Smell, Scent, Aroma, Pinakbet, and the Slow Healing of an Exile

This could be as superficial as any attempt to commit to memory the traces of homeland.

The smell you remember that oozes out of the rice field right after the stalks heavy with grain have been cut.

The smell of the field in fallow for the whole summer, with its soil caking and showing some earth underneath and with its gift of the native spinach, the kalunay, or the saluyot (Tell me, help: what is the English of this herb? Any botanist who can help?) right after the first downpour in May?

The scent of the dama de noche in the evening as you come home from work, the scent spreading like some kind of good air all over the neighborhood in the small village where you have lived for sometime, away from the sights and scenes of your childhood. (You remember, of course, that you have planted the dama de noche yourself from a branch you have asked from a gardener of a bread-and-breakfast inn you billeted with the whole family when you attended a brother’s wedding in Baguio many years before your departure for your exile to another land.)

The aroma of garlic leaves cooked the Ilocano way: sautéed with lots of native tomatoes, some citcharon to taste. You forget the cholesterol bugging every immigrant in America. With this garlic, you have viand, you have a medicine for the heart, you have your bloodstream cleansed of its toxin, and you satisfy the cravings of the tongue that has not forgotten how to be an Ilocano despite the many years of absence in the Ilocosland.

The visual delight in pinakbet, this mix of the simple things one can procure from the flea market in Honolulu or San Pedro Port, if luck is on your side. Honolulu is more blessed, what with its more tropical climate compared to the rest of Californialand where I had stayed for the last three years. In fall and winter, the ampalaya could be gone except when some farm traders could sneak in from Mexico, Peru, or some other South American countries that know the culinary delight this veggie would give its consumer.

I like the way the pinakbet is cooked in Honolulu, the delicacy complete, always complete, with the ingredients and the trimmings—and sometimes more: okra, the Ilokano eggplants, the Ilocano ampalaya, the lima beans, the horse radish, the peeled malunggay fruit, the string beans, the tomatoes, the ginger, the Ilocano garlic, the fish sauce, and the bagnet. This is one delicacy that has come from a mixture of the many races and continents the Ilocano owes his dish: from Africa to South America, from Europe to Asia. Name the continents and they are all there.

For an exile like me, these are reminders of home.

These are acts of homing, the wandering soul's search for a refuge, a quick one, a fast relief from it all, this sickness we call exile, this need to go away in order to dream of going back where we come from, this dream of returning, whole and entire, without the bruises, without the scars, without the wounds, but completely healed.

These are reminders as well of how much more effort and time an exile would have to invest on in order to get back to the delight these reminders bring.

They give healing to the broken heart, broken by exile itself.

They salve the soul hungering for that was—the familiar that gave some sense of security.

I have before me a pinakbet now, cooked by a sister.

She had kept the garlic leaves frozen for months, harvested from a father-in-law's rented garden in Honolulu late in the year and since I arrived many months after from my base in Los Angeles, the leaves had to be subjected to a tortuous defrozing.

The leaves, leafy green and fibrous, add some flavor and taste to the pinakbet we had known since time immemorial, the one aroma we have kept in the mind, always remembering its elements, and that healthy mixture of ginger, garlic cloves, tomatoes, fish sauce, and broiled mudfish.

I sit down on my sister’s table, my back to the fruit trees in the yard. In front of me is a random Japanese garden of the kind Japanese neighbor. The garden is aglow, bathed by the morning sun.

So how is life in Los Angeles, manong? my sister asks me

Not much yet. But I hope and pray I will be able to hit it right, find something, I tell her.

I know that you have not eaten pinakbet for a long time. So I have prepared this. Just for you, she says, pushing the bowl of pinakbet closer to me.

Wait, I tell her. I would like to simply look at it, smell it, take in all the aroma, and remember this scene forever.

The pinakbet heals, di ngamin?

Perfectly said, I tell her. My soul food.

Then eat, she says, serving me ladleful.

I take care of myself, I tell her. I will not forgive myself if I miss this opportunity.

Ok, she says. Do you want the crisp rice? I had cooked the rice on the kaldero.

Yes, I want it. I want to remember the good old days. Kayatko a maramanan ti ittip. Manen ken manen.

Start eating. You are not eating, she reminds me.

Can we do away with the kubiertos? I cannot eat pinakbet with the spoons and the forks. Just leave the serving spoon.

Let us eat with our bare hands then.

I like to touch the pinakbet, smell its aroma, and chew it slowly. I like to feel the soupy tenderness of this food, its promise of fullness, its capacity to heal our broken spirits, our bloody memory of a bloodstained land.

You are right, she tells me.

We do away with the spoons and forks.

In an instant, we are transported to the Ilocos, to our childhood, to a past that is as present as now, to a future that is part of our living memory as a family, as a people, as a nation.

For my sister and I, like the rest of the Ilocanos in the diaspora, have been part of a nation. We still are.

A. S. Agcaoili
Torrance, CA
May 29, 2006
Memorial Day

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