Coming Home.

This is what I remember.

My mother making paella — from where I stand on a stool at the sink I can see the wooden spoon she’s using is stained yellow from the saffron. I’m tearing the legs and shells off of the frozen shrimp she will cook and stir into the pot. My hands burn from their cold flesh but it is oddly pleasing work, and their multiple slender legs make a strange and faint zipping noise as I separate them from their frosty, firm abdomens. I reward myself for each tail I coerce intact from its flimsy gray armor, and don’t realize I’ve been given this task to keep me busy, and quiet.

Tomatoes from the garden gathered in a wooden basket and placed before me. I grasp at them clumsily before they are washed, diced and tossed with feta cheese, herbs and olive oil, and then scooped up with pita bread.

Pan de sal, palm-sized rounds of bread dusted with grainy cornmeal and spread with rapidly-melting butter, brought to me on a hand-painted plate by one of my grandmother’s maids, along with a cardboard box of mango juice. Fried baby cuttlefish the length of my index finger, but much thinner and consumed whole — bones, head, tail. After eating them with my cousins in Manila, I clamor for it, but my mother only cooks the little fish for me once, when my father is out of the house; he hates smell.

Leaves of lox and slabs of cream cheese bookended by bagels from H&H, so salty and thick behind the teeth that talking is impossible. Ful, chick peas and fava beans warmed on the stove and spooned into a bowl before getting mixed with mashed garlic, lemon juice, parsley and olive oil. Honey Nut Cheerios and Rice Crispies, crunched with as little milk as possible so the round O’s and puffed rice still snap with each bite. Eggs scrambled with the sujuk my father hangs inside a wooden frame lined with mesh; it looks like a rabbit hutch, but nothing has ever lived in it but sausages drying.

Dolma, stuffed with rice and ground beef, the leftover orange oily broth of which my mother ladles into a mug for me to drink after dinner. Hummos whirled in the food processor with more and more lemon, garlic and tahini added until my father is satisfied. It’s that or mutabbal, which I dislike. Boureg, sheets of phyllo layered with shredded cheese, parsley and red pepper, flaky on the first day and reinflated in the toaster oven on the next. Tray after tray of baklava and Lebanese pastries, and separating each crumbly tier with my tongue. I suck at its rose-scented sweetness with as much strength as I can before finally chewing.

Spaghetti with meat sauce, my Armenian grandmother’s recipe, full of glistening sautéed onions. I plaster it with so much Kraft Parmesan that it resembles the surface of the moon more than a plate of pasta and I don’t care that it feels grainy. More strands of spaghetti, Filipino-style, sweetened with sugar and ketchup and cooked with sliced hot dogs and Spam.

Baloney sandwiches on white bread or lunch rolls, carried to our table in the dining hall on brown plastic trays. I am scared of the meatloaf, which I have neither seen nor eaten before. Breyer’s Cookies and Cream, chunks chiseled off with spoons while sitting on commercial-grade dormitory carpet next to my roommate, who is eating maraschino cherries direct from the jar. Rum and Cokes, obscenely syrupy, sipped nervously from red Solo cups from the corners of parties.

Wilted triangles of pizza oozing neon drizzles of oil onto flimsy napkins. Pasta salad drenched in bottled Italian dressing and tossed with cubed cheese, tomatoes and olives. We pretend we made it all from scratch and finish the leftovers in front of the open fridge. Wonder Bread toast, blanketed with butter and Smucker’s while still warm, so that together they melt into the crunchy top. Corn fritters we fry on the battered stove and dip into a puddle of maple syrup, leaving sticky trails across the counter.

California rolls, the first sushi my best friend tries, and I convince her to place the entire circle in her mouth even though she’ll struggle to chew it. Char siu baau buns, startlingly tangy inside puffy dough, shared with my mother’s father in countless Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns around the world; I carry this memory with me like a creased photograph kept in my wallet, and pull it out often in the days after his death. Chicken B’stilla, simultaneously savory and sweet, drenched in a yogurt and mint sauce I greedily lap up even though mint makes me think of being a child and ill, and of the strong teas my father brewed for me from the plants he tended in old wine barrels in the backyard. Aloo mutter in a room with tangerine-colored walls on Mass Ave, and the man I will marry in six years winks at me across the table.

