Words Maricel Pangilinan-Arenas
Images Julia P. Arenas, Maricel Pangilinan-Arenas
Three verbs helped me stay sane and serve family through a season that defies description—infinite iterations of -CQs bring Groundhog Day to mind. Living where I do made all the difference. If I had any questions why God created a garden as man and woman’s first home, this pandemic dispelled all doubt.
Over a thousand moons ago, my husband and I set up a nest in a village about 1000 feet above sea level on foothills by Mt. Makiling, 55 kilometers south of Makati. My Ilonggo bana and I had contemplated a move much further south. We checked out Iloilo and Negros where he grew up and still had family, but when my cousin, our broker, led us to this haven in Laguna, it was love at first sight. When we moved in, less than ten families made up our neighborhood. Daughter to a Kapampangan, a few key priorities needed answering early on as I planned our home: “What do we want to cook?” “What do we need to plant so we have the ingredients we need?” “Where do we get these plants?” I wanted a serious kitchen garden.
Mystical and awe-inspiring, Mt. Makiling is inactive, but its stratovolcanic origins and tempered inner fires empower hot springs all over Los Baños, the Makiling-Banahaw geothermal plant, and the rich and fertile soil of its environs.
From that point, every journey, local or foreign, saw me taking side trips to bookshops for recipe books by local chefs, to palengkes and delis searching for roots and seeds I could take home to plant. I had ramped up my role as culinary gatekeeper at home after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. That Milton Glaser picked it as the one book he wished he’d had the privilege to design raised its esteem and authority in my eyes by 25 notches.
We planted saplings—sampaloc, kalamansi, malunggay, bayabas, dayap, kamias, papaya, banana, kaffir lime, paho, Indian mango, Thai mango, nangka, duhat, avocado. We planted herbs, shoots, and roots, vines and bushes from cuttings and seeds—tomatoes, okra, blue ternate, kangkong, bok choi, kailan, spring onion, chives, gabi, luya, galangal, turmeric, kamote, lemongrass, wansoy, oregano, basil, sawtooth coriander, labuyo, mint, flat parsley, celery, saluyot, pakô, and white corn. We planted flowers—rosal, sampaguita, and dama de noche, my late father’s favorite. Everything grew. Our lot is 550 square meters, our split-level home, 243 square meters. I prayed for the past 18 years that no one would build homes beside us. No one has. So, we’ve had a good bit of ground for plants of every sort. It doesn’t take much to grow greens for a household of seven, especially when two are away 90 percent of the time. I have a six-square meter patch a few steps from the kitchen with flat parsley, celery, mint, Italian oregano, Thai basil, native pechay, blue ternate edible flower vine (a weed, actually!), and bok choi.
Apart from the odd bayawak you might see run across the street or wild quail leading her chicks as they scurry into taller grass, it isn’t unusual to spot tomato plants and corn stalks lining the village sidewalks.
Grace and a confluence of factors created this home cook’s dream—good soil, cool climes with morning mists and afternoon showers most days, an enlightened community that allows residents to plant on vacant lots, and most of all, the fab gift of skill and care from a kasambahay couple whose green thumbs and love for the earth have coaxed growth from every seed and plant on my “to-grow” list. During the pandemic, a driver with nowhere to drive, always more of a farmer at heart, farmed and farmed and farmed. Mt. Makiling surprised and delighted, too—wild mushrooms for a month each year conjured by August thunderstorms, wild spinach year-round, so wonderful in laswa, all sorts of chili pepper plants, thanks to the variety of birds that abound in this sanctuary, plus village gardens with fruit and nut-bearing trees—pili, coconut, aratilis, mangoes, and macopa.
I’m not a trained cook. My mother had absolutely no interest in kitchens. In her Family Life and Child Development studies at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, clearly, her priority was Child Development. The sum total of my formal culinary training? Mom sent me and my sister to cooking classes at the home in Cubao of her UP Home Economics professor, cookery textbook author Matilde P. Guzman. I was seven, Angeli was five. After the cooking lessons, Mom gave us two cookbooks: Let’s Cook with Nora and a second-hand Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook. “Now, cook.” Mom and Dad obviously believed kids could do big things and I am grateful.
