The aroma of simmering onion invaded my bedroom suddenly, like a child’s call after a bad dream. The soft light filtered from the sides of the curtains made my squinting eyes guess it was anytime between dawn and sunrise. Except for quiet sizzling sounds escaping from the kitchen, the rest of the house was surrounded by a stark silence. I climbed out of bed and headed downstairs to check what was cooking.
Wearing a tight floral dress - perhaps a little too long for her short legs - she was sitting on the small bed at the adjacent room, while untangling the ends of her long, charcoal hair. As part of her Sunday routine, Tess painted her chunky lips with a generous layer of magenta lipstick, followed by a light brush of coral foundation on the young, yet softly wrinkled face. Later, she would slip into a pair of cheap high-heels, and only then she would be ready for her long awaited day-off.
The mother-of-two spent most of her Sundays with friends in a nearby park. They would find shelter under the tropical trees, play games, laugh, chatter, and most importantly, they would satiate their traditional Filipino food craving. A simple day of pleasure in the unaffordable island of Singapore. The hardworking women shared similar heart-wrenching life stories. As domestic helpers, they left behind deep poverty and young children in search of means to support their entire families back home. Despite the unthinkable sacrifice, Tess considered herself one of the lucky ones. Her life, by no means easy, was undoubtedly a giant leap from the sugar cane servitude days, when she would work long hours under the scorching, unforgiving sun for a pittance of US 6 per day.
The large modern kitchen smelled of a mix of freshly brewed coffee and lunch under way. From the pungent aroma of vinegar bubbling fiercely on the stove I could tell Tess was cooking chicken adobo - or Philippines’ national dish. On days like this, I knew she must have been missing home more than usual.
"Did you know adobo means marinade in Spanish?” I asked Tess, curiously. I briefly mentioned the Spanish invasion and settlement in the Philippines during the 16th Century, which had not only influenced the country’s 8 major dialects and 170 different languages, but had highly influenced the diversity of the country’s cuisine. Taken aback, she looked at me cheerfully, glad to learn something new about her own culture.
In the old days, soy sauce and vinegar - the quintessential ingredients in adobo - were added as a form of preservative, a necessity for the predominantly poor population living in the tropical climate. I later found out that the aromatic braised chicken ingredients varies according to each of the country’s regions. The Visayas region, for instance, is famous for the classic recipe, which uses garlic, onion, bay leaf, soy sauce and vinegar, while Bicol adds chili and coconut milk. The southern islands not only add coconut milk, but coconut water and coconut meat too, while some of the central regions make use of turmeric, an ingredient that is widely grown in the region’s local fields. Shyly, Tess teaches me that adobo is not only limited to pork and chicken, but to fish, squid and shrimp, too.
The outside warm breeze gently brushed the leaves from our backyard’s frangipani trees. I smelt a thunderstorm brewing in the distance, and I hoped Tess’s day-off wouldn’t be ruined by the imminent monsoon. While sipping my morning coffee, I watched when she headed down the bus stop with a small bag over her narrow shoulders, and a container filled with the freshly cooked food. I noticed the next-door neighbour’s multi-coloured Porche collection neatly parked underneath the oversized mansion’s garage, along with closed bedroom windows, suggesting they were still comfortably tucked in bed.
My stomach rumbled softly. I opened the fridge searching for breakfast, and realised Tess had left a generous portion of her lunch for me. I opened the container filled with the mouthwatering chicken adobo and greedily feasted upon it while still warm.