Hanging out in Lola's kitchen meant you got the stories as well as the food. And, unlike my siblings and cousins, I got asked a lot about what I wanted for meryenda or Sunday lunch, simply because I was the one there, underfoot. Often, I asked for laoya.
When investigating this dish, I found that strangers who had tasted Lola's laoya often thought that she had invented it. Its unique flavor does not seem to have a counterpart anywhere in the country.
Laoya comes from the Spanish words La olla, meaning "the pot." Spelled Lauya in other provinces, it has come to mean a boiled meat dish, or as the Tagalogs put it, "nilaga." As is evident, next perhaps to adobo, nilaga exists in various forms all over the country and varies only in the vegetables each region puts into it.
In its basic form, nilaga is boiled beef in onions and pepper corns. The part is usually the cow's thigh, with the bone in. The marrow and the bone give the soup its extra dimension. While Tagalogs usually add cabbage, string beans and potatoes, Cebuanos add in corn. But in all instances, the soup is clear.
In the North, lauya is a boiled pork dish, using the pig's knuckles.
In Marikina, however, laoya, is a traditional dish using the cow tail and derives its red hue from achuete -- a natural food coloring. Growing up, Lola would usually ask the driver to simply pick achuete off the tree in the backyard. It is sweetish, owing to the boiled bananas and sweet potatoes added into the pot. And since it is a traditional dish, it defies measurements.
Recently, I gathered up the courage to make my first version and thanks to Mama and her sisters, managed to approximate Lola's version.
Ox tail, chopped into about three inches in length
Salt about two teaspoons
onions peeled and quartered
garlic about one small head, peeled and pressed
String beans, cleaned
sweet potato (peeled, soaked in water for an hour, then boiled) and quartered
sweet plaintain (saba bananas) boiled in their skins, sliced into threes horizontally
achuete (natural red food coloring seeds from the bixa orellana shrub or tree) soaked in half a cup of water
Sugar to taste
Boil the ox tail for two hours, then as it is still boiling, remove the scum that floats to the top.
Add salt and keep boiling until beef is tender. Add onions, garlic and pepper corns. Continue boiling.
When the fat on the oxtail softens to a gel like consistency, add the sweet potatoes and bananas. Adjust taste, then add food coloring. Add string beans and boil for ten minutes more.
Take off heat. Serve.
If on a low fat diet, my mother would make the laoya ahead, and when done, cool it, then refrigerate it. When the fat has coagulated on top, she would lift it all off. It should not affect the flavor much. Heat and serve.
Note that because of the sweet potatoes this dish does not keep for very long when unrefrigerated.