I and my second sister Che were sitting in the lobby of the building where we rented a condominium unit. Suddenly, we smelled some food burning. It was as if somebody was frying sausage and forgot to turn off the stove. With others, this might have elicited an unpleasant reaction. But for both of us, it seems as if we were suddenly brought back to the past as we looked at each other almost at the same time. We suddenly burst out laughing. Incoherently, I managed to ask my sister, remember?
I grew up in a family of six. It was just my dad, mom, me and my three siblings. Ours is what you may call a normal straight out of the story book ideal type of family. My dad worked from Mondays to Fridays while my mom attended to us. She cooked all meals from breakfast to dinner. We did have maids, but she won’t allow the maids to cook for us. Because I was the eldest among four girls, she tried to teach me household chores including how to cook. I was never interested, not in any bit.
As a young girl, I mostly just went to school, read on my spare time and just watched cartoons on TV. Well I didn’t see any reason to pursue any interest in cooking. Mama was there and so were the maids. She would often scold me that time will come and I will have to cook for my own family and that the best time to learn is now. Daddy would often interfere when he hears us having this discussion. He would often say, “Darling (he calls my mom Darling), it is too early for you to teach our daughter how to cook. There is no need for that as we have the maids to do the chores and help with the cooking.” He would say that and take me away from Mama which sometimes infuriated her. She would say “Okay, as you wish, but then you are spoiling our daughter too much! She will grow up without learning anything.” With this, my dad would just chuckle and hug her.
All four of us sisters will watch this scene and would laugh heartily as my mom pretended to remain angry and run away from my dad’s teasing. Mama cooked very well. She made delicious Spanish inspired dishes. We loved the smell of her ‘Mechado’, it’s beef stewed in tomato sauce. I remember how it filled the entire room with the smell of tomato blended with the smell of tender beef cooking slowly.
Ahh it never fails to get me salivating when I remember that. She cooks fresh meals every day and she does that for every meal. Mama even goes to the public market three times a day, making sure to get the freshest stock of meat or fish and vegetables for our meals. As far as I remember, I have never seen Mama go to work, she was the ultimate stay at home mom. Though Mama never worked because that was what my father wanted, he did allow her to put up her own small business. She had a clothes shop in the local market near the place where we lived. When she gets busy at the store, this will be the only time that we’ll eat readymade food. She prepares mini ’embotido’ in advance. These are like small sausages made from ground pork, spices, cheese, eggs and some cubed ham. I liked it most when she adds a lot of raisins to the mixture. All that we have to do is fry it and voila! It’s already good enough for lunch and dinner with steamed white rice.
One day, my dad came home and he was not feeling well. He went straight up to his and Mama’s room and asked for some medicine and asked my mom to give him a massage. Since it was almost dinner time, mom asked me if I could cook dinner for us. Oh my God! Now how will I do it? But of course I told Mama yes I’ll cook. I was about 12 years old and at this early age, I started to regret why I never bothered listening to her whenever she attempted to teach me how to cook. Now I do not remember anything at all. I was afraid to ask her how because I know I’d get scolded and I did not want hear her litany.
I started to prepare the food with the help of my second sister. We both looked into each other’s eyes. An unspoken question of “What shall we do?” exchanged between us. As if Mama could hear us, she suddenly bellowed from upstairs. “Hmmm so you both do not know what to do?”, “See if you only listened every time I tried to teach you!”…etc…etc..etc. Finally our silence indicated that we did not know what to do.
She proceeded on giving us instructions while she took care of my dad from their room upstairs. This is what she exactly told us. “Why don’t you get the pan, put the ’embotidos’, put oil, I hope you don’t forget to turn on the fire”. “It’s that simple”. I and my sister Che did EXACTLY as she told us. Making sure not to miss the sequence and the steps. First, I took the readymade ’embotido’ from the freezer. I took off the wrapper and placed it on top of the frying pan. Second step, I added the oil and lastly, I turned on the fire. Three minutes passed and we could see the ’embotido’ turning into a golden brown. My sister and I were happy with what we were doing.
I was thinking, finally Mama will have nothing to complain about. I know what to do and we are doing it right. Suddenly some part of the ’embotido’ seemed to be bursting with liquid. It was like a volcano waiting to erupt. I pricked that part with a huge fork and some liquid or probably oil came out. I thought this must be normal, perhaps it’s meant to be juicy. My sister who was three years my junior said, Ate (vernacular for elder sister), I think it’s ready. We could smell it, the smell of fried meat with cheese and other stuff. It smelled yummy. We turned off the fire and started calling Mama and Daddy for dinner.
They told us to go ahead and just leave some for them. With both of us getting excited to taste what we cooked, we started without preamble. She took the first bite and looked at me strangely. She asked me to try it. I sliced mine and started to take a spoonful of rice with the sliced ’embotido’ on top. Oh my! What happened? The fried ‘embotido’ was still very cold. Cooked in the outside yet still frozen in the inside. Goodness me, what shall we do now? We started thanking God that our parents decided to eat later and witness this huge booboo.
We made a pact to keep it a secret and just repair the frozen ’embotido’. We returned it back to the pan and fried it again. Still, the same bursting with oil thing was happening and I kept on pricking at the meat hoping I was doing the right thing. The ’embotido’ was turning brown now so we hoped that it SHOULD be cooked by now. We again started eating, this time, the meat was still FROZEN! We were nearly in tears as we do not know what will happen if Mama finds out that we had wasted almost half kilogram of her ’embotido’. This is a tedious recipe and though the meat was already cooked, nobody wants to eat something frozen right. Then I and my sister thought of something. We decided to eat everything. We pretended to be so hungry so that our parents won’t find out what happened. We hesitated throwing it into the bin as being students of a Catholic school; religion was part of our everyday upbringing. We were thought that it is bad to throw food as other people do not even have anything to eat.
Fast Forward Till this day, I can still remember how the burnt food tasted. It tasted like ’embotido’ that got badly burned beyond recognition, oh what a description. But then again it was one of the best that I have ever tasted. It thought me and my siblings a lot of things. It thought us that no matter what, we should face things and be ready for the consequences. We learned that no matter how much we get afraid of things, that it’s always best to ask and strive to learn especially from our mistakes. I know that Mama could perhaps smell the burning ‘embotido’ from their room. But I guess she wanted us to learn the lesson, something that we won’t learn from her scolding. We don’t want to keep on eating badly burnt foods all our lives. Nobody does.
Embotido – Philippine’s version of the meatloaf Recipe: ½ kilo freshly ground pork ½ cup mixed carrots and pickles ¼ cup cubed cheese 1 egg beaten, 1 egg hardboiled sliced 1/8 cup raisins 1tbsp soy sauce Salt and pepper to taste Mix everything and form into small logs or depending on the size you want. Wrap in foil wrapper and steam for half an hour. Unwrap and fry before eating. Slice before serving, preferably with steamed white rice. This can be stored in the freezer for up to 15 days.
*cartoon image courtesy of Bitstrips app