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Once upon time, there was a woman who came from a far away country in SE Asia to work for a Saudi Arabian family who relocated to Paris during the late 1980s. Let’s call this woman Maria and her employers, the Abdullah family. The Abdullahs are wealthy tycoons who never travel without domestic help. Maria was their help.
Maria came with the hope of a better life for herself and the potential to earn more money for her family back home. With this in mind, she woke up each morning faced with a long list of chores to fulfil and not enough hours in the day to do them all. She was exhausted. However, Maria plodded on with her job because she had no way of leaving. She was financially dependent on the Abdullahs who kept her in their apartment every day, without even a day of rest which all employees are entitled to.
One day, a stroke of courage surged through Maria. She knew that she had to escape the prison that has now become her workplace and home or face the prospect of ill health and death from exhaustion. With nothing but the clothes on her back, Maria ran away. She hid herself in a little subterranean hole by a Parisian sidewalk for days until hunger gripped her, forcing her to grab at the legs of a passerby. Her saviour was an American journalist on a work assignment in the City of Light. She gave Maria the equivalent of 20€ and set her on the right path. The year was 1989.
Industrious and determined, Maria soon found work by asking personally anyone on the streets if they might need domestic help. She had young mouths to feed back home and they depended on her.
Maria is one of the many domestic helpers from the Philippines. Many of them are sans papiers because they are afraid of tempting fate by legalising their status in France; there might be a chance that their applications will be rejected and they would be sent home. That is because many have saved, begged, borrowed and paid the equivalent of 10,000€ for a passage to Europe, a passage that consists of one month’s tourist visa, in the hope of finding work. They will be required to work hard for 2 – 3 years, toiling daily, in order to repay their debt. Some of them hold down a series of at least 5 jobs, working in rotation for several families. For what is their purpose, you ask kawan kawan.
For the love of their children.
This is only a simplified answer, of course but still the most important. Underlying this is the bigger picture – a backstory of colonization, war, bartering between colonial masters, the Spaniards and the Americans, over a landmass that is home to 85 million indigenous people, and later on during independence, a series of corrupt politicians, leaving behind a nation of people who had to seek labour abroad to ensure that their families had enough food on the table. This was what brought Maria firstly to Saudi Arabia, then to France.
Maria has been in Paris for 21 years, working and saving hard, sending the majority of the Euros she earns back to the Philippines. For that, she sees to the education and welfare of her children and grandchildren. Kawan kawan, Maria hasn’t had a vacation in 21 years, she has not set foot on the soil of her homeland in 21 years.
But all that is going to change. Maria is going home. However, unfortunately for her, this respite has come too late. Maria is going home to die. She has a tumour that is eating away at her brain. The French medical team working on her has signed her death warrant and has kindly advised her son, the only family she has here in Paris, to send her to a hospice or back to her homeland.
At her hospital bed, Maria sits smiling. Maria is always smiling, thankful for small blessings and joyful of life itself. But today is one of the rare days when she is cognizant and recognises her visitors. Maria thinks she is going home on vacation and she can’t wait. She can’t wait to smell the dew that collects on each blade of grass in the morning in humid Philippines. She longs for the local flavours her homeland brings.
As I watch the longganisas popping in my frying pan, I think of Maria. I think of how happy she will be to taste this native sausage again, with scrambled eggs and garlic rice.
These sausages are native to the Philippines, made from indigenous spices, adapted from recipes left behind by their Spanish masters. Longganisa’s ancestor is the chorizo. In the Philippines, these chorizo related sausages are usually eaten accompanied by rice, fried with garlic, rice so fragrant and extraordinarily Filipino. Eggs are quickly scrambled to add to the meal. I was told that this trio: Longganisa, scrambled eggs and garlic rice makes a perfect Filipino breakfast. This is Filipino fry-up, kawan kawan! If only all fry-ups could be this delicious.
There are many varieties of longganisas in the Philippines, some more garlicky than others, some sweeter whilst others sour. The meat is almost always stuffed in a casing.
Longganisas can be made at home too, just follow the recipe below. I tweaked this reciped that comes from Filipino chef, Kristine Subido’s kitchen.
2 cups plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
4-1/4 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground pepper
1 tablespoon chili flakes (optional)
1/3 cup and 1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 cup minced garlic
8-1/4 pounds ground pork
4-1/4 pounds coarsely ground pork back fat (streaky bacon)
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon apple-cider vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
Mix all the ingredients together, cover and refrigerate overnight. (You can also add a few dashes of worcestershire sauce to the mixture to give it an extra oomph.)
Form into patties or logs. Pan-fry in a nonstick skillet, with a little oil if needed, until browned on both sides. Makes about 12 pounds.
I find comfort in smells, kawan kawan. Good smells, of course. Musky aftershave colognes that titillate, feminine fragrances that when inhaled send triggers of happy thoughts of summer days and girly nights out, the clean and crisp smell of newly laundered sheets and clothes, aromas released by spices being heated in a frying pan, the confectionary perfume of cakes baking in the oven. These are a few of my favourite smells….