Rib-eye steaks cooked medium-rare and eaten off of plates balanced on our knees. We don’t have a dining room, let alone a dining room table. Onions sweated for hours until they caramelize; I stir their gilded ropes into majedera, a mixture of lentils and bulgur, or cluster them across the crust of a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza I will later adorn with an herb chiffonade. Whole split chicken breasts, garlic and lemon slices slipped beneath the fatty ivory skin that will turn crisp and blush gold within the heat of the oven. Butter cookies flavored with mahleb, powder ground from the pits of sour cherries, baked in my new kitchen following the recipe my father’s mother dictated to mine decades before she quietly dies at age eighty-eight in a Los Angeles nursing home that smells of copper and Lysol.

Sausages, sauerkraut and beer underneath the green and white striped awning of a tent on the Rhine. Lechón, the suckling pig I can’t eat without thinking about the sound the animal makes when a knife is plunged into its throat, something I heard for the first and only time when I was ten. Croque-monsieurs on the Pont Neuf, the wind threatening to loosen the scarf from my neck. Fruit-flavored margaritas on D’Aguilar Street; I’m panting in the Hong Kong heat and the tequila goes straight to my head. Cornish pasties and licking crumbs from my fingers in the shadow of Bath Abbey at Christmastime. Squat foil-capped bottles of Yakult, sweetened fermented milk purchased from a 7-Eleven in Seoul. Durian stinking up the car in a Bangkok traffic jam, though later as I eat its sweet and tender flesh, I’ll forget I breathed through my mouth for an hour and nursed a stench-induced headache.

A candied shell enclosing a dollop of sugared olive oil alongside a kumquat skin holding its flesh turned into sorbet. Breaded cubes of liquefied foie gras placed on the tongue whole, then made to explode by the pressure of my mouth closing. Wintermint and vanilla ice cream coerced by science into a pliable rope, knotted and twisted into a cool, icy coil that I cut into with a fork. A Stonehenge of roasted bones upright on a white plate, its marrow shiny and bright under overhead lights before I smooth it across craggy planes of toast, decorate it with verdant parsley leaves and dot it with coarse gray sea salt. And chocolate chip cookies, either straight from the oven or out of a bright blue package that noisily crinkles at my touch, served with a glass of milk to bring me home again.

Coming Home” by Leon Bridges.

More On Paella.

I’ve just realized that when I wrote about my mother’s paella recipe, I didn’t mention my favorite thing about it: shrimp. This will sound strange, but regardless, here goes…

When I was younger, and she was cooking paella, my mother used to give me the task of dealing with shrimp. This meant that I would stand at the sink, dump a pound of shrimp into the colander I had propped up inside the stainless steel basin, and then promptly tear off their legs and maneuver their bodies and tails out of their shells. This was my favorite job in the kitchen. How I loved the strange and faint zipping noise their legs made, as I separated them from their cold, firm abdomens. I would give myself points for each tail I could coerce intact from its flimsy gray armor (how many points, I can’t tell you, since I would rack them up without counting). After I had made my way through the pile of bodies, I would rinse them under cold water, shake them dry and present them to my mother, who would unceremoniously dump the lot into the pot to cook and to redden.

For some reason, and this holds true to this day, whenever I clean shrimp, I always want to slip their stiff, petal-like tails into my mouth and bite down. I don’t know why. I’ve never done it, for sanitary reasons, and I haven’t the same compulsion for cooked tails. I can’t explain that one either.

Anyway, the photo above is of a nice little plate of paella Keith and I had at a tapas bar in the Albayzín district of Granada during a trip to Spain this past fall. As I recall, it was very good. No shrimp though.

On Paella.

For a time, my mother lived in Spain — she had moved there from the Philippines with some friends, but at age twenty-four she stepped off an airplane at JFK.  I find this incredibly fascinating; I’m older now than my mother was then, and the only foreign country I have ever lived in is Massachusetts.  I hope I can one day catch up.

While she lived in Madrid my mother befriended several Spaniards, including a painter who made delicious paella.  He had a ring attachment for his stove called an hornillo, which was quite wide in order to accommodate his paellara, the traditional large and shallow pan that the dish is cooked in.  It was my mother’s first paella, and she loved it.  Since then, she’s been making it, though over the years her recipe has evolved so much that I’m sure a purist would dismiss it as something else altogether.  I can’t speak to that, but I can tell you that I’ve been eating versions of this my entire life and, regardless of whether or not it is traditional, it is delicious.  So delicious, in fact, that when Keith and I went to New York to visit, I requested it, along with a cooking lesson.

