Dinuguan and asuhos

Musa told me that, a few years ago, when his mother died he went back to Nizip and stayed with a nephew, whose wife made a traditional springtime dish of fava beans and eggs. “When I tasted it, that’s when I realized that my mother was dead,” he said. “I realized that I was never going to taste that dish again the way my mother made it. The person who makes the food—his physique, his soul—is unique. It’s like fingerprints, or handwriting.”

From Turkey’s Memory Kitchen, via The New Yorker

Either one of Elif Batuman’s articles struck me – on a satire website in Turkey, and on the Ottoman Empire’s fantastic culinary history – that her name had recall. This morning I was nudged by a newsletter to read her 2010 article at the New Yorker. These emails seldom register, but the nudge, grounded on familiarity, worked: I read it at nightfall. It was about a restaurant in Istanbul that strives to faithfully cook forgotten regional dishes in Turkey, such that it drives people such as Elif (who could subsist on a diet of oatmeal and multivitamins) to have strong emotions or remember vivid memories at the mere taste of it.

I have a very fraught relationship with food: I was (and arguably still am) a voracious kid whose appetite a distant aunt dubbed as if I had MSG encrusted on my tongue. (The original turn-of-phrase is much more colorful: may betsin ang dila.) And reading that passage made me think of dishes I’ve had in my lifetime, like my mother’s bistek that lasted in its pewter saucepan for three more days after she left for New York as an OFW. (She left on a Sunday; I decided to finish it all on a Wednesday.) Or my sisters’ cooking, the pastries and the morcon and the roast beef and baked macaroni that three of my friends still fondly remember – and this was in 2003, mind you – to the first cake we made when I was six or seven, from the Maya Cakes and Pastries cookbook, called natilla-filled chocolate cake.

More recently, the memory was of a beloved aunt – a great cook – who died last Christmas, of cancer. For a granddaughter’s baptism her reception included a tray of mapo tofu – not the tongue-numbing Sichuan fare, but a mild, savory version, suited for Filipino palates – and I ate it with so much gusto that I may have had too many plates, one that begs to be noticed by fellow visitors. Such was my love for her version that from time to time I still recreate it, despite my recent purchase of Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Cookbook and the wide availability of Sichuan peppercorns at Shopee.

I also remember that day, perhaps a decade before I had her mapo tofu, when my father and I paid her a visit. The spaghetti on her kitchen counter was not the hotdog-studded version that I came to know and love as a kid, but the one peddled to us as ‘Italian-style’, that with the acidity of tomatoes. This was suggestively posed along with a canister of imported parmesan cheese that – contrary to my upbringing where cheese is incorporated in the dish – you could sprinkle it to your liking. Although this was purportedly made of sawdust as of late, back then – and I may be romanticizing this – was as fine as talc and potent with umami.

Her most unforgettable dish she cooked in my first visit after I got married, with a kid and wife in tow. That afternoon we had her dinuguan for lunch. Hers was velvety, with a masterful restraint in flavors so that it dances between sweetness and acidity, which she pairs with pritong asuhos, fillets with a light batter that almost shatters at the slightest touch. On her white dining plates, the colors – ink-black and pearl white – are lovely; having these with piping hot white rice: just flavors and textures and pure bliss.

When I learned from my cousin that she died, at the back of my mind I thought along those lines I quoted from Batuman’s article. Even if she advised us that the secret is in buying the freshest pig’s blood at her local palengke, which entails waking up at 4AM, when the pigs are just about to be unloaded from their wagons, I know I was never going to taste that dish again. Her dinuguan is unique, like fingerprint, like handwriting, and no attempt at recreating it would ever come close to her version. I will forever be glad to have tried it.

Leave a Reply