Papa methodically broke several barbecue sticks in his hand so that they fit the kawali's diameter steadily. He formed a crisscross and put a lapu-lapu in the middle. Underneath, he poured water.
Sunlight entered our kitchen windows in Quezon City like a spotlight illuminating the pan. I looked on, amazed at my father who went from garnishing the fish with onion springs—his hands moving in a calculated motion—to lighting a match with one smooth swish, to switching on the gas range. Who was this wizard? What was he doing?
“Cooking,” he said.
“In water?” I asked.
My father explained that this is the way one steams fish. At 6 years old in the '80s, I did not know it was possible to cook like that—with sticks crisscrossed in the pan, water gently boiling underneath.
What just happened before me did not look like that word “cooking.” I remember my 6-year-old brain struggling to match the movement with the action word, and by then I had seen enough wizards in cartoons to recognize that my father was performing some alchemy. I remember asking Papa then how he learned to cook—did his Papa also teach him?
I never got to know my father's father, Angkong Yu Kiong, or “Angkong” to me and my cousins. He died ten years before I was born—and no, he did not teach Papa to cook, my father said, even though Angkong was excellent in the kitchen.
Angkong preferred to cook with kitchen doors tightly shut. No one, not one of his ten children, was allowed to venture in to learn the secrets of his cooking—like how he used “Ngo Hyong,” a Chinese five spice combination, to flavor his juicy “hong ba," his version of adobo, my Auntie Claire's favorite.
The kitchen was my Angkong's domain—his tall, lean presence lorded over it and kept it off-limits to Papa, Auntie Claire, Uncle Mando and the rest of the ten children. When Angkong was cooking, every one had to wait in the dining room next door, and content themselves with a whiff of whatever dish Angkong was making.
Angkong was from China. He came to the Philippines in the late 1910s when he was barely a teenager to help out with his uncles who were Chinese merchants. He worked various jobs in the Philippines for about ten years, sacrificing study to be able to earn enough of a capital to eventually strike out on his own.
When he reached the age of reason—that age elders deemed proper to marry—he wrote to his family in Xiamen, inquiring if they could look for or “kai shaw” (matchmake) someone who would be a good match. Because he did not get any formal schooling, his only request was that his future wife be good at calculating, so she can help out with the small business he intends to put up. In the late 1920s, Angkong brought Jan Kim, “Awa” to many, “Ama” to her grandkids, over to the Philippines from Xiamen, China.
The home my Chinese migrant grandparents built in Lopez, Quezon was sectioned into several areas. On a typical day, Angkong was in the family-only sections, ruling over the kitchen, while Awa could be found in the areas open to the comings and goings of strangers, the sari-sari store and lukadan. This was a strange tidbit, something I only learned when I was already in my late 20s, with Awa more than a decade gone and Angkong for nearly thirty.
I had always thought our soft-spoken Awa tended to the children while Angkong was the one who strived to earn a living. It turned out that in the gentle years that followed the second World War, Awa was the one who looked after the business, receiving deliveries of lukad (copra) from coconut plantations and reimbursing the farmers for their expenses during harvest and paying their share in revenues. She also oversaw the delivery of the lukad to the dealer in Lopez who would ship the dried coconut husks to Manila. All this as she also manned the sari-sari store with a tindera.
Awa was very industrious. She also looked after everyone—not just her children, my Aunts would point out. There was Arnel, an orphaned sorbetero, barely an adult, but who was already looking after a much younger sibling and who became our Uncle's family driver upon Awa’s instruction. There was Iping, a boy from a very poor family in Lopez who got adopted by a childless migrant couple, upon Awa’s arrangement. The childless couple originally wanted to adopt Uncle Ben, Awa's second son, so instead Awa found another boy looking for a home. Decades after her death, plenty of neighbors and strangers in Lopez remember Awa and fondly speak of her, but only people within the family usually remember Angkong.
Angkong and Awa stayed together faithfully until his death in 1972. They survived wars together, waged the tragedy of losing two young children with each other, raised ten children—including one who was deaf and mute—and celebrated their children’s, as well as their own, triumphs and milestones in this archipelago.
I did not inherit any grand romantic stories of how Angkong swept Ama off her feet—although I did hear Angkong got smitten by Awa when he saw her: round face, fair skin, kind eyes, long black hair. I imagine, over time, he must have also fallen in love with her sharpness, industry, and capacity to look after everyone. All through his life as husband and father, Angkong did not tell Awa to be “less smarter” or “less fussy about others.” Instead, he let Awa be, and while she was busy in the front part of the house, Angkong manned the kitchen and prepared meals for his wife and their ten children.
I did not get the chance to meet Angkong, but I suspect he left traces of himself in my aunts and uncles. When I get a 6-year-old of my own, I will probably tell her how my Auntie Nita rewarded us with crispy pata or her special sweet and spicy shrimps when we did well in school. She will also hear about Uncle Ben, second eldest, who sent crabs, fresh fish, and cakes to our house for no reason other than he remembered us while he was at the palengke or the mall. For sure, one of the stories she will know by heart about her own Angkong, also long gone, was his wizard-like way of steaming lapu-lapu.