Food, family and homesickness

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When I was a kid, the chore I hated the absolute most was getting the rice cooker going. We had an ancient model that my mum had had for yonks, all yellowed plastic peeling at the edges and an industrial-sized bowl that was just about enough for our rice-mad family of four. I would have to crouch down to the floor of the pantry, open up the giant container that held our household supply of rice grains, and methodically count out 8 or 9 cups to be ladled into the cooker. It usually took a few goes to get it right, mostly because I would lose interest somewhere around the third or fourth cup and muddle up my count, and then have to start all over again.

Objectively, there were (of course) worse chores that could be dished out, but there was something about the monotony and the repetitiveness of that job that conspired to push it to the top of the most-despised list. But there was no getting around it – in our Filipino household, rice was the foundation for most of the meals we had together as a family. There was always rice in the cooker ready to go, (whether dished up by me or someone else) and somehow the grains stored in our cupboard never seemed to run out.

I remember being packed off to school with a lunch of rice and fried bacon rashers (a health nut, my mum was not). Quite often, there’d be fried rice for breakfast. Rice was a non-negotiable, dished up alongside both our traditional meals of nilaga, sinigang, chicken tinola and adobo as well as the ‘white food’ that graced our table too. Steak? Goes perfectly with rice, as it turns out.

To this day, there’s something quite comforting to me about seeing a bowl of freshly-cooked white rice on the table. The silky shine of it, the wisps of steam curling upwards and above all – the soothing blandness of it, that nothing-ness that allows other, stronger, flavours to sing out on your tongue. It’s the perfect vessel for the strong flavours of the Filipino cuisine I grew up on – like the salty-sour tang of sinigang and the chicken swimming in a satisfyingly dark, vinegary and garlicky adobo sauce.

I’m not quite sure why I’ve been thinking about this more recently. I suppose that being in lockdown has made me more meditative about food, which has become a bit of an outlet for me in managing stress and anxiety in these very unpredictable times. Filipino food also makes me think of my family.

Me (looking unimpressed) and my sister chowing down with our cousins during a trip back to the Philippines when I was about 9 or 10.

Like any family, we have our ups and downs and quirks – but food was always the bond that brought us together. My childhood was punctuated by our familiar routine of sitting down for dinner every night, serving up heaped spoonfuls of pancit, or fighting over the last bit of longganisa. I suppose most people think their mum’s cooking is the best in the world, but I really do believe my mum’s is unparalleled. Her food – with its myriad flavours so alien to Kiwi cooking – calls back to a homeland I don’t remember, but can get a taste of every time we sit down to dinner. Food is a code that can knit communities together even when they’re living in far-flung places, on the other side of the world from home.

Nowadays, as the world settles into life in the midst of a pandemic, I’m finding that yearning for my mother’s cooking – and the subtle sting of homesickness intertwined with it – stronger than ever. Food represents stability, family, comfort and all those good things, and I miss that more than ever. I’ve spent the past decade living away from home, in a different city (and most recently, a different country) to my parents – but right now that homeward pull is more insistent than ever.

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