What have been some of my more memorable “Create-Eat-Repeat” moments the past 18 months?
I started walking three to five kilometers a day around our uphill-downhill village early last year. On one of those walks, I spotted a village macopa tree loaded with pretty pink fruit, a favorite from childhood. A friend I met online, Chef Beth Romualdez, spotted the pic I posted of the fruit and some talbos (young kamote leaves) on my Instagram feed and she immediately messaged me with a salad idea:
1. Blanch the talbos, squeeze out the water.
2. Slice the macopa.
3. Add sliced tomatoes and onions.
4. Make a dressing of calamansi, patis, and brown sugar.
5. Even with the patis, add a little bit of salt to the dressing. It makes a lot of difference.
As I washed the talbos, I spied kamias fruit on the tree outside our kitchen window. I ran out, picked the kamias, washed and sliced the fruit, composed the salad. I mixed up Chef Beth’s dressing, adding just a bit of salt, as she suggested—Pasuquin sea salt, one of Chef Glenda Barretto’s pantry staples, now one of mine.
The salad was simple and scrumptious. Everyone at home loved it; I had to quickly make a second batch.
Chef Colin Mackay’s Yum Pra Hmik
A senior confined to quarters, I was bitten by the “declutter” bug. I found a decades-old Look & Cook pull-out recipe guide from a Cebu-based corporate publication once edited and produced by one of my besties, food critic and writer Maricris Encarnacion. It was Chef Colin’s recipe for Yum Pra Hmik (Thai Grilled Squid & Pomelo Salad). Yes, Chef Colin of People’s Palace, Blackbird, Sala Bistro, and Sala. Imagine my joy when I found out most of its ingredients grew in our garden. What a gem. Certified extra yum.
- 500 grams fresh squid, cleaned
- 1 whole pomelo, peeled and segmented
- 3 sticks lemongrass, bulb part only, thinly sliced
- 4 pieces shallots, thinly sliced
- One half sweet yellow pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 tbsp green onion, chopped
- 1 cup mix of cilantro aka wansoy leaves, mint leaves, and sawtooth coriander
- ½ inch ginger, julienne
- 3 pieces kaffir lime leaf, very finely sliced
- Nahm Jim Sauce
- 1 clove garlic, peeled
- 1 piece large red chili, seeds removed, minced
- 3 pieces coriander roots
- 5 tbsp fresh lime juice
- 4 tbsp good quality Thai fish sauce
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp store-bought sweet chili sauce
1. To make the sauce, chop the garlic, chili, and coriander roots.
2. Pound together into a paste in a mortar and pestle. Add sugar when pounding the aromatics. The sugar grains act as an abrasive to help extract the flavors from the dry ingredients. Add the other ingredients and mix. Set aside.
3. Slice open the squid to make it flat and then score with a sharp knife.
4. Grill the squid around one to two minutes.
5. Slice squid into strips of around 1 cm.
6. Put the squid in a large bowl and add the nahm jim sauce. Add the rest of the salad ingredients.
7. Lightly toss together and serve on a dish lined with banana leaf. Garnish with extra herbs and kaffir lime leaf.
What’s fab about this—I can make a big batch of Nahm Jim Sauce. It keeps in the ref for over a week. This makes putting a single-serve plate of the salad together easy.
When my farmers-in-residence harvested a lovely crop of native white corn and proudly presented me with their stash, memories of Mexico City, elote, and the flavors of lime and chili flashed like neon lights in my head. Work took me to that captivating country twice a year for four years; its art, craft, and culinary wonders were mesmerizing.
Elote literally means a tender ear of corn, on or off the stalk, in Mexico and in Central America (one exception, Panama). Word origin traces back to elotitutl, a word of the Nahuatl. The Oxford Dictionary defines “Nahuatl” as: 1) “A member of a group of peoples native to southern Mexico and Central America, including the Aztecs” and 2) A mass noun referring to “the Uto-Aztecan language of the Nahuatl, which has over 1 million speakers.” Nahuatl is often referred to as the language of the Aztecs.
