My lola cooked effortlessly and with authority. She passed away in 2013. I rarely ever saw her since I was growing up “in the States” but now and then she would come stay with us for two to three months at a time. My memories of her are few and far between, but I remember her being most comfortable in the kusinà. She was a dominant figure when she cooked in her Parañaque kitchen but was somehow timid in my parents’ home in California. I was too young and ignorant to care about my culture then. Significantly, this post was inspired by a very short and foggy memory I have of my lola preparing the ingredients and garnishes for kare kare. The kitchen in my mind was dark but she was illuminated by the golden light of the exhaust hood as she ground peanuts in the mortar and pestle. I don’t even remember eating the meal. What matters to me now was that the moment was ours alone. When I asked my brother about his fondest memory of her, the first thing he said was “I remember I was her favorite.” [eye roll] “She always wanted to make sure I was fed because that was one of the few ways she knew how to express her love.”
The kare kare I know in my tastebuds is from my mother. The box of Mochiko sweet rice powder and half-full jar of Skippy or Jif meant kare kare for dinner. I never tried making my favorite dish when I lived with my parents. It wasn’t until I was in my master’s program in NYC when I called my mother and asked her for her recipe. I longed for the ulam of home. I was a vegan then (!) so I couldn’t use the oxtail meat broth as a base. All I really had was the layer of peanut butter. I can’t even recall what my thickening agent was. Even though it was missing a lot of essential ingredients— oxtail, tripe, and most importantly, bagoóng— I was delighted to eat it. Eating warm rice with the sabaw is my favorite part. My mom would subo this holy offering to me as I sat on her lap as a young child.
Since my grad school days, I’ve probably made kare kare four other times and I’ve gotten more comfortable each time. I still struggle with the sabaw because I have yet to recreate the right calibration of sweetness and thickness. I spent almost an hour doing this as I tried to come close to what I thought was the right consistency and flavor. Obviously I could’ve just added sugar but now that I write this, I reckon the sweet rice flour helped with rounding out the flavor. I used cornstarch for this recipe below but I’ll make sure to buy Mochiko next time.
We did not grow up eating oxtail in my family and I envy all of you who did. Since I’ve been with Jamie, I’ve been trying to make up for lost time! Of all the Filipino dishes I’ve grown to love, kare kare is right up there with nilaga, pancit, and mango cake in terms of crave-ability. One of the interesting things about Filipino cuisine versus others is there is less of an agreement on the ideal version of certain dishes. Every Filipino makes adobo, but since there are 7000+ islands, there are at least 7000 versions of the dish. It makes it exceptionally challenging to recreate recipes and certain tightly-held flavor combinations, as the internet, restaurants and cookbooks all put forth different versions.
This version resulted in an intensely flavorful and meltingly tender beef. The whole house was filled with glorious smells for hours. The eggplant soaked up all the sauce, but was still toothsome. The bok choy provided crunch and lightened up the dish, though the green beans were a bit rubbery. Part of me sees kare kare as a bit of a bagoóng delivery device, and my favorite thing to do is to flake off a bit of beef, spoon it up with saucey rice, a bit of bok choy and a swipe of bagoóng -- and then you put that whole riot of flavor in your mouth at once. You get the zing of fermented saltiness, the slick of fat on your lips, and the earthy sweetness of the peanuts. You repeat that a dozen more times until the frenzy is over, and then you add another scant half cup of rice into your bowl to soak up any remnants of sauce. Kare kare is definitely part of the reason I’m marrying this woman. Try it out on someone you love today…!
Lola’s Kare Kare
2 lbs of oxtail (I bought this from Great Wall Supermarket and salted an hour before cooking)
3 Japanese eggplants, cut on the bias
1 bunch of baby bok choy, steamed
1 bunch of sitaw (Snake beans), cut into two-inch pieces and steamed
5 tbsp of smooth peanut butter
6 tbsp of cornstarch
¼ cup of achuete seeds, for coloring
Garnish with bagoóng and ground peanuts
Serve with rice
Fill up large pot or dutch oven with salted water. Leave at least two inches of space at the top. Boil water, add oxtail. Boil uncovered for two hours or so until meat is fork tender. This can be done the night or two before. When it cools, you can scrape off some of the fat from the surface. Stock should be reduced by half. Reserve stock and set oxtail aside.
The reserve stock is used to make sabaw. Reheat stock until simmering. Add cornstarch slurry (follow package instructions) and stir until nectar-like consistency is achieved.
Add approximately four cups of water to temper saltiness.
Add peanut butter to the sabaw. Stir until dissolved. Taste the sabaw and add more peanut butter to taste. Use an immersion blender to create a smoother consistency. (Lola or my mother didn’t have this in their kitchens.) Sabaw comes together in about 30-45 minutes with light simmering.
Steep achuete seeds in hot water for 10 minutes. Strain. Add strained orange-reddish liquid to sabaw.
Steam bok choy and sitaw for about 7 minutes in a bamboo steamer with separate compartments. I did this separately from the oxtail so the water from the vegetables wouldn’t dilute the sabaw. Set aside when finished.
Add oxtail and eggplant into sabaw. Cook for 15 minutes on medium-high heat to allow flavors to meld. Then add steamed vegetables and toss.
Serve with warm rice. Garnish with bagoóng and peanuts to taste.
This Memory Kitchen Series is a creative collaboration between Marisa & Jamie. Each month, one of us will cook a recipe entirely from memory (no long phone calls to Mom, no recipe cards, no cookbooks, no Googling!) and the other will review the dish. The recipe that follows is exactly what’s pictured (all photos by Jamie Sumague, of course!). We have no idea how it will turn out when we start, so expect a few disasters along with the occasional triumph.
Special thanks to my brother, who was visiting us for the week. He helped taste test and hand model. Mahal kita, kuya. -JS