In the past few years, cooking has become something more than mere meal prep. As an immigrant to Orange County, I’ve found that Filipino food has become my portal to a time when I was a little girl; my large family would gather around the kitchen table and eat my mother’s rustic dishes without regard to portion size or calories. We ate until we were full and then we ate even more. When I think of being home, that’s the memory I always turn to.
Mom’s culinary skills were medicinal. Feeling sick? Sip some lugua (chicken and rice porridge). Tired? Eat mechado (pork stew) because protein supplied energy. Depressed? Siopao, for sure—the heat from steaming meat-filled buns would warm the heart. There was never a problem my mother couldn’t fix with a meal made just for you. During decades of cultural assimilation and health consciousness, I eschewed my childhood food and turned to a healthier but bland American palate. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, a longing developed.
I filled my ache for comfort by cooking the meals with which I was raised. Anything I could remember eating at my parents’ kitchen table, I re-created for my own family. Chicken adobo, beef tapa, pancit noodles. The culinary staples of my childhood made appearances at our dinner table. I wanted to give my adult children, Bobby and Angela, that same sense of solace and security. But there was more I wanted to give them.
Then something on a kitchen shelf caught my eye. Nestled between hardcover books by foodie celebrities was a thin, flimsy notebook with spiral binding. Mom’s recipes. I pulled our self-published family heirloom from the shelf. A picture of my mom, smiling and standing next to a table full of her food, graced the cover.
A few Christmases ago, I found Mom’s red recipe book in her nightstand while I was searching for something else. Filled with clippings and notes stuffed between yellowing pages, the 5-by-7-inch book with a well-worn cardboard cover was held together only by rubber bands. I embraced the little red recipe book like it was Mom herself. Decades of memories came to mind of her cooking, experimenting, and jotting down instructions for family favorites in her trusty red book. She and the book were inseparable in the kitchen. My son and I scanned the recipes and gave every member of the family a copy of Mom’s culinary masterpiece, “Recipes From the Red Book.”
My kids and I decided to tackle the Red Book. Each month we committed to setting aside a day to shop, prepare, and cook a recipe from it. The first recipe was for siomai, steamed Filipino pork dumplings. It was one of my mom’s specialties. We always loved eating them and, more importantly, the three of us knew what the final product should look like.
We ran into a roadblock immediately. Not all the recipes had exact measurements. The recipe for siomai listed, among many things, 3 carrots, 1 bunch of green onions, 10 eggs, 1 can of water chestnuts, and ground pork. No measurement or weight. Just ground pork. Bobby, Angela, and I knew that pork was the main ingredient for pork dumplings, yet instead of a road map, Mom left us a mystery.
As we filled the wonton wrappers, stories blossomed like the siomai we were forming.
They laughed at their mama (Filipino for grandmother). My mom was highly competitive and loved when her food was the best at a potluck. She prevented duplication by purposely withholding information on recipes she shared.
“Challenge accepted, Mama,” Bobby said, smiling as he Googled Filipino recipes for siomai.
The next challenge was where to shop. As I grew up, Mom did her shopping at Tambuli Market, a Filipino market in Cypress, or 99 Ranch, the huge Asian chain location in Anaheim. Eventually, Mom discovered the new and much larger Westminster Supermarket Thuan Phat near Little Saigon, where she often took my kids. That’s where my son and I shopped for our first Red Book cooking day.
Armed with our list, incomplete as it was, we entered the cavernous market. I channeled my mom, confidently navigating the various sections of the store. At the meat counter, I made the butcher hold up 1, then 2 pounds of ground pork, until I decided 4 pounds was the right amount—just as I’d seen my mother eyeball it hundreds of times before.
I caught up with Bobby in the snack food section where he was taking pictures of items on the shelf.
“This is my childhood,” he said as he snapped photos of shrimp snack chips, chicharron, and jelly cups. “When we went grocery shopping, Mama would always buy this for us.”
My 30-something-year-old son stood a foot taller than me, but I watched him transform into his 10-year-old self as he smiled at the Asian snacks.
“Want me to get some?” I asked.
“Naw,” he said, scrolling through the pictures on his phone. “This is good enough.”
Later that afternoon, in my kitchen, my kids and I diced the vegetables on the lengthy list and added them, along with the eggs, to the 4 pounds of ground pork. I seasoned the meat filling, then pulled a large wooden spoon from a kitchen drawer.
“Nope,” Angela said as she rolled up her sleeves and shoved both hands into the bowl. She kneaded the diced vegetables into the ground pork; raw egg and meat covered her palms. “You mix it with your hands. Mama always mixed it with her hands.”
We separated the wonton wrappers and began the tedious task of making dumplings, filling each wrapper with a tablespoon of meat, pinching the siomai on the sides until the top of the wrapper popped open. The final product resembled a budding flower.
As we filled the wonton wrappers, stories blossomed like the siomai we were forming. I remembered the dumpling assembly line with my sisters, and the proud day I got promoted from the menial chore of separating the wonton wrappers to the skilled job of forming the siomai.
It turns out Mom’s recipe made 100 dumplings. We worked for a couple of hours assembling the siomai, taking turns telling stories about cooking and eating with Mom, devouring some of the dumplings but giving most of them away to friends.
Whenever we gather to cook from the Red Book, I have my own small ritual. At the end of the kitchen table at which we work, I set a framed picture of Mom. In it, she is in her 20s, sitting by a piano in a crisp summer dress, chin up, looking directly into the camera, a confident smile on her beautiful face. I find that I need to have her in my kitchen with me and the kids. On the table to the side of the picture, I place my copy of the Red Book, with my own notes penciled in next to Mom’s scanned ones.
The more I cook with Bobby and Angela, the more I can identify the longing. Even though I was born in Manila, I’ve assimilated so much to the California culture, I can’t even speak Tagalog anymore. By preparing Mom’s food with my kids, I’m sharing my memories of Filipino culture and home in the language that has stayed with me—food.