the little things
My online absence the last few weeks has only been matched by my offline presence at the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table. Since arriving in Manila over a month ago I have been eating my way through the sights, smells and tastes of my childhood. And forever adding new ones to my repertoire. I can’t even begin to describe everything I’ve squealed over, sniffed hungrily, or wolfed down these last few weeks. Most times I’ve been so involved with the food of it all that I realise too late that I’ve robbed myself of one photo opportunity after the other – having eaten them. My camera is continuously finding itself faced with an empty plate. I’m trying to slow down. It’s hard.
But it’s the little things that keep me on my toes. The ones that are so easy to forget about. The first to fall prey to that fickle beast called memory. The ones that are so much “out of sight, out of mind”. But they are also the things that when stumbled upon, conjure up some of the strongest memories of time and space. Being back in the Philippines is insane. So many little things surrounding me, lying in wait to trigger memories as I pass them by. Smells, sounds, sights, tastes. Manila is an assault on the senses. It’s loud. Louder than anyplace really should be. Noises competing against each other to be heard. It’s smelly. Fish sauce on this corner, traffic fumes everywhere, the sweet, sickly smell of garbage from the alleys. There are other smells too. Talcum powder covered children. Hot, sugar-coated bananas on skewers. For me it’s the food. It’s always the food. What it smells like, what it tastes like, what it looks like. Texture and consistency, colours and shapes. Matching familiar names to unfamiliar-looking cakes and sweets. Fruits and vegetables I’ve forgotten about. Some I’m overjoyed to be reunited with. Some I never even knew existed.
It’s the little things, like boiled peanuts, that tell me that I have arrived in the Philippines. I have never eaten them anywhere else although I’ve been told they are eaten everywhere from China to the American South. I love those squidgy, tender, pale peanuts, squirting out salt water as you sink your teeth into their softened shell. They are sweeter, less nutty than their dried or roasted counterparts. Softer on the tooth and mellower in flavour. Highly addictive. We eat these when we visit one of my mother’s oldest friends. I cannot stop eating them even though I know there will be more food to come. There is always more food at Aurora’s. I don’t think I can remember a time when her table wasn’t covered with at least a few plates of food, regardless of what time it is, regardless of whether or not anyone is sitting at the table. Fried noodles, pork, rice, soup, water spinach… She spoils me with rice cakes and freshly grated coconut. A few bags of salted watermelon seeds to crack open with your teeth until the salt starts to sting your tongue. And boiled peanuts. It’s a pretty simple thing. You take peanuts (the uncooked variety), still in the shell, and boil them in a big pot of salted water. Remove the peanuts from the water and let them drain and cool before squidging them open to eat.
One of the first nights here in Manila, I was happily confronted by these peanuts. Not at Aurora’s as tradition has tended to dictate, but at dinner with friends at a Chinese restaurant in the city. They came in a tiny little bowl and had already been removed from their shell. These had not only boiled, but they’d been seasoned with soy sauce, cinnamon, anise and cloves. It’s all I could do from snatching the little bowl and emptying it into my mouth. Luckily, our requests to refill the little bowls were graciously fulfilled – several times – and happiness ensued. Dinner was good too.
So, I did some research and I’ve found a recipe for these gorgeous little nuts. I haven’t been able to find any fresh peanuts, so I haven’t actually tried this out. But it sounds pretty spot on. It’s definitely the recipe that I’ll be using when I do finally get my hands on some raw peanuts. In the meantime, Aurora – true to form – has sent over a bag of boiled peanuts just for me.
Chinese Boiled Peanuts
500g raw peanuts (in the shell)
60ml soy sauce
3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1 stick cinnamon
1 star anise
1 dried chili (optional)
Enough water to cover
Wash peanuts. Add nuts to a pot with enough water to cover. Add soy sauce, sugar, salt, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and chilli. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat to simmer steadily for 3-5 hours. Check the pot and make sure to keep topping up the water to cover them until they are cooked. Drain and let them cool before eating. And a cold beer to wash it all down with. Splendid.