I have never been so excited to have a bundle of pechay. It sits gloriously on my shelf of the refrigerator, thanks to some blessed housemates who dropped by the neighborhood Asian store. Later this week, it will sit in a pot of much-awaited sinigang, because I chanced upon Mama Sita’s mix — of all places — in an Italian market stall, manned by a cheery Indian shopkeeper.
In Lille, a university city north of Paris, you’ll find six girls sharing one kitchen-slash-dining-room. We’re Filipino exchange students nearing the end of our semester abroad, and this is the first time we’ve found a leafy vegetable that isn’t iceberg lettuce. You can talk about culture shock in terms of people and their customs, but the differences shine through local groceries: the French stock more brands of smoked salmon than soy sauce.
Clearly, East means exotic, reflected in the lower availability and higher prices of the stuff we want to cook with. Visiting any Asian store is a treat, and a haul from one, a luxury. I’ve watched the pantry fill with familiar condiments, but gradually, as if we came to terms with cravings for chili oil, condensed milk, or sweet and sour sauce.
We can’t resist, because there’s nothing quite like the taste of home to cure homesickness. That’s the highest praise we give our culinary attempts, whether or not they resemble what our mothers would make in taste or quality. We could google the needed tips — and we do — but it’s just different hearing it straight from mom who, due to the time lag, gets her schedule interrupted so she can channel a gentle version of Gordon Ramsay. So yes, we learned about measuring rice with the “finger rule” via Messenger.
The internet does a lot to bridge our kitchens. Mom sends me snapshots of her cookbooks when I mention what I have or haven’t been eating. My roomies share dishes from their mothers. We update the parentals with receipts of our successes and comical failures, as proof that the steak may have burned but our fingers didn’t.
Often, however, it still feels like social media doesn’t do enough. I think of how mom doubles the garlic in every recipe, and I smell weeknight dinners in sizzling cloves. I want the video of my fried rice to carry its aroma beyond the screen, for relatives to know that I’m trying to capture their preferences in a pan. That we’re still sharing the same meals around the globe, just at separate tables, with companions who are more or less family by now as well.
Of everything I miss, food takes me back the most vividly. Maybe it’s because I’m starting to understand, more than ever, how much it takes to whip up a comfort dish. A bowl of homemade soup is care in its purest form for me. Mom’s nilaga, for instance, would be perfect for this 10-degree weather — yet the hours it takes to boil the meat are hours I spend in class, in the midst of other chores, or in sleep.
I’m surrounded by care here as well, living away but not alone. When I hit a fever of 39 one night, I could hear the girls in the kitchen, through thin walls. It was a debate on whether to make me soup, rush me to a doctor, or both. And though I fall for different cities every weekend backpacking across Europe, it’s moments like that, in this provincial home, which make me cherish this experience even more.
Our return will be all kinds of bittersweet, with another learning curve. But as long as we’re on this side of the world, we’ll keep missing the Philippines in snatches. Food is one language of love we all speak to remedy that ache. So until then, I’ll consider my soon-to-be steaming bowl of sinigang sacred.