However, my most favourite smell of all has to be the fragrance of rice being cooked. Did you know that rice has a perfume of its own, kawan kawan? This beautiful aroma is released when the rice grains are almost cooked. It permeates the house just like coffee being brewed in the morning does.
Rice, being the staple carb in my family, features in every meal, especially at dinner time. Dinner is a whole family affair, announcing the return of the patriarch, my dad, from work and when homework and chores have been completed. Dinner is when my sisters, both parents and I get to sit down ensemble to chat, discuss, argue and converse at the wooden table in the kitchen with its tiled top where we all convene for meal times. My mother would have prepared a soup – a clear stock of some meat variety, a dish of sautéed chinese greens, a plate of meat, usually chicken or pork stir fried with another variety of vegetable and/or a dish of steamed fish with slivers of ginger, soya sauce and sesame oil. Sometimes, she fries the fish that has been seasoned with a little salt and tumeric which turns the oil she fries them in to a yellow river. This is her tweak on the signature Malay dish called ikan panggang, a type of grilled fish. For this dish, she will have prepared a dipping sauce infused with lime, sugar, minced chilli peppers and garlic. All these dishes are eaten with a bowl of white rice, with the soup served in individual little bowls to be eaten at the same time.
I know when dinner time is approaching just by the smell of rice permeating the house. This is shortly before the click of the on/off button on the rice cooker, signally that the rice is done. A little hole on the lid of the rice cooker lets out the steam which is the element that cooks the rice, the steam which is produced by the remnants of what water is left that is required to cook any rice. The rice is done when all the water has been absorbed by every rice kernel.
I was feeling a little lost and displaced again the other day. I don’t know what had caused this feeling, I only knew that I wanted some home cooked comfort food. I had been doing a little voluntary work at the secondary school, helping some students with their English. A Korean girl that I was assigned to had been all but receptive of my role. I had sensed by sitting next to her and through my failed attempts to make conversation that only produced monosyllabic answers that she not only resented my presence but also resented the fact that she had been transplanted from her country to a harsh and foreign place where she doesn’t speak the language and where she has to be taught in a tongue that she finds hard to decipher. My heart went out to this girl because not only is it difficult to be uprooted from what you know, to be transplanted to an unfamiliar territory which can seem hostile because of a language gap and then to have to endure an education in a language that you are not wholly comfortable in, couple that with raging hormones which can cause confusion and irrational mood swings. Not a great combination, my friends.
I was told by her teacher that she is an intelligent girl when she wants to be. One manifests intelligence in one’s tongue because one knows what words and phrases to use in a conversation, discussion or argument. It is a challenge to show how intelligent you are when you don’t fully understand your medium of instruction, let alone having to express yourself in this foreign tongue. When expressing yourself in your mother tongue, you can be eloquent, elegant and intelligible. In a foreign tongue, you risk sounding gauche, awkward and frustrated because the words don’t seem to roll off your tongue like they ought to….. in your language.
At the appartement later, whilst preparing dinner and waiting for the rice cooker to sound her familiar click signalling that the rice is ready, I was suddenly overcome by a throng of homesickness. It was the fragrance released by the rice that caused me to feel this way, it occurred to me later. Another reason could be my feeling terribly sorry for the Korean girl that spurred this feeling of homesickness on. Standing next to the rice cooker, I inhaled deeply, taking in the aroma. I felt how good it is to be able to recreate this sense of childhood comfort. The fragrance of the rice represented home and hearth, it symbolised the security of the familial space, a haven where I can be myself, let my hair down and put my feet up. I was glad that in a foreign land, I was able to find this little piece of heaven.
For the Italian, it is the aroma of the tomato sauce simmering or the fragrance of the bell peppers stewing that bring him home. For my children, it is a mélange of the rice cooking one day or the pasta boiling on another which also emits a unique perfume of its own, both recreating the sense of home for them .
That night, I had the rice ready, and a dish of scrambled eggs with tomatoes to accompany the rice. This very easy to prepare dish is called Fānjiādàn 蕃茄蛋
in Mandarin and is really a very typical rustic dish. It is eaten a lot in Taiwan and in SE Asia.
This is one of my favourite comfort food, kawan kawan. Surprisingly, this dish is also much loved by la grande and the Itlalian. It is what SS remembers eating as a child when life was just the two of us. Sadly, I have yet to pass this love completely to RN who endures this scrambled egg dish but is not totally enamoured by it. She only eats eggs if they are white! I might cook this dish with egg white only, la prochaine fois, mes amis!
I hope that those who are feeling displaced due to a recent uprooting are able to recreate a sense of home through a particular smell that they love coupled with a particular food that they enjoy. Eating dinner that night, I whispered a little prayer for the Korean girl who tugged at my heart strings, wishing her well and that somehow, in this jungle of foreign words, she is able to recreate a sense of home.