My mother’s paella can be made with a wide variety of fish and shellfish; it was through this dish that I was first introduced to mussels, which I thought were more like castanets than food.  I loved their nacreous and opalescent insides, which I would stroke with my finger as if it were a pet.  Nowadays, my mother tends to use crab, since my father has begun to fastidiously pick out all of the mussels and put them to the side of his plate.

During our paella lesson, my mother produced a bouquet of some truly massive crab legs.  Keith, who hadn’t known to expect such a thing inside the fridge, had a little bit of a surprise earlier that day he when went looking for a cold drink.  (“Um, did you know your mom’s got some huge crab legs in the fridge?”)  Here’s a photo of one of the monster legs; I had my mother put her arm in for a sense of scale.

As I said earlier, my mother’s paella is nontraditional.  For example, she doesn’t have a paellara; she cooks it instead in a huge stainless steel pot.  Also, my mother uses long grain rice; she says its easier, but I think the fact that it is what she normally has on hand, aside from sticky rice, has a lot to do with her decision-making process.  Another of my mother’s departures from convention is that she doesn’t allow the rice on the bottom of her pot to caramelize and crisp up the way most paella-makers do.  (I don’t know why she doesn’t do this, because that part of the rice is fantastic.  Oh well.)  Two more deviations of hers are her use of peppers in place of pimientos, and her substitution of pepperoni for chorizo.

My mother’s has some pretty strong thoughts on paella, and cooking in general: take the recipe as just a string of advice rather than strict rules.  While I love her food and hope one day to have a repertoire as vast as hers (I know she’s got a few decades of cooking clocked in than I do, but still) I absolutely hate asking my mother for a recipe.  They’re usually of measurements like “a pinch or two,” “a little bit” and “just eyeball it.”  Very frustrating.  Then again, I think she was just as frustrated with me when I kept on interrupting our lesson to ask how many cloves of garlic to mince or how may cups of rice.  It all evens out, I suppose.

Not-So-Purist Paella
Makes ten servings

1 ½ cups long grain rice
1 ½ pounds chicken breast, julienned
½ pound each squid (calamari), shrimp, scallops and cooked crab legs (you may also use mussels, clams, lobster, etc.)
1 onion, chopped
5 large cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon (generous) saffron threads
2 bell peppers, red, orange or yellow
½ stick pepperoni
5 ounces sweet green peas, frozen or fresh
8 ounces canned whole tomatoes, roughly chopped and juice reserved
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

  1. Roast peppers.  If using a gas stove, turn flame to high and place peppers directly over fire, otherwise use oven’s broiler.  Using tongs, rotating the peppers occasionally, until peppers blister and blacken all over.  Transfer roasted peppers to a paper bag; seal and allow to steam inside the bag.
  2. While peppers cool, sauté onions and garlic in oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot until translucent, stirring frequently.  Remove and set aside; add chicken and sauté until cooked through, cooking in batches if necessary.
  3. Add rice and saffron strands; stir until rice is thoroughly coated with olive oil and the saffron has colored everything a golden yellow.  Return onions and garlic to the pot; add the chopped tomatoes and about half of the juice.  Mix with rice, chicken and saffron; add two and one-quarter cups boiled hot  water, a pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper.  Place pot over medium-high flame, reducing heat to medium once water boils.  In the meantime, remove the roasted red peppers from the bag and use a knife to scrape skin off peppers.  Cut off the stem, slice pepper open lengthwise and use knife to scrape out seeds.  Julienne peppers and set aside.
  4. Slice pepperoni about one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch thick.  Arrange on a paper towel covered plate; cover with another paper towel and microwave for about two and a half to three minutes, or until pepperoni is just crunchy.  Discard paper towels and set pepperoni aside.  Clean shrimp and remove crab legs from shells; set aside.  Separate squid tentacles from bodies; set tentacles aside and chop bodies into even thirds, then set aside with tentacles.
  5. Once the majority of the water has been absorbed, add peas, pepperoni, roasted peppers and tomatoes.  Mix in seafood, salt and pepper to taste, and mix until completely combined.  Let cook until the rice has absorbed all liquid, and the seafood is cooked through.  Serve warm.