By Raoul Suarez

Lola came to the house today. She is over 90 years old. Seeing her always makes me wonder what it’s like to live that long and it makes me think about how it would feel to see your friends meet their maker before you do.

She’s a tiny old lady who used to drink beers, smoke menthol cigarettes, and party with her friends. Well, until they all died out. Natural causes. She said she quit the lifestyle when she was 80 plus and just liked being alone in the house. She goes out to play mahjong once in a while but not a lot of people in the barrio liked to play with her because she likes to win by cheating. She’d hide some mahjong pieces in her pockets and would subtly wait until she is able to secure the win. Such a crafty old lady.

Back then, she would play mahjong on the weekends and she enjoyed high stakes betting. She would play from noon ’til the wee hours of the evening, come home drunk most of the time, and then she would give us some money. She’d pull out wads of bills from her pockets and either hand it to us or have it flying in the air so we can catch them before they fall to the ground. In the morning, when she would be up and sober, she would loudly complain that somebody stole a lot of money from her purse and she would curse and swear at the little kids (my cousins) living in her home.

She wasn’t really around most of the time after my grandfather died. She was always out. Except for some of those days when she would cook in her dirty kitchen. Yes. My grandmother was a hell of a cook. She can cook anything and I have always enjoyed every single dish.

I have always been a pork eater. I do not know why I don’t like fish. I never had bad experiences with fish but I am not one to enjoy it. I only enjoy it when my grandmother does the cooking. She had this special Fish Cardillo recipe and taught me how to do it when I was a high schooler. I never really paid attention.

Today, she came to the house and was ranting about how the city government people were educating the residents on how to segregate trash; waving her hand to-and-fro while shaking her head in disgust.

“Mga mango na guid lang ina ang indi pa ya kabalo magdispatsar sang ila basura. Kapila na ina sila diri guintudlu-an. Mga batinggilan gid. Damo sang mga mango da sa barangay.”

I laughed it off and asked her if she wanted some coffee. She said she was done. I then asked her if she had money and her face suddenly changed from an angry wrinkled prune to a grape that was ripe for picking. It’s funny how money has the power to change someone’s mood. My grandmother liked money a lot and she liked to spend. She was a little elated and tried to hide it but it showed.

“Baw! Ti? Hatagan mo ko haw?”

We both laughed and I handed her some bills. She then asked if I was cooking anything for lunch because she would gladly do the cooking for me. I told her I’m old enough to cook. I jokingly said that I needed the recipe for the fish cardillo before she eventually kicks the bucket and join her friends in mahjong paradise.

“Tunto nga bata ni ay! Indi pa ko ya mapatay! Ari ang mga ingredients. Pamati maayo. Lantawa to bi sa pridyider n’yo kung may mga isda ka ‘to.”

She named the ingredients one-by-one and had me put it on the table so she can check.

  1. Fish – cut in whatever way you want and deep fried.
  2. Oil – for frying the fish, of course.
  3. Garlic – 4 cloves, crushed.
  4. Onions – slice them or dice them, it doesn’t matter.
  5. Tomatoes – thinly sliced, cut in four portions, or however you like it.
  6. Eggs – stirred then beaten.
  7. A small cup of water (she never really told me how to measure it properly)
  8. Spring onions – cut into small strips.

She was staring at me while I was chopping and cutting some of the ingredients and said I was sloppy. She said I was too slow. I must admit, I suck at that part. I usually have my sister do it for me and she isn’t around to do that anymore. She lives somewhere else. My grandmother tried to take the knife from me out of impatience, and I just told her to sit down and watch. I reminded her that I should be doing all the cooking. I warned her that she might cut her finger and it just might turn to dust instantly.

She laughed a little and said, “Dasiga na! Daw sa inday-inday ka imo ya. Makihad na guid lang daw kahinay pa!”

This antique had a lot of spunk. It has never really left her even in her ripe old age. I was able to finish chopping up everything and got all the ingredients ready. I then asked her what was next.

She told me to fry the fish first. The secret was to rub salt. Just enough so it doesn’t end up too salty. She also told me to make sure that it was stir-fried well. She said it had to be crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. I put it in a large wok so it won’t stick and set the fire to medium heat. When I was done frying the fish, she was standing there with her hands on her hips and told me to set it aside.

I was then told to remove the excess oil from the wok and add in all the vegetables one after the other and saute them. Add the garlic first and cook it until it’s golden brown. Add the onions next. Then finally throw in the tomatoes and cook it until it’s pulpy. When it’s all good, add water to the mix and have it simmer for 3-5 minutes.

When it was all done, she told me to add the fried fish back into the wok, turn off the heat, and add the eggs and the spring onions. She then commandingly asked me to do a taste test and gave me a spoon.

“Gamaya lang magtilaw ka. Indi na ‘ya sumsuman ah. Sud-an na ‘ya. Lantawa kung insakto na sa panabor mo.”

It was good actually. It wasn’t as good as how she would usually cook it though, so I asked her if there was a secret ingredient that she would normally use or if I skipped a step. It didn’t even look picture-worthy. Well, fish doesn’t normally look picture-worthy anyway. I had this nagging feeling that I must have messed up something in the process so I had to ask her again if something was amiss. She just laughed and told me to listen up.

“Pamati ka maayo bla. Magluto ka gani, dapat may gugma. Ang gusto mo gid bala magluto kay nami-an ka. Maguwa ina sa sabor sang niluto mo.”

Wait. What? That’s it? I was mind blown. No. I was actually a little irritated. That is something they do in an anime. We don’t live in a cartoon. It is not scientifically possible to add emotions to a dish. I interrupted her again and she just waved her hand in dismissal and told me to shut up.

“Hipos da anay bla. Isa lang ina sa mga sikreto. Ang sikreto gid na da ‘ya bal-an mo kung ano?”

I listened intently and held my breath. She didn’t finish what she was supposed to say. Maybe she was thinking about how she survived the 2nd World War so I had to impatiently ask her again. I had to know the secret; time wasn’t my ally. She just might die tomorrow and take it with her.

She leaned closer and shakingly whispered close to my ear.

“Vetsin. Damu-a gid. Amo na s’ya. Vetsin guid.”

She then gave me a sly wink and jokingly told me not to tell my mother or I’d get a scolding for using such a forbidden ingredient. My mother never really liked using it. Maybe that’s why her cooking wasn’t as good as her old lady’s.

It was time for her to leave. I escorted her to the gate. She gave me a quick slap in the back before exiting. That dinosaur can still hit hard. She waved goodbye and told me to enjoy the meal. I thanked her for the recipe and told her to not die in the next 7 years or so. We have to win that prize from the government. She smirked and went on her way.

Lola came to the house today. She is over 90 years old. Seeing her always makes me wonder what it’s like to live that long; long enough to see your friends go before you do. I wish she doesn’t go away soon. It would be nice to win that prize money.