Filipino mothers share their kitchen secrets

Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash

The smell of kare-kare coming from the kitchen. The warm champorado kisses you get before you are dropped off at school. The adobo-filled embraces that welcome you home. All of these precious moments happened because of our mothers.

Retracing our footsteps to the history of Filipino cuisine, one of the best mothers/chefs is none other than Teresita “Mama Sita” Reyes. She founded Mama Sita and created sauces, mixes, and recipes that are used to make the most iconic Filipino dishes that fill dining tables at homes and restaurants. Her own mother, Doña Engracia “Asiang” Reyes, started The Aristocrat Restaurant which one of the most popular restaurants serving authentic Filipino cuisine. Asiang is also known as a prolific cook, garnering the title of “Grand Dame of Philippine Cuisine.”

Continuing a legacy in the culinary world, Filipino mothers create dishes with Mama Sita’s products or recipes. Her cookbook has even reached many corners of the world, sharing secrets and tricks of the trade.

Teresita “Mama Sita” Reyes, chef/restaurateur (courtesy of Philippine Postal Corporation)

Beyond these celebrities, there are many mothers who continue to inspire future generations to cook at home and savor the experience that comes with it. Here are some stories from Filipino moms who embrace their roots with every dish they make.

Rose, a housewife from Metro Manila

How did you start to cook?

I started cooking when I was nine, and my first dish was nilagang manok. My father inspired me to start cooking, since he liked to do it too. He would go to the market then cook various dishes at home, like kare-kare and types of sinigang. I would watch him make food in the kitchen and I realized that I wanted to do it too.

Do you have your own signature dish/personal recipe? 

Mais con yelo! I would mix corn, milk, sugar, and ice. Sometimes, I would also make my own fruit salad and tapa. My own version of tapa is sweet like tocino. I would buy a sirloin steak and mix it with garlic, toyo (soy sauce), and sugar. This makes my tapa sweet and savory.

Anne, a copy editor from Quezon City

How did you start to cook?

My mom ran a restaurant for about twenty years. It was called Five Anne’s, and it was in front of my Ateneo (school). I grew up on the second floor of the restaurant, with my older sister reading Sassy magazine, with recipes at the back of the magazine that had titles like “The Lemonheads’ Favorite Cookies” or “Smashing Pumpkin’s Steak Tartar”.

One day, when I was seven or eight, I found a recipe in one of the issues, “Juliana Hatfield’s Lemon Chicken.” I bugged my mom to let me cook it. She relented and guided me as I worked. It turned out okay! I remembered serving it at the family restaurant. Then, I would see that some customers asked “Sino nagluluto nito? (Who cooked this?)” and my mom would say, “Ay, anak ko (Ah, my daughter).” I was so proud.

Do you have your own signature dish/personal recipe? 

At home, whenever I don’t have enough free time to cook and everyone’s hungry, I have two go-to dishes: my chili or pigs in a blanket.

For my chili, I put all the ingredients—herbs and chilis—in a pot. I can make a vegetarian version whenever I need a healthier option. I started making this because I couldn’t find any delicious chili when I was younger. Eventually, I found a basic recipe that my husband and son loved.

Whenever I need to make food to-go, I would make pigs in a blanket from scratch, but the halal version since we don’t eat pork. My son doesn’t like rice and making this is my way of adding carbs to his diet. I use a pizza dough and add herbs, sausage, and a slice of cheese, then bake them.

What’s your favorite food-related moment with your family?

For most of the time, my mom would make us food during Christmas. One time she got sick and couldn’t cook, so each family member contributed a dish on Christmas Eve. It was exciting because I had the chance to taste my sister’s cooking and there were some perplexing choices. I also got to know my siblings better through their food. For example, my eldest sister served us an Eastern selection of dips and bread.

Dr. Reena Lynn, a doctor from Houston, Texas

Do you have your own signature dish/personal recipe? If yes, what is it? How did you create it?

For nearly two decades our family has been hosting a Christmas Day lunch for our Filipino friends whom we consider family. Everything we serve is homemade and our menu has remained basically the same through the years: seafood paella, rotisserie rib eye roast, roasted root vegetables, pan-grilled sea bass, baked ham, and pasta salad. My daughters are now in charge of the desserts. All of these were original family recipes that I have modified and made my own. They have become a holiday tradition and our family’s signature meals.

What’s your favorite food-related moment with your family?

Being busy professionals with limited household help, my husband and I work as a team to bring good food to our table. Now the kids have learned and can cook their own favorite dish(es), it brings my family together and our best memories are created in the kitchen.

But our most memorable moments are integral to the seasons. For example, in Spring we host an Easter lunch potluck for our Filipino friends. My husband makes a classic Texas BBQ. He slow-smokes a brisket for 14-16 hours while I cook up a batch of beans, coleslaw, and potato salad. 

A family favorite for summer Friday evenings is a chicken inasal recipe modified from the cookbook “Memories of Philippine Kitchens.” Its marinade is made with fresh lime and lemongrass from our garden. I season and marinate the chicken on a Thursday evening and leave it in the fridge overnight for my husband to grill the next day. Dinner al fresco by the pool on a Friday evening is the perfect start to a summer weekend at home.

Valery Mitra-Joaquin, an operations training head from Alabang, Muntinlupa

How did you start to cook?

The first time I cooked was when my aunt Wilma had an accident and stayed in bed all day to recover. Her bed was just near our kitchen and I was nine years old. One night I said, “Tita, I want to cook leche flan.” And so, she taught me how to do it step-by-step without leaving the bed. Since then and during our summer holidays, my cousins and I would stay up late when the helpers and our parents were already asleep. Then I would cook whatever we wanted and use any of the ingredients we found in the pantry.

As I grew up I learned different cuisines with my aunt Agnes—who introduced me to European and Western cuisines—and my mom, aunt Edith, and aunt Martha—who taught all I needed to know about Filipino cuisine. 

Do you have your own signature dish/personal recipe? 

I usually do fusion cooking: Filipino/Eastern and Western cuisine. Let me just tell you about one: Filipino-style stroganoff.

If you check the original stroganoff recipe, it requires beef and sour cream with no soy sauce. Mine is adjusted to Filipino taste buds. Also, the average Juan and Juana doesn’t always cook with sour cream and beef is expensive. You have to adobo the pork before adding the Filipinos’ favorite all-purpose cream, then use local margarine instead of butter.

Evangeline, a housewife from Manila

Do you have your own signature dish/personal recipe? 

One of my favorite personal recipes (and this isn’t exactly original) is paella. In a traditional paella recipe, people would add the kakang gata (the first squeeze of milk from a coconut) to the sauce used in making paella.

My version of paella would be using the kakang gata while cooking the rice, creating something similar to inangit (sticky rice). Also, I would add more seafood instead of chicken to my paella since my husband doesn’t like chicken.

What’s your favorite food-related moment with your family?

When my kids were still toddlers I would bake their birthday cakes. I also enjoyed making fruitcakes for Christmas and I would sell these and make a batch for my family (at least six months to a year in advance, since fruitcakes taste better when they age a bit longer). At night, I would bake a fresh batch and give my husband a slice since he preferred freshly baked fruit cakes. Sometimes I would also sell pineapple upside-down cakes and butter cakes.

There’s always a significant detail that sets a mother’s touch apart from other people. It changes lives from their households to every corner in the world. Take a moment to remember your mother and her cooking because home will always be where your heart and stomach are.

PB Hermoso

PB is a full-time copywriter based in the Philippines who is always looking for new music wherever she goes. PB enjoys a cup of coffee every morning while her cats are asleep.

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