Growing up with Nora Daza
Nora Daza’s cookbook was a stalwart presence in my mother’s kitchen. I remember her saying after each recipe we tried, “Yes, this is the way we did it. This is how it should taste.” My mother had trained to be a pianist all her life so as a young girl she was rarely allowed in the kitchen to cut, chop or cook. Unlike other Pampanguenas who probably learned to cook before they could do fractions, my mom had to learn how to cook later in life. This is why “Let’s Cook with Nora” (amazon affiliate link) was such a find for her.
While I was growing up, Mama told me that she was related to the Guanzons, and the Rodriguezes, etc. As she labored happily in her kitchen, she made mention of quite a few “Imas” and “Tatangs” and “Atchis” – people I never got to meet. She used to say that on my grandfather’s side she was related to Nora Daza, that’s why the food in Nora’s cookbook tasted the way she remembered it should. However, because my mother’s side of the family had settled in Mindanao, my brothers and I never got to meet many of the relatives she spoke of.
Now, in hindsight, I think the food on her table was one way of keeping some connection with her kinfolk and Nora Daza’s cookbook helped her do it.
One of the first things my mother taught me to make was butter cookies, which is a fairly common bakery product. We took Nora’s “Let’s Cook with Nora” (signed by her), and started to do the cookies but we did it without a mixer. We creamed sugar with a soft spatula and spent maybe thirty minutes to make batter for each batch of cookies. While creaming butter, she would tell me about the big sit down parties in the province, where she saw her three old maid aunts and their kitchen assistants whip goodies galore without the whirring sound of electricity.
One bittersweet story she told me about butter cookies was how, not knowing what war was, her three old maid aunts had prepared huge tins of it when they were told war would commence in earnest. They had this ridiculous notion that they would be able to bring the cookies when they evacuated, which was not the case of course.
We made ensaymada from Nora’s cookbook and my mother would tell me, “Hija, ito ang tunay na ensaymada. Ensaymada is supposed to be a mildly sweetish bread – it’s not supposed to be a cake.” Then she would talk about a certain “Tatang Deyno” whose taste buds were so discerning, he could tell if a little margarine was used in the cookies or the ensaymada. This uncle, whom I never got to meet, would smile knowingly and say, “You cheated.” (In Pampango, this is “Memirayt kayu.”)
Still without an electric mixer, we made chocolate cake, mango cake, sans rival, and silvanas from Nora Daza’s cookbook. We made mayonnaise without a food processor! Preparing a three-cup recipe of homemade mayonnaise took over an hour, and you had to use Wesson oil. To this day, I am not sure why it had to be Wesson oil, but I remember asking Mr. Sarenas, our local grocer, if we could open the bottle and sniff it before buying it. This was to make sure the oil wasn’t rancid. There is something magical about homemade mayonnaise, I think. We used to add just a teeny-weeny bit of finely crushed garlic and it made my mother’s chicken sandwich taste divine. I think we were into our second well-used copy of the cookbook before I graduated to using a hand mixer.
Everything in “Let’s Cook with Nora” was good, and each time we cooked something special from its pages, my mom would become happy and nostalgic at the same time. Now and then, while cooking casseroles and party fare, Mama would reminisce that when they had big parties during that innocent time called “pre-war”, people started to cook three days before the big day. She claims that the food did not get spoiled because the cooks knew which to prepare first, and which ones had to be cooked right before the tables were set.
She taught me to allow the food one last rolling boil, with the pot’s lid on, then not to open the pot so that the contents would be “parang sterilized”; to wipe containers fully clean before ladling food onto them; to sauté tomatoes till the skins curled away from the pulp; to cut pieces of meat in a certain way so that they would cook uniformly (a bit on the large side to withstand stewing, in small pieces to cook quickly and sliced fine for stir fry so as not to toughen up the pieces). This handing down of traditional knowledge was usually brought about by a page of Nora Daza’s cookbook.
As a married woman, I taught many of my friends how to make Nora Daza’s sponge cake, flavored with coffee, decorated with butter icing and crushed “kopiko”. With a few candles, this became a delicious, economical, homemade birthday cake in an era when a simple birthday cake was special. This was more than twenty years ago, when you couldn’t just buy a slice of the fanciest cake whenever you felt like it.
We made the usual holiday fare from “Let’s Cook with Nora” – cocido, ham, embutido, morcon, pancit molo, dinuguan and chicken relleno. There were some things that had to be present for Christmas in my mom’s house for Christmas. There had to be ham, fruit salad, cold cuts, apples, and dishes from Nora’s cookbook. I think we must have bought more than four of the original yellow volume. At least three relatives “borrowed” the cookbook and of course never returned them. Whenever that happened, Mama would mutter: “I’ll never see that book again.”
Now that I live in the States, I have a copy of Galing Galing (amazon affiliate link) to refer to when I feel like cooking. And everytime I open its pages, I remember my mom, my family in the Philippines, the fried catfish and burong mustasa which just don’t taste the same here, and I am thrown back to a happy, uncomplicated time when Mama, using Nora’s book, taught me to cook “the way our family does it”.
No doubt Nora Daza will be missed by thousands of people – by her family, the people who worked with her, the people she cooked for, and people like me. Through the pages of her cookbook, I learned about my mother’s family and their way of doing things. “Let’s cook with Nora” influenced my taste buds and those of my children. To me and to thousands of others, she was more than chef and restaurateur. Nora was an educator of the palate, an agent of fine cuisine and, in our case, a bearer of history.
The next time I give my daughter-in-law some store bought lenguas de gato, I will tell her how her husband’s grandmother once taught me how to make these from Nora Daza’s cookbook and as I do that, I know Nora Daza will live on in my kitchen, and in my daughter’s kitchen.
Ana Balayon worked as director for twelve years of Paglilingkod Batas Pangkapatiran Foundation, a legal resource NGO based in Mindanao, Philippines. She loves to read, write, and cook. She dreams of publishing a “heritage” cookbook and a collection of narratives on peace in Mindanao – in the not-too-distant future.