Nanay’s Filipino comfort food in AmericaBy Aissa dela Cruz
Cebu Daily News
FILIPINO comfort foods that my siblings and I grew up on are all meticulously prepared. And this is one of the reasons why our ancestral homes tend to have a huge kitchen—to give room to the myriad of activities in the food preparation. For the modern homemakers who want their kitchens spic-and-span and keep the grandma/mother tradition of cooking, there is a “dirty kitchen” to do exactly that—the “messy” part of food preparation.
In the San Diego, California household of my sisters Enchay and Ana and our mother Nanay, Filipino cookery reigns supreme. Nanay has now earned her place to simply direct and see the cooking skills she has handed down implemented with age catching up on her. During my visits, Enchay and Ana are just too happy to have me around to help them with the laborious aspects of cooking, which include peeling, slicing and tasting.
With the bottles of “atchara” or pickled green papaya down to its last, we set out to buy the ingredients for the atchara in the Asian market where anything Asian under the sun is available, including frozen banana leaves. Atchara is a traditional fermented shredded raw green papaya with ginger, carrot, red bell peppers, native Tagalog garlic and shallots. It is a popular accompaniment to meat and seafood dishes, just like the Korean kimchi, German sauerkraut, Indian chutney. The key to a good Atchara is the salting of the shredded green papaya (to draw out the juice for several hours) before squeezing and sun drying so the fine strips absorbs the pickling vinegar-sugar solution.
Shredded raw green papaya is sold by the pound and my jaw dropped when Enchay paid a hefty US $2.60 per pound. She filled two bagfuls that amounted to almost US $20. Back home, green papaya is either picked from the neighbor’s backyard or bought from the wet market for a pittance. I was tasked to squeeze the juice out after salting. I made sure each strand is accounted for, considering the amount Enchay paid for it. We carefully spread the squeezed shredded green papaya on cookie sheets and dried these for almost two days under the hot San Diego sun. In between the drying, I sliced the ginger, carrots, red bell peppers into julienne strips and peeled the garlic and shallots. With the ingredients ready, Enchay prepared the vinegar-sugar pickling solution, completely cooling after boiling, before mixing the dried papaya strips and rest of the ingredients in a big container. The mixture sits for several hours until the pickling solution is completely absorbed and bottled.
Dinner on a Sunday evening consisted of Inihaw na Hito (catfish) na Binalot sa Dahon ng Saging; Pork Barbecue marinated in salt-sugar mixture with minced garlic, black pepper, soy sauce and lemon juice, skewered tightly to keep the meat plump and juicy (a recipe and technique handed down by Nanay); Sauteed Sugar Pea Shoots; Cilantro-Tomato-Onion-Ginger Salad, and of course the prized Atchara that paired well with the charcoal-broiled fish and meat.
Naturally, there was a “sawsawan” of fish sauce (“patis”) with calamansi which grows in abundance in Enchay’s garden.