Being part of a food-oriented family such as mine involves associating certain occurrences in life with a specific dish. A social calendar if you will, perhaps with the same accuracy as astrology, these dishes customarily herald the coming of notable events in the year. Aluminum-wrapped morcon in the fridge officially declares the onset of Christmas season; thick-sauced callos gloriously proclaims the coming of New Year; pasta with vegetarian sauce, simply means there’s nothing left in the kitchen to cook (more like your ordinary Sunday in ordinary time in the Catholic calendar). And then there’s good old adobo, which proudly announces the arrival of a prominent figure in the house—my father.
No, he doesn’t usually come from some military exercise in the outskirts of Iraq but from a long-haul flight, as he and other crew members of Philippine Airlines would say, referring to commercial air travel across the Pacific.
Having a father who flies to different countries for a living has made me unmindful of his irregular presence at home. Depending on what flight he takes, he is normally gone for days or weeks—not too long for us to actually miss him, but apparently long enough for him to ridiculously crave adobo.
And today, just like the countless other days in my life, I wake up to the familiar scent of freshly crushed garlic, peppercorns and laurel leaves that my mother is mixing with about a kilo of pork belly.
“Hmmm…Dad must be coming home today,” I think to myself. I fondly listen to the rattle of skillets and bowls in our small kitchen, which always ends up looking like some war-torn village every time my mother is in it (maybe she’s the one from Iraq).
Being an antithesis of Martha Stewart, my mother cooks in ways only she understands, often giving one the impression that a wild storm just broke out in our kitchen. Like a mad scientist’s laboratory, her culinary experiments rarely involve measurements, purely relying on her taste. “If you know how to eat, you know how to cook,” my mother tells me, while adding a pinch of salt and about a ladle of vinegar to the pork belly now softening in boiling water.
As it slowly simmers into a thick broth, I realize how this simple dish has come to be such a comfort food for my siblings and me. For some reason, my family never seems to get tired of this conventional Pinoy fare. “It’s the most convenient dish,” my mother would say, pointing out how it doesn’t spoil even when not refrigerated, making it perfect for picnics and other outdoor activities that involve eating.
Consequently, my baon during field trips in grade school and high school would always be adobo. I remember how it would smell inside the air-conditioned tourist bus as I’d open my Tupperware made wet by the steam of my fluffy, white rice. “Wow! That looks good,” my classmates would tell me while holding their hotdog-filled containers, and a wave of superiority would sweep over my 11-year old mind. “Ha! I have adobo.”
And indeed, we always have adobo. For family outings we have adobo. For special lunch and dinner parties we have adobo. For birthdays and anniversaries we have adobo. We have adobo for just about every special occasion, well, sometimes not even special. “The sun shone today, heck, let’s have adobo!” I imagine my father saying.
It comes as no surprise then that our adobo has enjoyed some sort of cult following among my group of friends. “You’re having adobo again,” my friends would amusingly observe. As opposed to my 11-year old confidence back then I would retort, “My dad’s coming home today.” And a resounding “Oh” would pervade the room, signifying their keen understanding of this cardinal rule.
“What’s so funny?” my mother asks me as she separates the thickened broth from the pork belly and transfers it to another container. From the sheer parody of it, I merely let out a smirk then watch her add generous amounts of soy sauce and a little vegetable oil to fry the pork belly to a toasty brown.
The crackling fat spews oil, adding yet another greasy design to the existing stains on our kitchen wall—each one a vestige of happy or not so happy days. I then think about how many more stains it will endure before my mother cooks her last adobo this lifetime. I think about how many more adobos it will take until my father finally retires from work. I think about how my brother and sister are whipping up their own versions in their own families, hopefully not too far from what we have grown to love as children.
As my mother returns the broth that she took out and mixes it with the rest of the meat and allows it to simmer for a minute, I am reminded of the cycle of life that goes on in this simple yet profound dish.
Today, my father arrives from Canada. Guess what we’re having for lunch?