By Michael Marbella, FINDink Contributor
My companion for the night and I shared a look that spoke of our mutual debauchery: pupils glazed, nostrils flared, tongues hanging out ever so slightly—we hadn’t been prepared for the roller coaster of pleasures our night had in store. As my chest shook with each labored breath, he closed his eyes in a futile attempt to reclaim the pleasure that had cascaded over him like a wave….
And then our waiter cleared our plates.
We had just finished our dinner at Maharlika, Nicole DiPonseca’s Filipino bistro in the East Village. After downing three cocktails and splitting the Hangar Bistek (a soy and citrus marinated steak that was easily the tastiest piece of Filipino meat to ever enter my mouth) and Uni Palabok (an oceanic wet dream realized in rice noodles), I felt like being rolled out onto First Avenue like an errant armadillo. As my dining partner excused himself to take a phone call and I lapsed in and out of a neo-Filipino cuisine-induced food coma, I couldn’t help but think of food by another great Filipino woman: my Nanay.
Her name was Efigenia Carillo Llagas. She was my mother’s mother—a revered presence who flows through my family’s history like the waters of Bay, Laguna, the town in which she grew up. This legendary woman had little more than a 6th grade education but ran a 5-6 lending business and a wholesale beauty goods supplier to put my mother and her four older sisters through college; she had been in a church civics group with Ferdinand Marcos’s mother and asked the mother of the Philippines’ most notorious dictator to act as a sponsor at my Auntie Lett’s wedding; and according to family legend, she refused to leave the house unless her hair was coiffed, her face was on, and her nails were manicured—which she demonstrated most adamantly at my grandfather’s funeral.
But according to my family, what my Nanay was best known for were her skills in the kitchen. Everyone mourns the recipes that died with her, the flavors of their childhoods: her Filipino paella made with yellow bomba rice, juicy pork chops, succulent mussels, and garlicky peas; her mechado, made the old way, with chunks of flank steak larded with slabs of pork fat and stewed in tomato sauce with potatoes, carrots, and onions; and her “kalimutan,” a dish named after the Tagalog word for “forget” because, according to my Auntie Neng, it was “so good that you would forget your name.”
Unfortunately, as the second-youngest of her eight grandchildren, my Nanay exists only at the haziest peripheries of my memory. When I was three, my mom and I made a visit home to bury my Tatay, her father. At this point, my Nanay was in a hospital bed with a feeding tube in her nose and an oxygen mask strapped to her face. But I can still make out her wispy blue-black hair, her tattooed-on eyebrows that looked like they’d been drawn on with a ruler, and the heavy-looking gold rings that adorned her pudgy, perfectly manicured fingers.
I know that to some, she sounds more like an actress in a Chinese opera than a Filipino grandmother. But I remember that when she looked at me, I could make out this spark of warmth that reminded me of the black glass eyes of a teddy bear but with a joy and tenderness that I’d only seen in my mother’s eyes before. So, I gently spooned Magnolia mango ice cream into her mouth and smiled back at her toothless grin.
Since that night at Maharlika, I’ve scoured my aunt’s cookbooks and the internet for anything that vaguely resembles my Nanay’s recipes.
And nothing felt quite right.
First, I turned to Nora Daza and The Maya Kitchen, my mom and my titas go-to guides when their knowledge of my Nanay’s recipes was lacking. Nora felt like she would be a useful starting point, given that she’d been considered an authority on Filipino cuisine since before my mom was in high school. But I found that her recipes erred toward the needs of housewives and daughters in the 60’s versus those of their mothers, so, I needed more information to help me flesh her ideas out into something that felt more like my Nanay’s. So, like any millennial with decent Wi-Fi, I turned to the internet.
What I found was helpful but not much better: contemporary Filipino food bloggers offered ways to reinvent the rice-covered, vinegar-soaked wheel, something I’m totally on-board with (as my trip to Makarlika demonstrates). But rather than traveling on a new path, I wanted to go where my grandmother’s cuisine had already been.
And when bloggers tried to go in a more homemade direction, I felt like I was eating at someone else’s house: I was sure that it would taste good, but nothing tastes as good as what your mom makes—or, in this case, what my Nanay would have made.
Perhaps what I’m looking for is a bit like the holy grail: mythical, improbable, and impossible. As I pore over Nora Daza cookbooks and Filipino foodie blog posts, I can’t help but sigh at my own foolishness. Like the grail knights of myth, I’m on a quest for something I can never truly attain: a mystical, romanticized connection with the grandmother I never really knew. The fragments I have of her recipes and history form this tenuous connection to her, and I constantly hunger for more; like a greedy child in front of a Christmas buffet, I want to binge on everyone else’s memories and indulge in their nostalgia until I can uncover the pieces of myself that once lived in her.
Then again, perhaps I was just looking in the wrong place: whenever I bring home Tupperware overflowing with leftovers and taste my mother’s mechado or my tita’s attempts at leche flan, isn’t that a piece of my Nanay’s legacy? The smells and flavors that have nourished me my entire life would not have been possible without her.
And as I sit at this keyboard, the fact that my hands smell of garlic from the adobo I have simmering in the next room…isn’t that a piece of her as well? This urge to create? To share? To nourish? Thanks to my Nanay, these desires and instincts have been woven into the very fiber of who I am. And while I may not have a file filled with yellowing recipe cards, that will always be with me—because of her and the women she raised.