Lengua Franca

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Deneng Deng (left), the Ilocano pinakbet (simmered vegetables in fermented shrimp paste), and lumpiang Shanghai (top right; mini meat egg rolls), fresh tomatoes and atsara (pickled papaya)

I will be visiting this summer my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA after three years. Trips there have been few and far between, so like anywhere else, I try to do and see as many things as possible.

It’s amazing how my folks put down roots in a place like the Burgh, so foreign to them in the beginning, but they eventually grew to love. After all, they raised a family and own a home. I would consider it my family home but not necessarily mine. As years pass, I realize home to me is somewhere else. Yet, there’s no denying my palpable sense memory, especially around food.

Lumpia (egg rolls) and Q BBQ Recipe are delicious staples in my family’s food culture.

My parents are often at their best when they are in the kitchen. In 2012, I wrote this unpublished essay for a food magazine, and since I’m feeling rather nostalgic, I will fit it in here as well as the recipe:

Having beef tongue for the first time one weekend when I was a teen was such an addictive experience that I went into a kind of all-day grazing mode, consuming it and playing into my parents’ hands to stay out of trouble. I recall it had the texture of my own tongue, with its subtle bumps and ridges. Obviously, I got past all that and discovered it had this nice mouth feel (no pun intended), as tender as any piece of meat should possibly be.
The real kicker, however, was the divine tomato sauce in which it was swathed. Lengua obviously wasn’t carried by the regular supermarket, so my Filipino parents would often drive to a butcher shop in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. Our trips into the city felt like an adventure away from the suburbs where we lived. I learned Foster’s Meats and later Butcher on Butler are now defunct, but there, in a nondescript brick-red building and hurricane-glass block windows, they found rare meat products and “nasty bits” for such native fare as karé-karé (braised oxtail in peanut butter sauce) and the Ilocano version of dinuguan (pork parts stewed in pig’s blood). My siblings and I would wait in our boat-size hunter green Mercury Marquis, as one of my parents or both would go shopping for those delicacies.
You could say beef tongue as it was prepared by my dad that weekend not only made me a really good girl, but also kept me from completely assimilating, lest I would lose my delectable and soulful food culture. From my standpoint, I am more than sated by it.
Filipino Dad’s Beef Tongue in tomato sauce
Beef tongue from the butcher’s

Vegetable or canola oil (1 to 2 tablespoons)
Tomato sauce/puree and/or fresh diced tomatoes
Garlic (2 cloves, sliced)
Onion (1 medium, sliced)
Soy sauce and pepper to taste
Sugar (optional)
To prepare the beef tongue, cover it in water and boil for 3 to 5 hours (1 lb./50 minutes is the conventional wisdom). You may also use a pressure cooker to shorten the cooking time (follow its recommendations).  When done, cool and remove outer skin or covering and any gristle or sinew.  Cut quarter- to half-inch slices.
Tomato Sauce:
Sauté garlic and onion slices in oil until soft. Add 2 cups of tomato sauce/puree and/or diced tomatoes and simmer till thickens. You may also add a little water to thin out the consistency if it’s too dense for your liking. Season with soy sauce and pepper to desired taste; cook for two minutes. Add beef tongue slices to sauce and let them meld together, basting the gravy over the beef to help heat it through. Once done and the meat is tender, serve and enjoy over rice or by itself. Green olives (or pimento stuffed ones) for some briny flavor would also take this dish to another level.

 

Hometown Revisited

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Pittsburgh, PA from East Ohio Street

Every time I go back to my hometown whether physically there or in my mind’s eye, I increasingly see what it is, maybe a little more graceful and forgiving and focusing less about the humdrum routine of family life. It’s a feeling of home, a history that is a part of me because I made it my own. Wherever I land, it is right here with me. I think of my parents and what had become of them–older, even crotchety with some glimpses of youth. Then I think of me and how I’ve grown and the space I now inhabit. I don’t have many questions anymore.

The cul de sac where my siblings and I used to play is so much smaller, and it is now more the street where I would pull into or out of when driving to another destination. I only dreamed of a life beyond this comfortable bubble, one not exactly what I expected but nevertheless it is on my own terms.

It turns out June is ending rather bumpy with unanticipated changes, and I have to pivot toward another position. But that is part of my journey. To be alive is not to be static and stuck but to move with the flow the train will take me.