wiser, and more comfortable with our real selves.

I do not know why I ended up writing about food this week; maybe because it is raining and I am far away from home, on a plane ride to some place that seems far but is actually relatively near, and right this very minute already I miss Juliana. Glad as I am to have a little time away with friends a part of me wishes I were with her, in our kitchen, eating a can of Century Bangus poured over warm white rice.


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