Of forks and faith
(The Philippine Star) - January 23, 2016 - 9:00am

CARLOTA HILLS, Ormoc City — Lunch today is bulalo, steaming hot, the soup so savory and delicious, perfect with white rice. Yes, there has to be rice. Rice understands bulalo.

The day is very humid, and one would think something cold would be more in order. But somehow, the bulalo is perfect. There is something delicious about soup that calms — the mind, the day, ways, albeit temporarily, like a gentle reminder to pause and catch the breath. Maybe it is the knowing that somewhere in the broth, stuck within the bone, is the wiggly and jiggly marrow that is so decadent it requires, at the very least, a closing of the eyes upon enjoyment. The busyness that, thus far, marked a very long workday fades with every spoonful, the quiet perfection of the dish feeling very much like a reward. I went for seconds, and as I scooped all the way to the bottom of the pot for more meat, I saw... a fork. And then another one. Two of them in total, in the broth, making friends with meat, vegetables and bones.

I would later find out from the cook, Mang Ben, that he had thrown them in to make the meat tender. He had originally planned to serve the bulalo soup for dinner but decided on lunch instead. He says the forks were in there to make up for the limited time he had to tenderize the meat to that point where it practically falls off the bones if you so much as nudge it with a serving spoon. He says he used the forks because instead of a languid six to eight hours of slow cooking, this method requires just two (at the most, three). Pressure cooker? He says it did not cross his mind. Now I do not know if there is any logic in the belief that forks can do that to meat. At the very least, maybe silver forks can do something (what, I do not know for sure), but regular stainless ones? Hmmm. But Mang Ben was all excited about it, and the meat was indeed tender, and I did not have the heart nor the energy to dissect the whys and why-nots, so I settled back into my chair in full acceptance of what was my second serving of soup before me. For today, I shall enjoy this respite, and I shall savor the dish for what it is — never mind the hanging question of whether the delicious tender meat was a product of fork, or faith.

I had several stops more before calling it a day and through long and winding roads in the district, as I went from one barangay to the next, I thought of the fork(s) in the broth. And I remember tenderly all the cooks we’ve had in the past while growing up, their quirks, their ways. There is Yaya Hilda, she who to this day insists that there is no real secret behind her famous inun-unan na isda (also known as paksiw na isda) and chicken pork adobo other than the fact that she cooks each dish in an old-fashioned clay pot, giving it lots of gentle time until the spices come together perfectly. Could some of the flavors be left behind in the clay pot with each use, so that they do something to enhance the taste of the most current meal being cooked in it? I like the idea of that. On that thread of thought, I forget which restaurant, and where in particular, but I once read about this known restaurant somewhere in the Philippines that serves a hearty soupy dish that people from all over line up for. Apparently, the huge stockpot is never washed, or if at all, just once a year, because cooking just goes on and on, 24/7/365. To some degree, just like each person is a sum of all his experiences, each batch that is dished from it is also a coming together of all that has ever been in it, a bouquet of tastes, stories, memories.

And I also remember Manang Kessin in our first house in Bonifacio St., and Manoy Pael in Lola Carmen’s house in Cebu who, each time a pot of rice was cooked, never scooped out any of it into serving bowls without first drawing the sign of the cross over it. As a little girl, I asked why and both of them said doing so ensured that there would be enough for everybody, and that the ladle would not scrape the bottom of the pot before everyone in that household who sat down to a meal was nourished.

I think of all these, and I know there may be so much more out there that I have never heard of — housewives’ tales of old — and for some reason, whether they are logical or not, they give a measure of comfort. I think about all these as I go through the rest of my harried day, looking forward to what supper will be. But before that — a beautiful sunset, a glass of fresh pineapple juice, and the fat cheeks and toes of beautiful baby Sabel, all of two months old and the very personification of innocence and sweetness. Each day here in the province is always kind of a lot, but always, it is also many kinds of nice.

ACIRC BONIFACIO ST. BUT MANG BEN CEBU LOLA CARMEN MANANG KESSIN MANG BEN MANOY PAEL MEAT NOW I YAYA HILDA
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