Handmade Sabor by Pilar Egüez Guevara, PhD
In this creative non-fiction piece, Pilar details her quest to perfect a favorite recipe from her mother. Using a clear and direct voice, Pilar discovers that food preparation often requires us to be hands-on and that it's through this hands-on preparation that flavors are really made.
Pilar Egüez Guevara, PhD is an Ecuadorian award-winning filmmaker, cultural anthropologist and writer. She obtained her PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship on community health, in 2012 she co-founded and directed Comidas que Curan, an independent food education and media company dedicated to research and promoting traditional foods and knowledge through ethnographic research and film. In 2021, the US Library of Congress selected Comidas que Curan’s website for inclusion in the historic collection of Internet materials related to the Food and Foodways Web Archive. Her films have been screened in three different languages across North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia. Through her research, public speaking and films, she amplifies the voices of older men and women who are the bearers of traditional knowledge about food and medicine in Ecuador. She has brought this work to communities in Ecuador through filmmaking and research education projects, as well as to US college students in the United States through film screenings and Q&A sessions. Her film Raspando Coco (2019), a documentary advocating for the preservation of the culinary traditions of Afro-Ecuadorians, is now part of the library collections of 20 colleges and universities across the United States. Raspando Coco was nominated for best documentary short by the Indie Short Fest in Los Angeles (2019) and best foreign documentary by the Firenze Film Festival in Florence (2019). She also received honorable mention for best female director by the Independent Shorts Awards in Los Angeles in 2019. She has worked directly with communities for over 15 years on research and community-based projects in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, and the United States. She is a published author and speaks internationally on topics ranging from cultural history, food heritage and nutrition, health and conflict transformation.
RECIPE POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs and Rice Writing Prompt: In Dr. Pilar Egüez Guevara's piece, there is a focus on the hands and what hands add to our meals. In your preferred genre, write a piece that talks about the functions, both obvious and not obvious, of a specific body part. This piece does not have to be food related.
By Pilar Egüez Guevara
"If I get to heaven I'll look for Grandma's hands." -Bill Withers
In my mother’s kitchen, agrio is traditionally an accompaniment to whole leaves of fresh iceberg lettuce. When I or any other guest at the table attempted to pick a leaf of lettuce on our own, she stood behind us and showed us how it should be done. My mother would always serve it in this proper way: she picked an individual lettuce leaf, shallow-side face up, and dipped it in the bowl with agrio, carrying with it a few sliced radishes, onions and cilantro bits. She then carefully transferred the leaf of lettuce filled with agrio and pickled veggies to the plate of every guest at the table.
Occasionally, she served sliced avocado quarters alongside the dressed lettuce leaf or even inside it. In the latter case, the avocado would travel in the lettuce hollow to the dressing bowl and return to our plate all dressed up with radish, onion, and cilantro pieces. This act of showing the “proper” way to serve agrio, was really a gesture of elegant attentiveness and deference from her, a way to personalize the dish by making each of our individual plates look beautiful and refreshing.
Prior to serving, she would taste test for more salt or lime by tasting a sample on the palm of her hand. When she was satisfied, she would serve it in a clear, glass bowl, setting it on the dining table alongside a separate dish of fresh iceberg lettuce. She placed this dish on the table last, ensuring the lettuce was crisp and fresh upon serving. Usually, these meals were prepared just for the immediate family. Every time, before she even placed food on the table, she’d call out to my brother and I in a commanding voice, “The food is served! Why are you not sitting at the table yet?!” When my mother served her food to us, she always looked both anxious and satisfied in a way she only was when she fed us her handmade food.
Feeding her children had always been serious stuff.
Agrio is one of those ridiculously simple recipes, a kind of salad dressing that’s name is literally “sour” in Spanish, although one could also categorize it under “pickle” and “curtido” (fermented vegetables). My mother’s agrio is a thin sauce made of key-lime juice and salt that is flavored with radishes and onions. The key-lime juice and salt work together to “curtir” or pickle the veggies, and the finely sliced cilantro adds the characteristically Ecuadorian touch. The agrio dressing is characteristically red due to the effect of the salt and lime juice in releasing the color of the radishes. The longer the dressing sits on the kitchen counter top or dinner table at room temperature, the stronger its color and flavor.
The reddish/radish “agüita” (diminutive for “water” in Spanish) in the agrio is what makes the flavor unique. My mouth salivates just thinking of it. The agüita must be clear and transparent, the color of cherries turned pink and must have the perfect balance of lime, salt, and water mingling with all of the released vegetable juices.
For years, I attempted making this favorite dish from my mother’s kitchen. My attempt to make this recipe was similar to my many attempts to make any family recipe. They seemed so simple and easy and yet they were impossible to replicate. There were countless feeble attempts at making food from home during years of living abroad surrounded by midwestern cornfields in Illinois, away from my native Quito, up in the mountains of Ecuador. The results were almost always far from satisfactory.
The challenge for me was achieving this perfect balance my mother created in her version. Fresh ingredients played a role, as well as the experience of trying it out and tasting it countless times. Trial and error was a required process, in my case, as my mother did not use measurements for this recipe (or any other recipe, for that matter).
Often, I ended up feeling disappointed at what I thought came out as a lame version of my mother’s recipe. Upon taste tests, the broth felt almost always too diluted, either lacking more salt or sour flavors. I felt something was unequivocally missing, not knowing what else to add or how to fix it. This meant that I would find myself eating my self-made favorite family recipe dishes in “the North” feeling unsatisfied and nostalgic and missing the agrio made by my mother’s hands.
