Cuisines and Contexts

‘Context always makes a dish more savory and delightful because you ingest a meaning and a sharing of a memory. And food can never be fully enjoyed until it is shared within a community.’

— Amy Besa, Memories of Philippine Kitchens

Being half-Filipino and half-Indian, I was born into a wealth of culture, sometimes more than I can make sense of. As someone who cooks, I have two major culinary traditions (and their respective regional traditions) to explore, at least as much as my freelancing schedule allows. As a writer, I keep returning to words whose well-traveled baggage I have a need to unpack, whose histories I have to sift through, and whose new meanings I can discover.

It sounds daunting beyond my imagination, yes. To simplify things, I’ll start with two words, one from each culinary tradition, and I’ll see where it goes from there. These words seem simple enough: adobo and curry.

For years, I took for granted that adobo was always how I had eaten it: usually with chicken or pork, or both — sometimes with an egg, sometimes with potatoes, always with soy sauce. But that was just the surface of the dish. It begins with a long-forgotten childhood memory.

In those early days, it came in a jar, small cubes of pork floating in vinegar, clouded with its rendered fat, dotted with whole peppercorns, a stray bay leaf floating here and there. Just last month, I discovered a name for it while browsing Tatung Sarthou’s new book. There, he calls it Wartime Adobo.

It’s an appropriate name. Mommy was born in 1942, the second of five sisters, in the middle of the war. I can imagine Lola, going from pregnant to carrying an infant girl, making jars of this adobo last as long as she and Lolo could. Taken with rice and gata, it would be food eaten on the go and in secret, a small comfort in a time of fear.

The adobo of my generation has more heft to it. My second-eldest cousin Ate Cata cooks the chicken and pork cuts three times: first braised in soy sauce and vinegar with black pepper and bay leaves, then browned in the frying pan, and finally back into the sauce. Thus the flavor infuses the meat through and through, and the generous quantities are enough for seconds and thirds of rice. It’s almost a reaction to our grandparents’ forced spartan diet.

I’ve encountered several versions of adobo over the years, but I never gave the dish much thought until I started making it myself around a decade ago. Apparently, I had gotten it wrong; it’s about the vinegar and the fact that it’s used in braising. And it’s not what’s braised that matters — anything can be turned into adobo. There’s a lot of adobo to try out there.

Of course, the reason for this is the word’s foreign origin. From the French adouber, ‘to dress a knight in armor,’ to the Spanish adobar, which marinated meats in grape wine. By the time the Spanish used the word to describe a local dish, the marinade — or pickling or braising sauce — became one of our island vinegars. In 1613, Spanish dictionary maker Pedro de San Buenaventura recorded the usage of adobo de los naturales.*

From here, we move to the other colonial word: curry. When I was growing up, years before I would meet Dad and visit him in India, the chicken curry I’d have in the Philippines was a variation on the following ingredients: a chicken stewed with curry powder (usually a mix of cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, and chili powder), potatoes, bell peppers, garlic, and ginger. In 2008, on my first trip to India, the dish was nowhere to be found. In early 2009, I found Madhur Jaffrey’s 1974 book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, and in there was an explanation of sorts.

‘The point is that no Indian ever uses curry powder in his cooking. Nor do we mix our own, because if we did we would end up with our own blend of collective spices. Cooking again and again with the same blend of spices would make all dishes taste alike. It would be the same as taking a tablespoon each of dried thyme, basil, rosemary, tarragon, bay leaves, and allspice, putting them in a jar, shaking the jar, labeling it “French Spices,” and then using a portion of this mixture for every French dish one made, from soup to salad.’

More to her point, India is a subcontinent with several environments and climates: mountains, deserts, coastal areas, forests, plains. This means a wide variety of plant and animal life, which corresponds to variety in what people eat. A single spice mix and a single word cannot possibly define the many dishes prepared and eaten by 1.2 billion people.

And yet language has a mind of its own, a genie that refuses to go back into its bottle. When talking about their cuisine in English, Indians have taken to referring to their dishes as curries, and some make it a point to say that they are not curry purists. The same holds true for other English words that can’t quite capture the Indian foods. There’s ‘gravy’ to describe the deglazed mix of herbs, spices, and seasonings that stick to the bottom of a cooking pan, even though they taste nothing like Western gravies. There’s ‘chutney’ for most preserves and reductions, but it’s also used for a puree of youngish niyog, gata, and fresh coriander — a refreshing side dish common to South Indian cuisine, but not at all a chutney (at least to me, still new to my father’s culture and cuisine). Even Jaffrey herself has conceded to the tides of language by using ‘curry’ in some of her later books, but while emphasizing that these dishes have names of their own in an Indian language.

Personally, I find it helps to establish context by specifying the region a particular dish comes from. Take the famous chicken curry, done Kerala style. In 2012, on my fourth visit to India, Dad took me around Tamil Nadu and our family’s home state, Kerala, on a two-week road trip to meet our relatives. As we traveled from north to south along the coast, our relatives occasionally served us chicken curry, and the recipe seemed fairly consistent. As I recall, it’s chicken stewed in chopped tomatoes, a mysterious blend of spices (I’ll dig up a recipe one day), and fresh kari leaves. I’ll track down a verified recipe soon, but for the sake of maintaining context, I’ll call it Malayallee chicken curry. There are probably as many chicken curries as there are gods in the Hindu pantheon.

This is where I am now, inheriting the legacy of colonial words that contain a past more ancient than I can guess, and a past passed down through generations, served at the family table, and tastes of memory. It’s a past I’ve only begun to discover.

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*Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine