My father is not a Bicolano. As far as I know, he hasn’t even been to Bicol yet. But he can cook laing that’s so wickedly delicious it’s the only thing I’d have for four meals straight.
He goes to the market himself to buy gabi (taro) leaves and a couple of whole coconuts. He hacks the coconuts in half and grates the flesh using a kudkuran (bench coconut grater). This is a metal device about the size and shape of a spoon but flat and thicker, with a sharp, serrated edge. It is attached to a rectangular slab of wood that you’re supposed to sit on while grating the coconut.
Now this grating process is no easy feat; it requires skillful hands and brute strength. He firmly holds the halved coconut, palms cupping the shell and thumbs positioned near the rim. With precise and forceful strokes, he scrapes the interior against the serrated metal, producing thin strands of coconut meat. He adds a little water to the grated meat and squeezes it to extract the gata (coconut milk). The liquid is strained to remove the residual pulp.
After washing and drying the gabi, he rolls each leaf and tucks the stalk in the middle, neatly forming a bud. He then slices an onion, ginger and a handful of red siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili). He piles the gabi leaves in a pot, adds a few pieces of tuyo (dried fish), puts the spices on top, pours the gata, sprinkles a little salt and simmers the dish for about an hour.
The result is worth the laborious preparations. The leaves, suffused with the flavor of the gata, are tender but still hold their shape (although they do turn into a lump of mush on my fourth reheating). The texture is smooth and silky, with none of the itchiness on the throat that you get when the gabi isn’t prepared right. The dish has just the right amount of heat from the sili, enough to rouse the taste buds and maybe set off the lacrimal glands after several helpings but not quite so excruciating that I’d want to ram a fire hose in my mouth.
It’s rustic and simple and it tastes so damn good. It may not exactly be faithful to the authentic Bicol recipe but I couldn’t care less.
Since I moved out of my parents’ house eight years ago, I’ve eventually learned some rudimentary kitchen skills. From time to time I’d attempt to duplicate my father’s kinilaw or my mother’s pinakbet. The former was a mild success while the latter was a miserable wreck. Papa’s laing, however, is so out of my league I wouldn’t even dare try. There’s no way in hell I could grate a coconut in a kudkuran or make perfect buds out of gabi leaves.