After I finished my PhD and was preparing for the job market, I came to live at my mother’s house temporarily. One day, I decided I was going to learn first hand, once and for all, how to make this recipe taste just like her agrio. She had explained this recipe verbally to me so many times before but I finally gained the courage to ask her once again, “How do I make this dressing taste good, like the one you make? I can never get it to taste like yours.”
Feeling a bit foolish that this was one of the first times I sought face-to-face cooking lessons from her, I stood next to my mother in her kitchen in Topeka, Kansas, as she demonstrated her agrio recipe for me. The key wasn’t just in the ingredients or in the proportions as I first thought. After watching her demonstration, her insistence on this one, seemingly unimportant detail over and over again in countless over-the-phone recipe-explanations, finally clicked in my head and made sense. It didn’t seem so important to me until I watched her in the kitchen.
“You have to use your hands.”
In Korea, there is a word that specifically describes hand taste, “son-mat.” A culturally significant concept in Korea, son-mat is the microbiological explanation of hand taste—microflora inhabiting our hands that is then deposited on to hand-prepared food, helping ferment it and flavor it, while passing on genes (and taste) from dish to dish, and from generation to generation. This speaks to how food is made and also to how culinary traditions and flavors are passed down.
I often think of this when I remember my mother’s lesson that day on making agrio.
“First slice the radishes.”
I grabbed a knife from the drawer and took one of the rinsed and cleaned radishes and placed it on the cutting board set on the counter. I started slicing with a shaky hand, as my mother stared at my progress. She let me continue slicing, although she objected to the kind of knife I was using.
"You have to use a plain blade knife or it changes the shape of your vegetables."
Next, was the key limes. Per her instructions, I pressed the dimpled green skin of the limes, squeezing the juice into a bowl. The pulp clung to my fingertips, and I felt the urge to clean my hands before continuing. I finished a few halves and then walked to the kitchen sink to rinse my hands off.
"No, no, no," she admonished me. I was confused.
She clicked her tongue and sighed, showing me what to her was common sense. She took over and started pressing the halved key limes, using her fingers to punch the juice out into the dressing bowl. Her whole arms, and not just her hands were working to exert the pressure. I could read her concentration by her facial expression, brow furrowed, eyes focused on the task. She walked over to the tap, opened it to a soft stream, and rinsed off the lime juice and pulp stuck to her fingers right into the dressing bowl.
"Las manos te dan el sabor. Así es como lo hacíamos en Ecuador. Aquí [en los Estados] usan guantes."
I contemplated my mother's sun-tanned brown hands, a shade or two darker, and rather thick and wide compared to mine. Her knuckles were also unlike mine, hollow as if sunk into the skin of her palms, somewhat harsh to the touch. Decades of hard work and chronic pain from arthritis were inscribed in those hands, the enduring hands of a hard working woman, to whom I owe everything I ever achieved in life. Yet that day they appeared to me somewhat different, as the source, the secret ingredient of the familiar, unreplaceable taste I craved in my mother’s recipes. She continued to explain.
“You mince the green onions, very finely, like this.”
I watched her chop the onions with the knife.
“Now, rinse the onion bits off of your hands the same way, with a little bit of water,” she ordered.
She repeated this process for the cilantro leaves. She explained that they were very young cilantro leaves which are tasteless compared to the more mature and tastier leaves of the cilantro sold at the markets back in Ecuador. Mature cilantro compared to young cilantro had broader leaves, thicker stems and a stronger, earthier flavor. She ran her fingers over the cilantro we were using, scoffing.
“No sirve para nada.”
Despite this sentiment, my mother made do with what was available and added the finely chopped cilantro to the bowl. After adding all the agrio ingredients, she added a bit more water to dilute the mixture. She handed the bowl back to me.
Salt was the last ingredient. But adding salt wasn’t as simple as it sounded. I went ahead and made yet another failed attempt as I added this to the bowl.
"No. You shouldn't use a spoon. I told you. You need to use your hands."
She grabbed the salt container from me and took a pinch with her fingers. She sprinkled this pinch into the mixture and repeated the ritual: transporting her hands to the tap and rinsing off her fingers with the dripping water falling right into the dressing bowl. In went the salt, the water, and the taste of my mother's hands.
When we ate it with our meal later, it was exactly how I remembered it.
I finally understood that my attempts at making family recipes would never meet my desired and nostalgic sensory expectations, given the obvious fact that a big part of their flavor lay in the actual, unique hand taste of my mother. But that culinary lesson in her Topeka kitchen showed me that the search for the perfect balance was over—I could now count on my own, unique hand taste to season this family recipe.
Much like the Korean son-mat concept suggests, the flavor I remembered and so often tried to replicate was in the way my mother used her hands in its preparation. My mother’s preparation of her agrio and the way she served it, was the way she expressed her care for us. I suppose that hand taste is what grandmothers worldwide, including my own, say is their secret ingredient when they say they are “cooking with love.” It is this hand-made sabor, this ritualistic preparation that creates the flavors of my memories. I now know that just like my mother’s, my hands are the source of our family’s food flavor.
My Mother’s Agrio Recipe
6-8 young, small radishes, sliced
½ lime juice
Water (add until the cut radishes float)
½ tsp. salt
2 green onions sliced
REMEMBER TO USE YOUR HANDS!