Batchoy for Motherâs Day
Illustration by Hersam Sato

Batchoy for Mother’s Day

NEW BEGINNINGS - Büm D. Tenorio Jr. (The Philippine Star) - May 14, 2021 - 12:00am

She refused to be spoiled on Mother’s Day so last Sunday went by as usual. Instead of her children pampering her, Nanay indulged us with her kitchen wizardry, her language of love.

Her order of a kilo of liempo (pork belly), 250 grams of pork liver and pork blood arrived early in the morning. On Mother’s Day, batchoy Tagalog would be our lunch.

In our “dirty kitchen” (an extended kitchen outside the house), she readied her sharp knife with an orange handle, the round, wooden chopping board, and the other ingredients like ginger, garlic, onions, kinchay and sili leaves. Everything was ready on the long wooden table. She made sure that there was hugas bigas. In the pantry, she reached for a small bag of misua. There was joy on her face as she washed the meat. Red lipistik smudged her lips. Her face, up to her neck and nape, was luminous with talc powder. She was happy.

Under the awning near the himbaba-o tree and makopa, she crushed cloves of garlic and sliced them. Using the side of the knife, she crushed each clove against the chopping board. I wanted to volunteer to help but my mother is a purist — she only wants one queen in the kitchen. She displayed strength in that moment. To think that, the night before, she was in pain due to her tendinitis. But what is pain to a mother who loves? What is pain to a mother who loves to feed her family?

Then she sliced the ginger and onions. The onions did not make her cry anymore. She was humming. Later on, she asked one of her granddaughters to ready her iPad and the speaker to play her kundiman collection, her simple joy, her guilty pleasure even in the dead of the night. Her 76-year-old spirit was happy.

When my four brothers and I were still kids, Nanay taught us by example our ways in the kitchen. So all her five children grew up with the basic knowledge of cooking. She cooked in our makeshift kitchen, with a stone stove that was fired with ipil-ipil wood, and regaled us with her dreams. She wanted to become a teacher but life was hard. She became a farmer at an early age, right after finishing Grade 6.

The knowledge she did not gain from school came from the lessons she got from life. She taught us to dream — to dream her dreams, to dream our own. Dreaming, she said, entailed authenticity. So, early on, she trained us to be realistic about our goals.

She taught us to be true to ourselves. A life lived without pretense is a noble life. I grew up poor but my mother made my life rich in more ways than one.

But one kitchen lesson that was embedded in my mind was always to cook with joy in my heart.

“If you cook happily, everything will be delicious and tasty,” said Nanay in the vernacular.

Last Sunday, I watched her cook as I sat in the hammock under the himbaba-o tree. Nanay’s red flowery duster that billowed at the hemline swayed to the cool breeze. From time to time, the wind carried with it little yellow-orange flowers of the narra tree. The roosters in the backyard competed with Ruben Tagalog, one of my mother’s favorite kundiman singers. Nanay had her own world that moment, in reverie, with reverence to the batchoy she was about to cook.

Then the show of love began the minute she readied the pan and lit the stove. High fire. As high as her love for her family. She lifted the ladle like a wand. There would be magic in the kitchen.

When the pan was hot enough, she poured the cooking oil. When the oil was boiling, she first sautéed the ginger. Slivers of ginger merrily screeched on the pan. Just the scent of the ginger was appetizing enough. I smelled my childhood. Those days when niluyahang manok (free-range chicken cooked in ginger broth) was the only feast we would share on my birthday. No birthday cake. No spaghetti or pancit for long life. (To this day, my mother has never learned how to cook spaghetti. To this day, I don’t require a cake with candles to blow on my birthday.)

When the ginger was almost golden brown, she put the crushed garlic in the pan. Her hand was nonstop in mixing the ingredients. It smelled like heaven. My mother, as always, was heart and soul in the kitchen.

Then she added the sliced onions to the mixture. There was symphony in the pan. The onions gave the sweet scent to the cooking. Memories came sailing by. Like how a kind neighbor would allow us to get things, like one bulb of red onion, from her sari-sari store, which were all accounted for at the back of a calendar. Come harvest time, my mother would pay in full — up to the last centavo.

Excitement built up when Nanay tossed to the pan the sliced meat and pork liver. Even the other ingredients were happily cooperating. I could just imagine how the little marbling attached to the meat slowly melted in the heat. The sizzling noise in the pan was appetizing. In it was the labor and flavor of love.

All the while, there was genuine joy on my mother’s face. The kind of joy that was confident — sure of her moves, sure of her style in cooking, sure that after all this her children and grandchildren would burp with happiness after partaking of the Mother’s Day lunch.

The cacophony quieted down when she doused the concert in the pan with just enough patis (fish sauce). She let the meat turn tender in patis.

There was rhythm and cadence when the ladle touched the pan. Nanay made sure the flavor would seep through the meat. After about 10 minutes, she added a portion of hugas bigas, enough to sink all the meat in the pan. She covered the pan and let it boil. When the water evaporated, she put more hugas bigas. The procedure repeated three times until the meat was fork tender after an hour. The pig’s blood, the not-so-secret ingredient of batchoy Tagalog, was poured next. She mixed it well in the pan.

After about 15 minutes, she scooped a little of the broth onto a bowl. A piece of meat and a piece of liver were there, too. The bowl and the teaspoon had been there all along on the table. She closed her eyes as she tasted the potion. She smiled. She was happy. Her happiness was regal, infectious. Her joy was already an appetizer to a much-awaited meal. If there were a kitchen crown, I would put it on her head. But she only had love the main ingredient to her batchoy that day.

She lifted the lid and added the kinchay. The aroma made me all the more hungry. Next was the small amount of misua. Then the sili leaves.

The minute she turned off the stove was the moment my mother’s love was ignited all the more.

(E-mail me at bumbaki@yahoo.com. I’m also on Twitter @bum_tenorio and Instagram @bumtenorio. Have a blessed weekend.)

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