Manang Nita, my ever-diligent household help and personal caregiver, is a native of Bicol Region, a province located in the Southern part of Luzon, Philippines. When I was still recuperating from a minor surgery and could barely prepare foods for myself, she instantly became my personal cook too. Being a mother herself to her offsprings, she gives the best motherly care and cooks the most wonderful dishes. I was not only spoiled with good foods as I was also very fortunate to have not just a glimpse but also a real taste of some of her coconut milk-based and spicy dishes having her roots traced from the land where coconut and chilies are in abundance and considered as major staple foods. Among her Bicolano favorites that she takes great pride with is the famous Bicol Express or pork and coconut curry. She also have her own variations of pinangat dishes (tuna stewed in coconut milk and vinegar) and medleys of coconut and vegetable curries like ginataang langka (jackfruit), ginataang puso ng saging (banana blossom) and ginataang sitaw at kalabasa (string beans and squash). Her ginataang bilo-bilo (glutinous rice balls) and ginataang mais (corns) are among our favorite snacks during lazy afternoons. The word “ginataan” connotes “cooking in coconut milk” - "gata" being "coconut milk". This is usually affixed to the name of a dish to provide description of the cooking process and its main ingredient (e.g. "ginataang langka" - jackfruit stewed in coconut milk).
|This odd-looking but hearty laing dish is my simple dedication to a selfless mother|
Though the cooking techniques might have already been altered and developed through the passage of time, the authenticity of Manang Nita’s Bicolano dishes remained prominent in her choice of flavors and spices, considering the fact that they are being prepared by the hands of an indigenous and full-blooded Bicolana. Topping my most favorite Bicolano savory gastronomic love affair is no less than the natong or taro simmered to tenderness in coconut milk. The leaves and corms are usually seasoned with shrimp paste and dried salted labahita (surgeon fish) and spiced up by siling labuyo or red wild chilies – the quantity depends on how sizzling you want it to be and how much burning your mouth can endure. Being a true-blue Manileño starving for some real county authentic meals, the dish is more popular to me as Laing. I have learned to love laing since the day I was taught to eat vegetables. Laing may not be visually enticing to some but this is definitely one delicious plate, perfect for lunch or dinner that gets even better and spicier when reheated the next day. Just give a mouthful along with some steamy rice a good chance and you would never mind the appearance. It would definitely be worth the try.
|The word “ginataan” connotes “cooking in coconut milk.|
Another thing that caught my curiosity is the belief that taro leaves should not be stirred while still boiling to cook as this can cause itchiness to the throat and tongue. In fact, most modern Filipino laing recipes I have come across online still put an emphasis on this procedure. I do not know if there is a related custom or tradition for this so trying to search for a more logical explanation, I later found out that uncooked taro leaves contain a natural plant pesticide substance known as “calcium oxalate”. These tiny needle-like crystals are the real culprit. Eating raw or half-cooked taro leaves and corm releases this crystalline toxin that causes irritation to the oral cavity down to the throat. The best advice to get rid of all the unpleasant itching is to apply heat to the taro through long time and thorough cooking as high temperature would help melt away the crystalline substance. Using sun-dried leaves instead of the fresh ones could also help. See, it only takes a little bit of science to understand the “hows” and “whys” and cooking was never an exception to it.
|Laing may not be visually appealing to some but it is considered one of the most well-loved Bicolano dish.|
It never took me long before I finally get well from my sickbed having Manang Nita around to cook all the delightful and nutritious dishes that were passed on to her by her great ancestors. Though not affiliated to me by blood, I, indeed, feel very much lucky to have someone who would always cook me hearty foods as a mother would prepare the best meals for her child. And just like any mothers, she may not at all times be visually charming especially when the world's most difficult job had already snatched all the best of her. Still at the end of the day, when she finally unveils her mask of grouchiness, what would emerge is a calm face with a very compassionate heart within. This laing recipe is my simplest tribute to a woman with a big heart, who selflessly renders her services not for the sole purpose of earning a living but a sincere motivation emanating from a mother’s true love.
Laing (Taro Leaves Stewed in Coconut Milk)
Number of Serving: 6 to 8
- 4 cups sun-dried natong or taro leaves, shredded
- 2 pcs. small taro corm, peeled and finely chopped
- ½ lb. pork, ground or sliced into small cubes
- 3 tbsps. shredded dried salted labahita (surgeon fish) or any dried salted fish
- 1-2 tbsps. bagoong alamang (shrimp paste)
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
- 1 thumb-sized ginger, minced
- 5 pcs. (or more) siling labuyo (wild red chilies) or red Thai chilies, finely chopped
- ½ tsp. pepper
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 4-5 cups kakang gata (pure fresh coconut milk)
- 1-2 tbsps. cooking oil
- Heat the cooking oil in a large saucepan. Add the pork and cook until the color turns light brown.
- Add the garlic, onion and ginger. Sauté for a few minutes until very fragrant.
- Add the chilies and shredded labahita. Stir and continue to cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Pour in the fresh coconut milk and add the shrimp paste. Bring to a boil and then set to simmer.
- Add in taro leaves and chopped taro corms. Simmer for 40 minutes to 1 hour over medium heat while occasionally pressing the taro leaves and stirring the coconut milk to prevent it from curdling. The taro leaves should tenderize and shrink, and the coconut milk should begin to reduce. When the liquid is already creamy and almost rendering fat, it is done. Season with salt and pepper.
- Remove from heat and serve over hot steamed rice. Enjoy!
TIPS FROM ENZ:
- Add more chilies if you prefer a hotter and spicier laing. You can also add or substitute long green chilies to red chilies.
- If you prefer a drier laing, just continue to cook until the sauce is reduced enough and the mixture is rendering fat.
- To prevent the unpleasant itchy or swelling sensation, make sure to cook the taro leaves thoroughly to get rid of the needle-like toxic substance found in the leaves that causes irritation.
- You can add small shrimps instead of dried labahita. Hibi (dried salted baby shrimps) are also better susbstitute. If you can get your hand with talangka (crablets), that would be great too.
- Laing is best served as side to fried dishes like lechon kawali (pan-roasted pork belly) and fried fish.