It FIGures

It is Mother’s Day in Portugal and Spain today, something that threw me off the loop last year, and I can’t really say I was better prepared for this year. But let’s call a spade a spade. Does it really matter when Mother’s Day is or what country celebrates it on which date? I grew up with the International Mother’s Day date, the second Sunday of May, so it is deeply engrained in me to mark that day on the calendar. The catholic schools I attended as a child in Mexico had us making gifts for our moms that would then be handed over to them during a schoolwide mass. It was a date attached to the Marian month of flowers and the rosary, celebrations and processions. In the Philippines you have the Flores de Mayo processions, which are a celebration of faith, flowers, and the strength of women, all centered around honouring the mother of the church, Mary. Later on, I got sucked into the horribly commercial version of Mother’s Day, ruled by Hallmark cards, flower shops, and chocolate boxes. Over the next few decades, Mother’s Day has been ridiculously commercialised and escalated to more and more expensive concepts that put families under a lot of unnecessary pressure.

What do mothers really want? Not much actually, just the acknowledgement of their efforts, not to be taken for granted, be understood that motherhood is eternal, and not something with an expiration date or deadline. It is a calling and the biggest responsibility in the world. No greeting card, box of chocolates or bouquet of flowers will ever make up for this. Instead, a heartfelt word of gratitude or an even a day off is worth so much more than anything money can buy. And if you reach the stage that I have, where the children grow up and move to other countries, then a phone call makes all the difference. We crave the sounds that speak to our souls, the voices that bound us to our child in the womb, not the polished silverware of a restaurant or expensive perfumes. Sometimes, we just to reminded that we are more than just our roles and utilitarian existence in our families’ lives. Yes, gentle nudges that we are first and foremost women with needs who love unconditionally, but are also the first to feel pain, sorrow, loneliness and abandonment amidst the noise.

Last year I didn’t even realise it was Mother’s Day in Portugal, and set my sights in the usual second Sunday of May. This year, along with a few other things, I have been doing things a little differently. I may not have a gift for my mother that I made with my hands, nor have I been to a restaurant for a jazz brunch. The flowers on my table come from the garden, and I treated myself to a new culinary experiment.

The trees in my garden are exquisite at the moment, flaunting fresh, healthy new leaves with a plethora of shades of greens that are a feast to the eyes. The canopy that has formed over the outside sitting area is a thick tapestry of fig and walnut leaves that has transformed the niche from spectacular to poignant. I don’t need a church or a chapel when I have the silence and solemnity of this place, wherein prayer and meditation become powerful and transformative.

One afternoon last week I looked up at the fig leaves and wondered if they were of any use in the universe other than decorative, so I consulted Lord Google. It seemed like such a pity to have three fig trees in the garden and “only” the fruits could be consumed. Lo and behold I was flabbergasted to discover that the leaves can be cooked or used pretty much in the same way that banana leaves are in Asia or Latin America. You just have to know what you are doing and how to prepare them safely, lest you end up poisoning the food and ultimately, yourself.

So I wrapped some fish filets in fig leaves that had been washed, and the stems completely snipped off, and steamed the little green packages. The aroma that filtered through my kitchen was absolutely magical. If you are familiar with pandan from Asia, the scent of cooking fig leaves is similar, a bit of vanilla with hues of nuts. The flavour also infuses into the fish, so I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch that day!

I broke away from my weekly meal plan and had three days straight of steamed fish, trying out different cooking times and spices. Basically you can treat the fig leave in the same manner as a banana or lotus leaves, which means you can steam, bake, or grill your fish, seafood, or meat. The flavour is strong and if you want to showcase it, then tone down the additional herbs and aromatics.

Today I took the experiment to another level and instead of fish, I decided to find out what happened if I cooked rice in fig leaves. So I lined the rice cooker with a single large fig leaf and cooked the rice as normal. It was just like being back in my mom’s kitchen, with her rice bubbling her the stove with fresh pandan leaves from the garden! Next week I will experiment using them as bread pan liners and creating some desserts with fig leaf lining.

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