How To Make Chicken Adobo While Revisiting Grief

Originally published in Squelch #1

This is the point: a mother fills the bellies of two children for a small cost. Tonight, however, I’m cooking alone, missing those not around.

Two flies zip around under the dim overhead light of my apartment kitchen, jet-fast and aimless. I turn the front stove burner knob to a metronome click until the spark electrode ignites the gas, blue flames puffing up to a steady medium blaze. Wok over the fire, I splash in a little extra-virgin olive oil and let it heat to a lower viscosity.

It’s an easy, cheap meal. Just your standard, no-frills chicken parts from the local grocery store, some Kikkomon soy sauce, and a little generic distilled white vinegar, the yin and yang of adobong manok.

The first thing I toss into the wok are sliced red onions and chopped garlic. I let them sauté in hot oil, and as they soften, I stir in memories of my mother with a long wooden spoon, the thoughts melting and bestowing an umami flavor.

In go the chicken parts, all thighs, drumsticks, and wings. They begin to braise, the fat rendering and releasing, and I stir in a memory of my mother taking me clothes shopping at K-mart. She buys me t-shirts a couple sizes too big and tells me I’ll grow into them because she can’t afford to buy a drawer full of new shirts every year.

I toss the heap with a bit of playful showmanship and respect. I’m immersed in it, entranced. It’s a veritable dance of deliciousness, the chicken parts hitting the wok with a drum fill of thuds without a single hunk of meat, drop of oil, or recollection hitting the floor.

I let the chicken sit on heat as the fat seeps out from the dark meat mixed in with precious memories of my mother smiling, cutting my hair in the backyard, and those humid nights rolling Hot Wheels cars over the floor while she played cards with her friends for hours, faint memories sinking into what kept us close: a home cooked meal.

In goes the soy sauce, some water, salt, peppercorns, chopped chilis, and aromatics, all adding to the complex flavor, and I give the wok full of food a few more tosses, another quick dance of spice and sauce, the peppercorns flying, bay leaves swimming in the flip and shuffle.

In goes a memory of my sister and me sitting at the bottom of the stairs, crying and listening to my mother and father scream at each other about money and blame.

In goes a memory of my mother and me admiring magnolias.

I set the wok on the burner, let the soy sauce reduce, thicken, and soak into the braised chicken parts, all that tender meat stewing and absorbing the flavor and memories, and I let the scents of soy sauce and chicken meat drift up into my face.

Emptying the wok of all content and separating meat from sauce, I dump the chicken back in over high heat and sear it to tightly lock in the flavor, chicken tumbling in another round of light tosses that are more amusing than necessary, then I re-introduce the sauce. The rice cooker clicks off as I add the vinegar to the adobo, the last ingredient, with a little more water, stir the heap of meat and memories, and let it reduce further, a starchy miasma filling the air as I uncover the rice.

I step back, light a cigarette, and remember sitting on the couch in the blue light of a television, my sister on one side of my mom and myself on the other as she tells us that she’d teach us to speak Tagalog when we grew older.

Pacing patiently under the dim overhead light, exhaling gray smoke, I shudder a bit when I think of her convulsing in a hospice bed.

I smash out my cigarette in an ashtray on a table in the living room I use for dining that’s meant for a back porch. I’ve spooned out rice and laid the finished chicken adobo over it, dark brown resting over warm white, placing the bowl in front of me at the metal grate tabletop. I tear into the chicken with fork and spoon, filling my mouth, and as slowly chew, I taste the umami flavor of the adobo sauce locked into dark meat, the vinegar somehow subtle and punchy at the same time.

Savoring every bite with my eyes closed, I can almost feel her running her fingers through my hair.