Editor’s Note: The following is the second-place winner in the My Marianas Writing Contest of the Northern Marianas Humanities Council. It is being reprinted here at the request of the council. The first-place winning essay was published yesterday, June 28, 2022.
I often think about how life catches up to us without much warning or hesitation. One moment we’re with our families, catching up on the latest news we read in the Saipan Tribune or Marianas Variety; telling stories about the chismis [gossip] we heard from a friend of a friend, and even playing cards like Crazy 8 and Guts. Ironic how the next moment, we’re busy with school, work, catching up on sleep, extra-curricular activities and whatnot and go days without a genuine conversation. And these moments, honestly, can drag out much longer than the first. Admittedly, my family and I are a part of this instance. Life just… happens, y’know? Sometimes we don’t think about spending time together because we’re so busy living our lives—outside of the family. But what is a life to live without your family?
Ever since I was young, the cultural values and beliefs instilled in me by my mom, indigenous to the island of Saipan, and my dad, indigenous to the island of Samoa, have shaped my views on family. They’re traditional. For example, one of the views I have is that, regardless of the differences we all have, we are one; regardless of the distance that separates us, we are one. Family is family, always and do not forget that. One of the ways that we connect together is by cooking and eating the delicious food that we sit down and share together as a family. Cooking is a team effort, but in my household, a family effort, that bears the fruits of our labor. It’s the simplest task one can do to contribute to the family, even if it means just washing the dishes or lowering the stove temperature. It’s about being together, helping each other, and sharing the blessing of the meal with one another.
Now one of the biggest struggles any islander can have is called, in Chamorro, being chacha . This translates to being “picky” or selective. Now guess who’s the chacha one in my family, that unintentionally decides to make life a little bit more restricted? Yeah, you’re listening to her right now. Guilty as charged. Unfortunately, my biggest curse is being the pickiest eater probably in the entire Saipan. As an 18-year-old high [school] student, I still love what my parents called “western” food such as chicken nuggets, french fries, cheeseburgers, fried chicken and pizza. I think I’m the only person who would go to a Japanese restaurant and look for a cheeseburger option. So, can you imagine my home life as a picky eater. Most local dishes I don’t eat, but I appreciate it nonetheless. I’ve been a part of making many of these dishes at home, such as chicken kelaguen, kadun pika, tinaktak and the effort and time put into making these dishes deserve a standing ovation.
As for me and my family, we love making simple foods that both accommodate my chacha-ness, and that also allow each of us to have a task. This food is simply called: kangkong with gisa tuna (water spinach with sautéed tuna). Just the title itself makes my mouth watery. It’s not your typical dish that one may think brings a family together, but this just pushes the right buttons for ours. It’s an automatic response, with our roles already embedded. When my older sister comes home from work and asks, “What’ s for dinner?” I would jokingly respond “kangkong, again.” Boom, that’ s the catalyst. My parents would then share a glance and roll their eyes as we all know that, in fact, it will be our dinner again. Cue the automatic roles. My dad goes out to the garden, right outside our kitchen window, and begins to pick the kangkong plants along the marsh. I grab the pot in the kitchen and follow closely behind him. He tosses the vegetable into the pot as we catch up about our day: his about work and how, at the strong age of 62, he’s still able to do laborious tasks, and mine about school, upcoming graduation plans and my clubs that I join. Cut to my mom and sister, who are in the kitchen preparing the spices, the tuna and the complementary vegetables. From the window, we hear my sister talk about her new job and my mom about the newest movie she just watched on Netflix. I find myself smiling because of how easily we slipped into our roles, meaning that we easily found the time to talk to each other and spend it together.
The process of making this deliciously simple dish is not too complicated for one to follow. After my dad and I return from picking the kangkong, we sit down at the kitchen table and start to “refine” our picks: meaning that we thoroughly inspect and clean it of any dead or dry leaves and extra-long stems, with a satisfying tsk sound at every snap of the stem. Sometimes my dad and I compete to see who can make the most tsk sounds from the stems. I glance over and see my sister straining the oil from the canned tuna and hear her loud ugh as she examines the still extremely oily bowl of tuna. I shake my head and think to myself: maybe next time, sis. My mom is at the counter cutting the onions into thin slices, with the cloves of garlic up next on the chopping block. She chops them into small cubes, so small that ants may be able to pick it up and have it as a meal. I appreciate the conversations we have together during this preparation. It’s the family time that I miss the most and that often gets cut short on a daily basis when we’re not cooking together. I cherish these moments of hearing my dad’s booming laughter, my mom’s sarcastic humor, and my sister’s loud mouth. Oftentimes, I’m quiet, observing these moments, wishing that they could extend longer and longer.
Now comes the best part of making the dish: cooking it. My mom takes the refined pot of kangkong and begins to wash it while my dad prepares our good ol’ frying pan and lights the gas stove on medium heat. He takes a little bit of vegetable oil and lightly drizzles it on the pan, which meets together with a light hs-ing sound. Music to my ears. I, being deathly afraid of hot cooking oil, observe from an extremely obnoxious distance as my dad dumps the onions and garlic into the pan, increasing the volume of the hs-ing sound. The aroma of caramelized onions and garlic fill the kitchen and my stomach begins to rumble. Soon, I tell myself. Here comes my sister, still unsatisfied with her attempt of cleaning the tuna, scooping the mashed tuna into the hot sizzling pan. My mom swoops in and does a similar dunk of the kangkong into the pan and immediately covers it with a glass lid. We see the kangkong shrivel up in about a minute and that’s the cue to remove the lid. My mom grabs the giant big silver spoon and starts to mix and sauté the kangkong together with the tuna, onions and garlic. This is the gisa part of the dish. Now that the hot cooking oil isn’t as threatening, my part comes in (and in my opinion, the best part). I grab the Kikkoman soy sauce and go to town with it. I pour the soy sauce around the kangkong mix and once again, hear a lighter tone of the hs-ing sound. The smell in the kitchen is immaculate: he sizzling caramelized onions, the hint of garlic, the cooked tuna and fresh kangkong fill my lungs. My mom turns off the stove and puts the lid back on once more. My dad, sister, and I all start taking out the rice pot, plates, and utensils and drinks to the outside porch and eating area. As we await the grand entrance of the kangkong with gisa tuna, our mouths are watering and stomachs rumbling. Our mom comes out, with the holy grail in hand. I swear, I can hear a choir in the distance as she gently puts the pan on tablecloth in front of us. We put our plates: hot rice, soy sauce, kangkong with gisa tuna on top. Bam! That’s the meal.
It’s amazing what influence food has on your family. Even more so the influence it has on a picky eater. I’m grateful that the one it has on ours is a positive one, full of quality time spent together. This dish, kangkong with gisa tuna, in particular is a nostalgic dish that our family shares an instant bond with. I’d say that it brings us together because of how simple it is: made from five ingredients that we usually already have in our home, and with a preparation and cooking time that both doesn’t feel like we’re “cheating” ourselves from making a good home-made meal, and doesn’t take too long to the point where we’re “hangry” (hungry and angry) with each other. It’s also a dish that provides us comfort; we all have our unspoken roles and ease into them, with no problem. There’s no competition as to who’s doing what, where, and why. It’s a familiar feeling for us, and that’s what family is: familiar . Even though our lives often catch up to us, we are always reminded that there can never be enough time in this world to spend with your family. Food is that reminder for us. It brings us back down to earth. Simple tasks, completed with great intentions, often bear the best rewards. This reward is spending quality time with my family. What is a life to live without family?
Lemusu Kit A To’Omata
Special to the Saipan Tribune