WITHIN the pages of the acclaimed cookbook A Book of Mediterranean Food, written by the British food writer Elizabeth David, there is a recipe for a dish she calls “Aleppo chicken.” A whole chicken is simply rubbed with salt and lemon peel, and boiled with carrots, celery, and other garden vegetables until cooked. It is the accompanying sauce, derived from the broth, which lifts the dish from the mundane to the sublime. To the broth is added a richly luxurious blend of lemon juice, whipped egg yolks, sherry, blanched almonds, and cream, and poured hot over the bird. David’s book was published in 1950, a long lifetime ago, before the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo was catastrophically destroyed by civil war.
David’s Aleppo chicken brought to my mind the similarly noble Maranao dish known as manuk na piaparan, chicken cooked in coconut milk, grated coconut flesh and turmeric, that my Maranao friend recently taught me how to cook. This was a dish, she warned, which required a great deal of time and effort. She wasn’t exaggerating. To shop for the ingredients took most of a morning; prep time and cooking in the kitchen swallowed up an entire afternoon. It was a dish, I soon realized, which demanded determination and stamina.
My friend was not good at giving instructions. Rather, I was obliged to watch closely, assist where needed, and listen to the many stories she told while she worked. As she stripped the chicken pieces of their fat, she recalled how her family in Marawi celebrated Eid. There was dudol on the table, she said, a confection made from sticky rice, coconut milk, and slivers of durian, magnificently wrapped in cornhusks. While I peeled the chayote, ginger, and garlic, and sliced red bell pepper, and she lightly toasted the grated coconut meat, or sapal, in a pan with a dash of oil, she talked of breaking fast, and of other happy times—of homecomings, of loved ones and kinfolk embarking on and returning from hajj pilgrimages. Only when she added the turmeric, kalawag, to the coconut did she pause in her storytelling, in order for us to fully appreciate the wondrous, glorious, goldening of our dish.
Palapa is key to Maranao cooking. It is an aromatic, spicy pureed mix of fresh sakorab, a type of local garlic (Allium sativum L.), turmeric root, ginger, and hot chili peppers. It is added to cooking or used as a condiment, much like the sambal chili pastes that are favored across Southeast Asia. We began with the palapa, adding a spoonful to smoking hot oil. The sizzle and the lush scent that arose from the pan and filled the kitchen made us both smile.
My friend’s family lost their home in the bombardment of Marawi. But they were luckier than most. They evacuated and, unlike other evacuees who had to suffer the tents and the camps, were accommodated in a relative’s home in the provinces. The looting, the theft, the kidnapping, and the murders that occurred were not unexpected, she said. However, who would have thought the fighting would go on for so long and reduce the entire city to rubble? “To capture the rat, the house was burned,” said the poet, Jesuit priest and longtime Mindanao resident Albert Alejo.
The chicken pieces simmer quietly in coconut milk. The rice that we will eat steams contentedly. My friend takes a break from her exertions and sits, sipping on cool water. She tells me about the wedding of a cousin and how much dowry was asked—a fortune—because the bride-to-be was educated and had been abroad. Besides that expense, she says, few leave a Maranao wedding empty-handed. After the ceremony, people crowd around the happy couple hoping to receive a little something. “Even their way to the bedroom is blocked by expectant faces,” she chuckles.
There are two components to manuk na piaparan: the coconut soup studded with chayote chunks and ribbons of red pepper, and the chicken pieces surrounded by soft dunes of sapal, is scattered with vivid green snippings of spring onions. The soup is to be poured over the rice and is also sauce for the chicken, which is served separately. We taste as we go along, adjusting the seasoning, stirring a little, lowering the flame. A few drops of patis and stalks of lemongrass bring pungency and delicacy. The heat exuded by the chili and ginger in the palapa hits the tongue first before spreading, pleasingly, throughout the mouth. The taste reminds me a little of the Thai soup tom kha gai.
I have readied the table, setting out bowls as well as plates. There are only two of us to eat a dish that is meant for many. My friend feels the strangeness. Like Aleppo chicken, the Maranao manuk na piaparan is a dish for festivities and grand occasions. In cooking it, my friend remembers the Marawi of home that was, for her, a city of weddings, reunions, and joyous feasts. Manuk na piaparan is not wartime food. This is food that requires an atmosphere of celebration and love, of feelings of security, a state of order, and abundance. This is food that can only be eaten in times of peace.
When will Marawi kitchens start cooking again?
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Erratum: The column, titled “Testicular obsessions” (Manila Times, October 17, 2017), erroneously stated that the complaint filed by lawyer Jude Sabio at the ICC in The Hague occurred in 2016. It was, in fact, submitted in April 2017.