We were in Los Angeles last weekend to celebrate my birthday. My mother prepared my favorite dish, kare-kare. The secret ingredient: an entire stick of butter for the roux made with achiote and toasted rice powder. The oxtail was falling off the bone tender, the peanut butter sauce sublime, the accompanying fried bagoong alamang with bacon bits was almost guilding the lily. No vegetables to distract from the taste, although I would have enjoyed a bit of talong, sitaw, pechay and maybe banana blossom heart to sop up that amazing sauce. In discussing the kare-kare recipe, I suggested that maybe next time she make the peanut butter herself, toasting raw peanuts and grinding this with mortar and pestle. Not one to miss an opportunity for teasing us about our over-achiever tendencies in the kitchen, Kuya interjected,"And while she's at it, maybe she can also raise the ox and chase it for the tail."
To add to the birthday feast, my mother also served fresh oysters from the farmer's market, pancit made with king trumpet mushrooms and camaron rebosado shrimps, and the most glorious dinengdeng with all the hard to find greens: leaves and tendrils of sitaw, ampalaya, squash and saluyot. This downhome Ilocano vegetable stew is what I miss the most living away from my family.
My mother is equal parts traditionalist and post-modernist in the kitchen. She is meticulous about ingredients and is a force to watch as she makes her way through the stalls at the Torrance Farmer's market, scrutinizing each vegetable, fruit or protein item before adding it to her loot. We follow behind her and take the white bags to the car so as not to impede her progress as she moves, trancelike, from the stall with the Ilokano vegetables to the fish mongers for oysters and wild caught black cod, the white bags bursting with goodness multiplying at a dizzying rate.
In a few hours I will be at my in-laws who will be hosting an informal belated birthday lunch. The cooking style in Pleasant Hill is different but just as amazing. Ma does not make a whole production out of her shopping and cooking. She works alone and produces the stick to your ribs classics: pancit, dinuguan with only ground beef, meatloaf, chicken falling off the bone in a tomato and bell pepper sauce, perfect lumpia, and always something sweet made with malagkit and slivers of macapuno.
Two families, a marriage of varying yet complimentary foodways. And the challenge of restraint from over-partaking. There are worse things to worry about.