Stories of Food, Food as Story
"I burnt my chicken adobo last night. I already figured out the miscalculation: I added too much brown sugar to the marinade. Or maybe it was because I forgot to add more water before simmering. But really the biggest mistake was that I was too greedy."
I burnt my chicken adobo last night. I already figured out the miscalculation: I added too much brown sugar to the marinade. Or maybe it was because I forgot to add more water before simmering. But really the biggest mistake was that I was too greedy.
Just a few days before, I made the perfect adobo: the thigh meat was juicy and tender, the skin caramelized and chewy, and the sauce was golden brown with delicious oil droplets. I made it mid-week so that the family could enjoy leftovers the following days. Even when the meat was gone, we saved the sauce in Tupperware so we could spoon it over new white rice. With only tablespoons of the sauce remaining, last night I tried to repeat the magic.
Nothing is more pungent than the smell of burnt sugar and soy sauce. I let the stove fan run forever and opened all the windows, but that smell of failure still lingered and shamed me. Last night I made sure to scrub my pan right away to try and mitigate the smell, using steel wool to tear up the burnt pieces and wash it down the drain. But when I woke up this morning, I could still smell the rancid salty sweetness halfway down the stairs.
My sister-in-law tried to cook adobo a few weeks after my mother-in-law, her mother, passed away. It was the second of three dishes she wanted to cook in tribute to her mother. However, she misremembered the recipe, only browning and frying the chicken meat, omitting the braising part: she too made the mistake of not adding enough liquid. We still ate the chicken, assuring her that her mother’s flavors of soy and sweet were there, although the mouthfeel was different and the sauce nonexistent.
The next day I thawed more chicken to make more adobo. It was only the second time I had attempted the dish. As I mixed and marinated, I avoided asking myself why I was doing this. Was it just to remedy or correct my sister-in-law’s attempt? Or maybe it was less generous than that. What was I trying to prove? Who was the better Filipino? Who knew Grandma better?
After the chicken had been simmering for thirty minutes, I lifted the lid and inhaled the delicious aroma of sugar, salt, pepper, garlic and bay leaves. I smiled a secret smile as I stirred the thickened sauce. Then I watched as my husband and two young sons licked their coated spoons and gleefully pulled the sweet skin off the chicken meat. However, when my sister-in-law enthusiastically exclaimed, “Yes, this is what it's supposed to taste like –” as she spooned third and fourth helpings onto her plate, with no hint of remorse or jealousy, it wasn’t pride or triumph that I felt, but peace.
When we recreate recipes we are recreating moments with loved ones. The sensations fill our ears, noses and mouths, almost tricking ourselves into thinking we are back in that precious past, transported or that what is lost is still there and reappeared. Whether we consume that dish voraciously or slowly savor it, we are doing everything again to hold on to that memory, that person, that feeling and transform ourselves once more by it.
-Genevieve Canceko Chan, Winter Cohort Teaching Artist 2023