The more familiar elote is a mainstay street food found all over Mexico, Central America, and Central American communities in the USA—a fresh ear of corn grilled over hot coals, dunked in lime juice and chili powder, or smothered in mayonnaise or sour cream, butter, grated Mexican Cotija cheese, chopped cilantro, or all of the above. You can even grill elotes in The Sims 4! Eloteros, mobile and stationary elote purveyors, are in street corners and mercados all over the cities, their food carts armed with an arsenal of seasonings and braziers where they grill the elote over coals.
It is a botanical fact that the sugar in ears of corn start turning into starch immediately upon harvest. Corn loses as much as 25% of its sweetness within 24 hours of harvest. This is truth. When I tasted the first ear of corn we grilled immediately after harvest, every other ear of corn I had in my life receded into oblivion.
I did some research and came up with my own take on elote. Everyone I’ve shared it with has been blown away and that includes me. I’m no gourmet, but I am not easily impressed. Try it and tell me what you think.
- 8 ears fresh-picked corn, 15-18 cm in length
- 3 tbsp Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise
- 1 tbsp salted butter
- 2 tsp fresh lime or dayap juice
- 2 tsp fresh calamansi juice
- ½ tsp chili powder plus more for sprinkling
- 1 pinch cayenne pepper (if you want extra heat)
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- ½ cup finely grated cheese (Cotija is the Mexican cheese of choice; Parmesan or Fontina works)
- ½ cup finely chopped cilantro aka wansoy
Heads up. If you dislike cilantro and detect a smell and taste that reminds you of soap or even dead bugs when you taste it, you most likely have the gene that detects the “aldehyde” part of cilantro. Leave cilantro out of the recipe or if you have guests, prepare two batches—one with the herb, one without. I mourn for those born with that extrasensory gene.
1. In a small mixing bowl, mix and cream the mayo and butter together.
2. Add the lime and calamansi juices to the mayo-butter cream; add chili powder, sea salt, and a pinch of cayenne pepper for more heat.
3. Mix the grated cheese and finely chopped cilantro together. Have a small bowl of just grated cheese with no cilantro for the genetically averse.
4. Grill the ears of corn over hot coals or on a stove-top grill. This will only take a few minutes (my bias, I prefer the grill over hot coals). Serve immediately.
5. On your serving table, set up the grilled corn on a platter beside two serving dishes, one for mayo-butter-citrus cream, the second one for the cheese-cilantro mix.
6. Show each diner how to take an ear of corn, coat all the kernels with the mayo-butter-lime cream, and then sprinkle the cheese-cilantro mix all over. You can also opt to compose all the elote with the trimmings yourself, but it’s more fun to let each guest take part in the making, allowing each one to choose their wild.
7. For more heat, some of the hard-core finish it off with a sprinkling of even more chili powder. Have lime and calamansi slices on hand for extra tang, too.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,” Audrey Hepburn said, but despite the pockets of joy my kitchen garden has given me during this pandemic, it’s tough to dwell on Audrey’s thought when we’re all still trapped in the longest, most insanely managed lockdown. With no end in sight, it feels like we’re gunning for a world record for last place on the planet on every meaningful measure of humanity and good governance. It feels almost criminal to write a piece on good food when half the country is hungry.
But press on we must, rage against the dying of the light, be a point of light, and all that. Scripture does say, “Rejoice always.” I am made in the image of my Creator and so I must persist.
Create. Eat. Breathe. Repeat. And yes, enjoy it. This too shall pass. Laban. •
Maricel Pangilinan-Arenas is the widow of the late Vic Arenas, her scuba master instructor who taught her how to dive deeper. She is a brand communications consultant, an advocate for children, and mother of Julia and Joey. She defines the Holy Trinity as Abba Father, Christ Jesus, and the Holy Ghost and is most obsessed with the pursuit of all three when she isn’t distracted by art and books, history and politics, football and food. Caricature by Atan Talas.