Everything starts with a gisa.
“Sauté garlic, onions, ginger, bell peppers, pork, chicken, raisins, liver, peas and chorizo de bilbao in a hot wok, and make sure that the meats get a nice sear, the vegetables a nice sweat and caramelization.”
My Lola Goring was teaching me her Arroz Valenciana recipe for the nth time. I was due back in Manila in two days, and I wanted to cram all of the family heirloom recipes into my repertoire for those days when the antojo—the cravings for a taste of my lola and Mom’s hearth—get so bad as to make me want to book a flight to Bacolod.
I had begged her to teach me her Arroz Valenciana recipe yet again, because though we use virtually the same ingredients, I can’t get mine to taste exactly like hers.
It was All Saints Day, and with it came the traditional Santillan family potluck reunions and masses.
Everyone else in the house was busy transferring homemade puto, biko, baye baye, inday inday, puto lanson, kutsinta, kalamay hati, and palitaw from Tupperwares to serving dishes, in the dirty kitchen out in the back of the house. For most Ilonggo families, this is where most of the cooking happens, with the tiled and pristine kitchen counters inside the house are a mere accessory.
“Lag, why do we cook sticky rice during Pista Minatay?” I quipped at my grandmother, who was tossing ingredients into the wok on her wood stove.
“Para magpilit ang kalag sang minatay sa langit, sa impyerno or sa purgatoryo; para indi sila mag balik sa duta,” my superstitious Lola replied.
(“So that the souls of our departed will stick to heaven, hell, or purgatory, wherever they rightfully belong, and so that they won’t go back to earth.”)
With her back to me, I watched her intently as she carefully ladled the sautéed ingredients into a huge pot. Inside the pot, the sticky rice had almost finished cooking in chicken broth and kalawag, strong turmeric powder ground from local tubers. Lola Goring insists on using real chicken bones to make her broth, though, when in a pinch, she resorts to bullion cubes.
My Lola makes the best Valenciana around. She doesn’t put raisins, which her grandchildren would pick out and throw away anyway. She also doesn’t put a lot of peas, another ingredient that gets thrown out or is left over on the plates. What we—her grandchildren—love are the bony chicken necks that she puts in there for flavor (makes for good nibbling while the family lingers over the dinner table to chat), and the hardboiled eggs that she tops the dish with. Lola Goring's Valenciana is bright yellow and cheerful, just like grains of gold and the prosperity that it represents.
“Every Pista Minatay, our dearly departed come back to visit us, the living. It is during Tigkalalag, All Souls’ Day, that the spirits of our ancestors come back and roam the earth,” she said, her hands busy with the spatula, stirring the rice constantly.
I noticed her setting aside a plateful of the rice, before she seasoned the pot. “What is that for, Lag?” I asked.
“This is our halad, our offering to our dead relatives and ancestors. The dead prefer our offerings unsalted. Anything too salty will not earn their favor. They will not bless the food that we are going to eat to keep us alive and healthy.”
“Why do you think the souls of the dead come back?” I asked.
“Well, some of them may have unfinished business,” Lola Goring explained. “Some of them may have perished in the war; sudden, bloody, and violent deaths. Some of them may have been too old and slipped away peacefully. Some of them come back as angels to check on us, and give us guidance and protection. We believe that this is when they are allowed one day in a year to make amends for the things that they wish they had done while they were still alive.”
At this point, the warm, toasty smell of the Valenciana had started to perfume the air. When earlier, there were distinct smells of seared meat, peppers, and boiling rice, now the symphony of the ingredients had created that heartwarming aroma that was unmistakably of my Lola’s best-kept secret recipe.
“Now, come here and stir. This needs a man’s muscles or it will burn,.” Lola ordered.
“So, we shouldn’t fear our dead’s souls, Lag? Wouldn’t it be so freaky if they suddenly started talking to us?” I inquired, laboring over the hot stove, with the embers flickering inches away from me.
“Don’t be silly. Of course they wouldn’t manifest to us as ghosts or anything. Our ancestors make themselves felt in ways that we may not expect. Every time you feel like you accomplished something you never thought you could, someone’s guiding you. If you feel like you are suddenly awash with strength when you would otherwise be scared, someone is with you: Souls that care and watch over you.”
My Lola kept a keen eye on the rice in the pot that I was struggling to stir thoroughly.
“Lag, tell me what happened during the war.” I pleaded.
“Ay ambot. You are always so curious about everything. Our novena will start really soon. We better get this Valenciana transferred to the dish or else it will burn,” she dismissed, with a wave of her sandok.
I held the pot with her favorite kitchen mitts as she ladled the finished product into her Pyrex dishes. Steam rose from the rice, and the smell was enough to make my stomach growl in anticipation.
I had paid close attention to what she was doing the entire time she was cooking the dish, trying to find out what made her Valenciana taste so good. It dawned on me much later that the reason why her Valenciana is impossible to replicate in the city is because I don’t have a wood stove, and everything tastes better when quick-cooked on a roaring wood fire, with ash and soot flying around like crazy.
Lola scraped off the coveted burnt, hardened part stuck to the bottom of the pot, and set it aside. This crispy and singed part is more flavorful and delicious.
“For my favorite apo,” she said with a wink.
That night, she divided the dukot evenly between her grandchildren, each receiving a tasty morsel.