Before the word foodie was ever coined, before the Food Network made cooking cool and before there were celebrity chefs, there was my dad.
I’m not sure how he got into cookery. I know my grandmother made authentic Chinese food, raised her own chickens and dried her own duck, so I’m sure my dad learned a lot from her. His favorite how-he-got-started story though, was when he was a dishwasher in this restaurant and the cook quit; the owner asked him if he, my dad, wanted to become the cook – I guess that’s how he got started being in charge of a kitchen.
Like all Chinese wishing to have a better life, he knew he had to get an education. So while getting his degree in accounting he opted instead to work for a fine goods grocery store during the day so he can go to night school. But he did not let this deter him from his love of cooking. Apparently he loved exchanging recipes with his customers. When I asked him where he got the tuna salad sandwich spread I loved so much, he said it was from an American missionary.
From a very early age my dad had instilled in me that when it comes to food, money is no object. My dad had never flinched in plunking down hefty dough to get first choice on the freshest fish, the biggest prawns or the plumpest duck. Even when the restaurant was having slow times he would find a way to provide quality meals for his family.
He doesn’t approve though of eating out at restaurants around town. He would say, “Why would you want to eat outside when you have the best food at home?” If there was a dish I liked at another eatery he would ask me to take it home so he can recreate it for me. However, teen-agers also liked pizza and I think that was one item my dad couldn’t replicate so my brother and I would sometimes sneak some pizza into the house late at night.
That said, the objective of most of our out-of-town day trips involved eating at places known for their fish, crab or grilled specialties. I recalled a trip where my dad, the driver and I went to this place famous for pit-roasted pig called lechon that was served with an incredible liver sauce. Though I recall consuming a lot and waddling out of that restaurant, I think my dad exaggerates when he repeatedly tells the tale of me eating most of the 2 kilos of that heavenly porcine fare. I think I was just twelve, how could I eat so much then?
Anyway, a common conversation at dinner is what we should eat for tomorrow’s dinner.
I know right? How could we keep on talking about food? You grow up with it, I guess and it becomes second nature. (My husband couldn’t understand it at first and thought I needed some therapy…that is until he met my family, now I kinda rubbed off on him.)
Even when I left my hometown to work in Manila, my dad worried if I had enough to eat and would constantly send me boxes of goodies. One time it was my birthday and he sent an entire feast via the bus or rather care-of the bus driver: roast chicken, the fixings including a perfect birthday cake from him and mom.
No doubt, my dad loved all food: duck, pork, crab, steaks…but all these were not without consequences.
Before I left for the U.S. in October 1996, I spent the weekend in Baguio and spent a day talking to my dad about the future and the past. Finally he said, “Send me a plane ticket so I can come visit and we can go eat steaks or I can come cook for you.” Ahh, my dad, always worrying that his daughter is gonna go hungry.
After that night’s going-away party we gave each other a hug good-bye.
That was the last time I hugged him.
He suffered a heart attack a month later. It was not that bad, he assured me and he had quit smoking, started exercising lightly and …watching what he ate. I felt so bad for him knowing how much he loved to eat. Not long after he had another setback and surgery was imminent.
On New Year’s Day, 1997, we had a chat on the phone and he told me he wasn’t afraid of surgery anymore and he couldn’t wait to start eating duck again. I laughed and said, “In moderation, Pa.”
That was our last conversation.
He never woke up from surgery.
To this day, my heart breaks when I think of the hope in his voice when I last spoke to him. I find comfort in that I don’t have any regrets in my relationship with my Dad, we were very close as father and daughter, food was such a central part of our lives that it’s not surprising that most of my fondest memories of him involved our hearty meals and chatter around the dinner table or me waiting impatiently beside him as he whipped up Sunday’s special dinner of strip steak and noodles. I don’t think that there’s ever a single day that goes by when I don’t think of him, specially when my thoughts yearn for the dishes from my childhood.
One of these fares is lamb stew, I probably have not had it in 30 years. To recreate it from memory I had to think like my dad….and this is where being my father’s daughter comes in handy.
The fat of the lamb is what gives the stew its special flavor so do NOT cut it out from the meat.
Happy Father’s day! Now go give your dad a hug…
George’s Lamb Stew
2 lbs lamb cubed
1 med onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
2 tbs oil
2 tsp fish sauce
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tbs dark brown sugar
1 can tomato sauce, 8 ounces
1 tbs. Tomato paste
2 med potato – cut in large chunks
3 med carrots – cut in large chunks
1 cup water
1/2 chicken bouillon (from the Asian store)
Salt & pepper to taste
Saute onions in 2 tablespoons of oil until translucent. Add the garlic and continue sauteing until aromatic.
Add the lamb and brown. Make sure that the fat makes contact and caramelizes a bit. Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar and continue cooking for a little bit.
Add the tomato sauce and 1 cup of water (I usually use the tomato sauce can and fill it with water and add that).
Bring the mixture to a boil and then simmer.
Finally add the tomato paste, chicken bouillon, bay leaf, a third of the carrots (to sweeten the stew) and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Cook until lamb is tender about 1.5 hours.
In the last 30 minutes of cooking add the rest of the carrots and the potato and cook until these are tender.