My Eats | Captain of the Ship

My great grandmother, Pascuala Cristobal, known by all as Nana Cuala, and called by her grandkids as Inang Cuala, was a matriarch and a grandmother of the best kind. She was no taller than five feet and was slender all her life. She walked fast with a purpose in her beautiful mule slides. She dressed in bright tailored a-line dresses and exquisitely wore her hair in a low bun tucked with pins. She always carried a frame handbag. And many times during the early seventies as the frame handbag is casually held by her left arm, her right hand would be holding mine as she brought and picked me up from pre-school or as I tagged along on one of her daily errands. She played cards and chewed on betel nut. Even with her small frame, people in town knew that she was a force to be reckoned with. Most of the respect came from her generosity and independence. I only knew her for the first five years of my life, but they were five years nurtured with so much love and kindness. My mom said that when I was born, before we even left the hospital, my great grandma told my parents that she would help raise me so my mother could continue to finish college. Hence, it happened that from infancy, my great grandma and grandparents cared for me until my mother completed her education. One of my foggy and yet unforgettable memories was when Inang Cuala and I would make a pit stop at this restaurant called D’ Marcus after she picked me up from school. I remember sitting at the bar with her, both of us sipping on a tall glass of something cold.

She raised my grandfather to become the mighty, confident, and intelligent man that he was all on her own. My great grandfather went overseas to look for a better future for his growing family (my great grandmother was pregnant with my grandpa at that time).  My great grandpa made it to America but then WW1 happened. My great grandpa thought my great grandma had died during the war because the letters he sent were unanswered. She didn’t receive them because their house had been bombed and was forced to move. My great grandma thought my great grandpa died from the war or decided to abandon them because she didn’t hear from him at all. It would take decades and many serendipitous events until my great grandpa would discover that my great grandma and his son survived the war. By the time my great grandparents met again, my grandpa was already in his forties, a successful politician, married, and had four children (one of them being my mother who was about nine years old at that time). My great grandmother was also living her life as a happy, single, and successful woman. By then, my great grandpa also had his own family in America. As it always does, life went on in both ends of their worlds.  I can only imagine all the emotions felt during this meeting. Relief, regret, anger, love, hope. It must have been a huge comfort and reassurance for my grandpa to know that his dad looked for him all his life and that he was always hopeful that they would meet one day. It must have been reassuring to know that all parties turned out good and well in the end. It must be a great release for them to finally have answers. My great grandfather died of cancer shortly after that reunion. It seemed that finding my grandpa was his ongoing and last quest in life.

My great grandma and my grandpa continued to play the cards they were dealt. They took care of each other and many people around them. My great grandma owned almost all the land in their small town and they lived off the land during her lifetime, selling a small piece at a time when they needed the money. She also gave some land to relatives who needed a place to live. It must have been a sizeable amount of property because my mom and her siblings still inherited a good sum of this land when my grandfather passed away 27 years ago.

Inang Cuala was perhaps the most loving and caring person we knew. My mom said that she was the epitome of a grandmother…spoiling all of them with whatever would make them happy and giving them anything that would heal their pain or gratify their desires. She would bring my mom homemade lunch at her store at the market daily. She would get something else for lunch or dinner if my uncle didn’t like what was on the table. She would buy my youngest uncle whatever he fancied as a teenager. She protected my oldest uncle from town bullies and was always prepared to maim anyone who dared to insult him.  I was a part of that spoiling, too. I remember getting snacks of salted quail eggs, popped rice balls, and small bags of boiled peanuts at the bus station when I went on errands with her. At a very young age, I knew what love was because of her. My first heartbreak was when she died in 1977. I remember breaking down and falling on my knees with my youngest uncle when we heard the news. We were both sobbing uncontrollably, afraid to face the reality that life will never be the same again without her.

My great grandmother’s strength, tenacity, determination, sense of independence, and courage fueled and sustained the Cristobal family from my grandpa’s childhood until now. Along with the hectares of land, she also handed down her warrior/captain-like spirit to many generations in our family. I see it with my mom and with my sisters, and me. I see it in my nieces. And if we’re lucky, we’ll see it in future generations of women in our family. I feel fortunate for knowing her love. I am grateful that I came from that bloodline.

I don’t know my great grandma’s favorite dish, but I know that she liked to snack. It was also a known fact in the family that she would eat anything with rice. Rice and coffee, rice and banana, rice and bread, rice and peanuts…the list is long as it is strange. She lived through WW1 and WW2, so what probably drove the choice of food was whatever was available to eat during her youth.

To honor my great grandmother and because it is Women’s History Month, I would like to share with you a childhood favorite of mine and a dish I knew she liked…because it has rice as the main ingredient. Champorado is a glutinous rice porridge with chocolate. I like it with a drizzle of condensed milk but many Filipinos like to eat this sweet porridge with salted dried fish on top. This is a delicious breakfast staple, and especially good on rainy days. To me, Champorado has the flavor of childhood and warm hugs. Whenever I ate it as a child, I always felt loved.

I hope you get to share this dish with a woman or women in your life who has shown you love and generosity. I hope you get to cook this dish for a female hero in your life who showed you how to captain your own ship, fight battles with fierce determination, get up without hesitation from defeat, and to always have hope.

My version of the champorado is topped with caramelized bananas, toasted almonds, a drizzle of cream or half-and-half, and a tiny pinch of sea salt.

CLICK HERE to download the recipe.

Bon Appétit!
~ Chef Mayet