Creative non-fiction / March 2014 (Issue 23)

The Travelling Adobo

by Amanda Faye Lacson

"The boat from Cebu to Manila takes two days," Lola said, as she packed the rinsed out Skyflakes tin, slightly dented, with some of the blue logo rubbed away. "Don't eat it all at once."

My mom could smell the savory pork, garlic and vinegar lingering in the air of the humid kitchen, lit by a naked yellow light bulb. It was in this kitchen that she looked over her mom's shoulder and asked questions: "Why do you simmer the pork in the liquid? Why do you brown it?" "Sangkutsa," Lola told her. "It needs to simmer, so the pork is soaked in the flavour. You brown it to finish it."

My mom's path had been chosen for her: despite her leaning toward language arts and a scholarship for public speaking, she was on her way to medical school. She would buy kanin en route—in a land where the words for "rice" and "eat" are so closely related that they're indistinguishable to the foreigner's ear, on the boat there would surely be the steamed white rice that accompanied this dish, adobong baboy.

"The vinegar preserves the pork. This will last you until you get to Manila." Lola finished packing the pork pieces into the Skyflakes tin, popping the round lid into place, snapping it shut like a paint can. As my mom boarded the ferry, about to embark on the same route that brought her elder brothers and sisters to their dreams beyond rural home life, educating themselves in medicine, dance and business, she carried the same dish they'd brought with them. In the third class inner deck packed with cots carrying strangers, amidst the thick cigarette smoke and the mad noise of cackling Tagalog, the voices rising as more bottles of San Miguel emptied, and cards and mahjongg were bet on until dawn, my mom would pry open the Skyflakes tin, and there it would be: the smell of home.


Twenty years later, in a land where the seasons are distinct, not just dry or wet, my mom begins her preparations. She looks out the window above the sink, into the spacious backyard: I'm squatted near the dirt, digging up salamanders, reveling in the black slime as it slithers across my palm. Frisky, the family puppy, is busy pawing at the tomato plants. The chicken runs around the sunken rock garden, purchased not for her food value, but to teach an anatomy lesson to my sisters and me, who'd never seen chicken outside prepackaged pieces in yellow Styrofoam trays at the supermarket.

My mom cuts the pork into cubes, crushes the garlic with the flat heel of her knife, as she'd watched her mom do so many times. The pungent scent of the garlic is released. Now into the pot, with a little water and salt, maybe a few peppercorns. Bring to a simmer, then add the pork. The garlic becomes fragrant now, filling the kitchen.

The next day, we're crammed in the white Hyundai, four girls squeezed into the three-passenger backseat. I'm on the edge of my seat, shimmying my body into the space between the driver and passenger seats, so I can pretend I am one of the adults. We sweat; limbs fall asleep from too much compression. Windows are rolled down, before the prevalence of air conditioning. It's loud: we sing along with hits of the 50s and 60s, before we grow out of our parents' music and start listening to our own.

We're on our way to Prince Edward Island, a two and a half hour drive to the ferry that we have to board our car onto. My older sister's favourite literary heroine at the time, Anne of Green Gables, was conceived of there. As cramped as we are in the backseat, I also like feeling this secure. Surrounded by family, our cousin who visits us so much these summers we regard her as the fourth sister, we sing boppy songs; I can't move, but I don't want to.

And then we stop at a rest area, with a picnic table once painted a vibrant crimson, now weathered into dull rust. I test out my sharp and numb legs, running and falling on the grass, squealing as the blood rushes in, forgetting to help unpack our lunch. No one admonishes me, the six-year-old treated like the privileged baby of the family, even though one of my sisters is a year younger. The sturdy white Igloo cooler with the orange lid contains our meal: white rice with pieces of pork adobo on top, portioned into Styrofoam cups covered with Saran wrap.


Adobong Baboy

Each generation practices different methods to keep the spirit of the dish alive, with new kitchens and techniques absorbed from the families we marry into, the ingredients available to us, and the new literature and media we consume. I've grown up in North America, only learning how to cook when I lived on my own and still wanted to eat my mom's food (in this practice, my mom and I are the same). I learnt from TV, cookbooks, folklore and experience. This recipe, born in my East Harlem kitchen, tries to honour the traditions of the past while embracing the contemporary experience of cooking.

2 pounds of pork shoulder, cubed with skin and fat on
8 garlic cloves, smashed with the heel of your knife
1 tablespoon of peppercorns
4 tablespoons of vinegar—cane or apple cider

Salt the cubed pork with generous pinches, tossing the pieces so all sides get coated. Use your hands, so you can feel the salt being distributed throughout. Bring water (enough to come halfway up the pork, but not enough to submerge it), garlic and peppercorns to a simmer. The smell of garlic will fill the air. Add the pork. Turn every fifteen minutes, so all sides are cooked. After thirty minutes, add splashes of vinegar. When the vinegar heats, the air will become pungent: don't be alarmed. The dish won't be that sour.

Allow the liquid to simmer away on very low heat, turning the pork every fifteen minutes. It may take about an hour or so. You will hear when the pork starts to brown: no longer gently bubbling in the reduced liquid, the pork will start to hiss as it sticks to the bottom of the pan. Sangkutsa has two meanings: simmering meat in its marinade and allowing the meat to render its lard into the pot. When you do the latter, you can turn the fond (the brown stuff that sticks to the bottom) into a sauce, if you wish. But this is dry adobo, heralded for its keeping qualities and its ability to travel conveniently. The sauce, when cold, will be a jelly. And on the road or a boat, there's no way to heat it up.

Allow the pork to brown on all sides. Yes, the pork is brown already. But when it browns as a result of the dry heat, you will see a difference, a caramel colour that makes some people confuse the terms caramelisation with the more accurate but not mainstream term, Maillard reaction.

Serve over steamed white jasmine rice, or pack into containers for your or your daughter's next journey.

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