Geographies of Cooking by Katrina Macapagal
This is how I was taught how to cook rice, the fundamental element in any Filipino meal: Scoop however many cups you need into a rice pot. Wash the grains at least three times to get the starch out (the water should be clear). Measure the water by the second line of either your middle finger or your thumb, dipped over the grains. Put the pot on high heat and cover until the water boils, then lower the heat and simmer until the water evaporates, the lid cracked slightly open. I rarely used a rice cooker growing up, because my father insisted rice tasted better when cooked on a stove.
Before moving away from home, my cooking skills were limited to frying everything, and of course, cooking rice. I lived on takeaways, meals out with friends, and free food at my parents’. Food was functional, cooking was a chore.
Still, I found myself craving Asian food when I moved to the UK around ten years ago, when I was lucky enough to get funding to study in London. This was the farthest I had ever been away from home, the first time I had ever been outside Southeast Asia. Food was the least of my priorities, but it was my craving for food that resembled what I was used to eating that helped me navigate London. I found a hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant near my uni that became a favourite dinner place. I quickly learned how to get to Chinatown, where I clocked the shops that sold Filipino snacks and condiments. And most importantly, I learned how to get to Earl’s Court, considered the Filipino space in London where you can find restaurants that resemble karinderyas in Manila. I also had Filipino friends in the city who liked cooking and shared my food cravings. So it was fairly easy for me to remain disinterested in learning how to cook Filipino food for myself.
Considered the Filipino national dish, adobo recipes vary from one household to the next, and from region to region.
This was not the case when I moved to Edinburgh two years later, without ever having been to Scotland. The move wasn’t an active choice; I got funding for my research and followed the money. My knowledge of the city was embarrassingly limited to J.K. Rowling and Trainspotting.
When the inevitable craving for home food hit, a quick Google search revealed that the only dedicated Filipino store at Leith closed the year I moved. There was one Filipino restaurant in Newington which I managed to go to, just before it closed on my second year in Edinburgh. And I didn’t have any close Filipino friends nearby whom I could pester to cook for me. So, finally, out of embarrassment when invited by a group of international friends to cook dinner one night, I decided it was time to actually try to learn how to cook Filipino food.
I decided to cook adobo, not because it was my favourite Filipino dish, but because I didn’t have to go to an Asian store for special ingredients. All you need is your meat of choice (often chicken or pork), soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaves, black pepper and heaps of garlic. Here’s the most basic way of cooking it: Cook the meat in garlic, add equal parts vinegar and soy sauce, add some water, throw in bay leaves and pepper, and simmer until tender. Serve with steaming hot rice. Considered the Filipino national dish, adobo recipes vary from one household to the next, and from region to region. Some like to marinate the meat overnight. Some like to boil off the sauce, some don’t. Sometimes I add diced onions. The way I cook adobo varies each time I cook it, because like most Filipinos, I don’t use exact measurements.
… recipes vary, but this one is from Pampanga where my father is from, a province north of Manila that some people call the country’s culinary capital.
In learning how to cook adobo, I also learned how to explain its origin to non-Filipino friends, a surface-level briefer on Philippine history relevant to our fusion food: 300 years of Spanish rule, 50 years of American colonisation, Japanese occupation during the second world war, longstanding trade relations with China. Filipino food historian Doreen Fernandez explains how the cooking of Filipino adobo is closer to the Mexican adobado that uses lemon instead of vinegar. She also cites another historian who surmises that the Spanish merely used the term adobo (to marinate) to refer to the way Filipinos have been cooking the dish long before colonial occupation. Vinegar was a prime ingredient used to preserve food in the Philippine tropical climate. Some research shows soy sauce was not even used in earlier adobo recipes.
I still find cooking labourious, but the absence of an easily accessible Filipino restaurant has compelled me to try to replicate Filipino food I craved. One Christmas, over a video call with my parents, I asked for the recipe for Kapampangan asado, a tomato-based pork dish my parents always served for noche buena. Ingredients: pork loin, loads of tomatoes, soy sauce, lemon juice (a substitute for kalamansi, citrus fruits grown in Southeast Asia), black pepper, some butter. Again, recipes vary, but this one is from Pampanga where my father is from, a province north of Manila that some people call the country’s culinary capital.
During lockdown, I decided to try and make sisig, another Kapampangan dish best enjoyed over beer. I messaged other migrant friends in the UK and US for recipes, as I thought it would be difficult to source parts of the dish outside the Philippines. Sisig is made of chopped pig’s head: jowl, cheeks, ears – cooked with chicken liver, some vinegar/kalamansi and served on a sizzling hot cast iron skillet. The dish was borne out of leftover meat from commissaries in the US military air base which used to operate in Pampanga. Sisig was a good dish to learn how to cook during lockdown, given that you had to simmer the meat in pepper and bay leaves for about four hours to soften. My husband managed to source pork cheeks from the butcher, and I just added chopped pork belly in lieu of the other meat parts based on the advice of friends.
It’s not a stretch to say that food cravings signal emotional cravings as well. Sometimes, the body knows, on a gut level, what you’re feeling even before you are able to put a name to it.
My husband, who is Scottish, has perfected cooking my favourite Filipino vegetable dish over the years: tortang talong. It’s essentially an eggplant omelette, which entails grilling Chinese eggplant and painstakingly removing the burnt skin before flattening and dipping in beaten eggs and frying. In exchange, I try to do some baking – something literally foreign to me because pastry is not common in Filipino households where dessert is often fruit salad or, of course, sticky rice pudding. Once, I had a mini-meltdown when I just couldn’t make a tart base after two failed attempts.
In my years living in Scotland and (reluctantly) learning how to cook food from home, what I gradually became aware of is how cooking helps me, through sensory experience, cope with feelings of longing and isolation. It’s not a stretch to say that food cravings signal emotional cravings as well. Sometimes, the body knows, on a gut level, what you’re feeling even before you are able to put a name to it. In studying the relationship between food and memory, cultural theorists have talked about ‘gustatory nostalgia’ often felt by diasporic people. The capacity of the senses to invoke memories is why comfort food is comforting; this is why the taste and smell of adobo makes me feel ‘at home.’ And the more times I cook it in my new home, the more I invest this foreign space with memories of my own.
I’m still not the best cook and I don’t claim to be. But this is what my version of adobo tastes like: slightly dry, a good mix of tangy and salty, topped with a dash of memories old and new.
Oh, and now I cook rice with a rice cooker.
Katrina Macapagal currently works in the Scottish third sector. She holds a PhD in film and media studies and is writing a book on contemporary Philippine cinema, due to be published in 2021. She tweets @katmac_dc