Mama told me...
"You’ll go blind if you go to bed with wet hair."
"Marry a doctor."
My mother Nemia Defante was born on Valentine’s Day in 1943 on the island province of Masbate in the Philippines. As the eldest of five children she played a large part in helping to raise her siblings. Elder sisters are addressed as ‘Ate’ (pronounced ‘ahtay’) in the Philippines and have an important role in the family. My grandparents were Nemesio, a plantation worker, and Pollycarpia, a dressmaker.
My grandparents owned a pig, which my mum adored and cared for from when it was a piglet. The day came when her beloved pet had to be used to feed the family, but my mum was so devastated that she went hungry. This story resonated with me as a child; I was fascinated by the idea of having a pet pig but, as I grew up, it demonstrated to me the hardship that my mum had to endure as a child growing up in poverty.
Making something out of nothing was a true skill of my mum’s, in the kitchen and in life. Some of her best culinary concoctions were made from ordinary leftovers thrown together to create something delicious. One legacy of her thriftiness is that my fridge is often bursting at the seams with leftover-filled Tupperware, which I usually manage to recycle although some of it gets forgotten, goes green and fuzzy and ends up in the bin; I am not as good as my mum yet.
My mum never, ever, ever threw food away. It was a cardinal sin in our house and she would remind us daily how lucky we were to have a roof over our heads and food on the table. On one occasion my sister and I weren't allowed to leave the table until we’d finished all of the rabbit pie that my mum had served us, despite our protests. My mum ate all of her portion, left the table and told us she didn’t care how long it took but that we would eat what we were given. Bit by bit we discreetly fed it under the table to our two delighted chihuahas, and went to bed with empty tummies. I think my mum had clocked what we were doing and let us off the hook, but not so far as to give us anything else for dinner.
When I was little and friends would come over to play I would cringe when my mum served up chicken curry for dinner, when all I wanted was to have fish fingers and chips like ‘normal’ people. Now I look back and think how lucky I was to have all that exotic food cooked for me at home. However one dish that I have yet to develop any nostalgia for was her Fish Head Soup, a Filipino delicacy. I remember squirming with embarrassment each time she would loudly ask the fishmonger to hand over her special bag of fish heads that he had been collecting for her.
I always loved being in the kitchen with my mum, watching and helping her cook. She would tell me how much she enjoyed feeding me as I had always been such a good eater. My daughter is like this and I now understand the joy of feeding willing children. We had a rice cooker (staple item in any Filipino kitchen) which was constantly in use and my mum would buy giant sacks of rice from Asian food shops. The first recipe my mum taught me was garlic fried rice, and I remember making it when I could just about reach above the frying pan on the hob. I would sometimes make it as a snack when I got in from school; just fried garlic, leftover rice (she taught me never to fry freshly cooked rice), soy sauce and a scattering of whatever herbs we had. And eaten with a big dollop of Heinz ketchup, Mix-Mix style.
My beautiful mum died on 6th November 1994, aged just fifty-one, from an asthma attack following several months of ill health. She had only recently returned from a long trip back to the Philippines to see her family, where she had felt healthier than she had done in years. She always said that she was at her happiest when she was in the hot sunshine, cooking, eating, and spending time with her family, and it is when I am enjoying these things that I feel close to her. Whenever my family and I reminisce about her, food always comes up - she celebrated, loved, lived food, and I love that my own passion for it comes directly from her.
My favourite recipe of my mum’s is the Filipino dish ‘Arroz Caldo’, a warm, comforting rice soup popular in East Asia, known in China as ‘congee’. It translates as 'warm rice' and is like a soupy Asian risotto. I have vivid memories of eating it in drive-by cafes in the Phillipines when we would make the long coach journey between our house in the countryside to the capital Manila. It is delicious in its simplest form; a soup made with stock, rice, garlic and ginger, but the addition of soft, shredded chicken, soy sauce, a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped spring onions makes it ultra scrummy. To me, it is the ultimate comfort food; my mum would make it whenever I was unwell and I have grown up truly believing that it has healing properties, such is the enduring magic of my wonderful Mama.
1 cup rice
4-5 cups chicken stock
5cm piece of ginger, sliced into batons
3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced
Handful of coriander, chopped
Cooked chicken, chopped/shredded (leftover roast chicken is perfect for this)
Light soy sauce
- Fry two of the garlic cloves garlic with the ginger in a little oil for a minute or so until lightly browned.
- Add the rice and stir so that it is coated in the oily, garlicky, gingery mixture.
- Add the stock and bring to a boil, then turn down to a medium simmer and cook for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the rice is cooked and starting to go a bit mushy. It is a soup so you don’t want the rice to absorb all of the stock - it should have a porridge-like consistency, so add more stock if necessary.
- Add the shredded chicken to the rice and stir to warm through.
- In a separate pan, fry the remaining garlic in a little oil until golden brown.
- Pour the rice soup into bowls and top with the fried garlic, spring onions, coriander, a squeeze of lemon juice and a splash of soy sauce. You can season it with more soy and lemon juice as you eat.
- Tuck in and feel comforted.