Notes On Soup

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The lore had not died out of the world, and you will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.

John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”

Those rare occasions that I go home to my parents’ house puts my mom in a tizzy of cooking, but not without her asking me what I would want; seeing as I seem to feed myself empty calories and fast food on normal days. For years, it’s that serving of silet: pig intestines, fried and sauced lightly, and eaten with pots (and I mean entire pots) of rice from the day before. Or my dad would go to market early to buy fillets of tuna or tanigue which in English is apparently a “wahoo” – and turned into the most amazing kilawin, with a few deft strokes of the knife and so few ingredients (despite his disdain for ginger). Yet those are meals for when you’re younger: when your metabolism is faster, when things like “gastrointestinal reflux” and “hypertension” seem so distant, meaningless, and of little consequence.

Over time, though, the pig intestines and fresh fish would take a back seat. As my parents grow older, market trips become more and more tedious, and the ingredients become demanded more by the “gastropubs” and “bistros” that have deluged the culinary scene with all sorts of chicanery to disguise the mediocrity of the all-too-common cheesestick (more on that when I feel like it). Or, at least, how the pig intestine is in demand from restaurants who actually do a terrific job at transforming offal into pure delight. And then there’s me: a much older person, whose MSG-addled tastebuds and protruding gut yearns for things that are much simpler to cook and even easier to eat.

Things like soup. Not ramen, not pho, not bulalo, but just that: soup.

***

I’ve never been one for sopas. There’s something of an antiseptic and generic quality about it: maybe it’s the mushiness of the macaroni, or the fact that it’s the dish that everyone knows how to cook. Mama never cooked it for us when we were sick, sticking instead with the traditional lugaw overpowered by ginger and green onions. Pinikpikan would be my uncle’s specialty, and going about the ritual around the chicken is something best served for another day. And then there’s “my soup:” the one that is guaranteed to cure me any time I fall sick with a bad flu or cholera for that matter: sibot.

The cooking of sibot soup is something quite familiar for almost anyone with Chinese ancestry. The small sachet of herbs and bark that give the broth its nutty, pungent, earthy flavor is (and I swear by this) the most comforting package of goodness that rivals the strongest analgesics. I’ve had sibot made with the traditional chicken, but Mama – and Lola before her – almost never uses it. Instead, sibot is cooked with the off-cuts and marrow-bones of beef (and if she was feeling fancy, shiitake mushrooms) simmered for hours on end with generous pinches of pepper and big knots of ginger. My siblings and Papa never really got accustomed to it, but I have grown to love it so much that I almost would rather endure flu than to cure it with medicine. Maybe I’m just too convinced of the curative powers of sibot, and the many other remedies that my Lola and Mom used on me when I was young: be it the prayers made over blessed oil, or the fumes of vinegar poured over hot salt to clear a cold.

Speaking of my grandmother: her favorite dish was, like many an Ilocana, dinengdeng. Many culinary experts would have endless debates on what constitutes a proper dinengdeng, but to my Lola it was the venerable and reliable uong ken parya: roughly translated, “mushrooms and ampalaya.” She loved the dish so much that one old tin pot in the kitchen was almost exclusively reserved for it, because of its relative simplicity and affordability. Lola and Mama would take the time to flavor the water with brown bagoong, until the stock leaves nothing more than the gritty fish-bones are left. It is this magic stock that forms the base of what basically was Lola’s favorite next to fried chicken: just the tender leaves and tendrils of the ampalaya plant, and some mushrooms picked right after a thunderstorm. The occasional shrimps or the remains of a grilled bangus would be added to the pot from time to time, but it was never cooked on any other pot for as long as I can remember. Lola died some fifteen-odd years ago, but whenever my mom makes it, it still tastes pretty much the same: I’m sure she held on to that pot.

Ampalaya leaves, though, would bring me to my favorite soup: the product of an earthquake, the soup that I would request that my mom would make as I grew older. I was too young to remember the minestrone soups served by the good people of Cafe by the Ruins during the 1990 quake, but I do remember my first food love in Mama’s corn soup. With corn donations at a record high, I think my folks learned how to make soup with what was available then: scratchings of pork, bouillon cubes, corn, ampalaya leaves, and water. Hardly an original recipe, but there is just something so comforting about it that I’m willing to bet my mom invented the perfect version. The soup itself is thick with flavor – both artificial and natural – but is only made better a few hours later. The soup was so good that as a kid, I used to make a beeline for washing pots and pans after dinner just so that I can get the last bits of soup into a bowl, which I would savor late into the night while watching TV or reading. While there are many things I would associate with dinner at my childhood home, this is probably the best memory I have.

***

Mama will turn 64 in a couple of weeks, and like Lola before her, with age comes parting with the market and the kitchen. My niece sometimes watches her in the kitchen; at her age right now, she’s probably oblivious to the deep meaning and personal history behind her lola’s cooking, as she still enjoys the simple dish of rice and Knorr seasoning that kids her age seem to be so hooked on. Yet as my tastes grow simpler with time – that my mom’s corn soup is enough reason for me to take those increasingly rare trips home – I’m reminded of soup’s immortality: both on record and in spirit. The soups our mothers make – nevermind if you’re a fan of sopas – is what binds us to them forever, as the highest articulation of comfort that a kitchen can bring.

It’s times like these – fresh off another holiday from my parents’ house – that I’m reminded of what M.F.K Fisher once said about soup (or to be more precise, stew). Roughly paraphrased: that the most pleasant emotion in the world is to have nourished a few with soup and stories, with rarities or plain dishes, to sustain them against the hungers of the world. And in those soups, Mama and Lola have done so much of that for me.

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