Her followers on Facebook and IG aren’t lying. When you have a serious hankering for laing, that Bicolano dish made of taro leaves, fresh coconut milk and aromatics, there’s only one person to ping: Marlene Garfin-Alegre, fondly called “Mama Ayen” by family and friends.
Served in a microwaveable tub with a sprig of fresh rosemary, Mama Ayen’s laing was a popular gift item during the holidays and the star of her growing clientele’s noche buena feast.
Topped with fresh prawns, the shredded taro leaves glisten, an indication that it was prepared with a generous amount of fresh coconut milk, slow-cooked and simmered to perfection.
Asked what makes her laing superb, Mama Ayen replied: “I guess it’s because I handpick all the ingredients. I check the taro leaves one by one. The shrimps (if possible) have to be a certain size. The coconut milk has to be expressed in a certain way.”
A labor of love
It takes two hours to cook her laing, and that doesn’t include the preparation of the leaves.
“We do it in advance,” shared Cherra Alegre, Mama Ayen’s daughter. “If you don’t get a good supplier, the dried gabi leaves can be ‘dirty.’ It’s inevitable because the leaves are left outside under the sun to dry properly. So when we get them, we try to go through them one by one.”
Gabi leaves should be washed thoroughly and properly cooked, as they are high in calcium oxalate, which can cause an “itchy” or burning sensation in the mouth. Drying the leaves under the sun before cooking is said to lessen the amount of these “needle-like” crystals.
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“The leaves get itchy if you do not cook it right,” said Mama Ayen. “Most of the time, they are undercooked. Don’t scrimp on the coconut milk. There’s also the perfect time to add the gata.”
For some, laing is such a simple dish, but it is in its simplicity that it becomes quite tricky to nail. That’s why only a handful are able to do it properly — the Mama Ayen way.
An accidental entrepreneur
Mama Ayen hails from Labo, Camarines Norte. Both her parents, Fidel Alegre Jr. and Elena, are from Bicol, which explains their love and passion for cooking gata dishes.
She started dabbling in the kitchen at a very young age. At six, she managed to cook steamed rice all by herself.
“No one really taught me how to cook,” she said in an email interview. “In fact, my mom was surprised that the rice I cooked was as good as the one she would prepare.”
She considers her late Tatay as her biggest culinary influence.
“He enjoyed delicious meals, but my mom wasn’t really into cooking. So, he would cook laing for us whenever he was at home,” she shared. “Laing is a common dish in Bicol. I loved watching him cook the dish with flair.”
Soon, she also found herself experimenting in the kitchen.
“I tried using various ingredients until I thought of mixing shrimps instead of the usual smoked/ dried fish or pork,” she said. “Soon, it became my signature dish.”
Her laing is the most-requested dish during family occasions.
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“Those who’ve been to our home and tasted my mom’s laing and other gata dishes would always request the same stuff when they would come over,” shared Cherra. “So when we got stuck at home during the pandemic, people were like, ‘We miss Mama Ayen’s laing.’”
Relatives and friends have been requesting the same for years.
“But I did not really have the time to stay in the kitchen for long periods,” shared Mama Ayen. “When the pandemic hit, my daughters Cherra and Ashley insisted that we start selling laing online. I found myself not doing much at home so I decided to go for it.”
And that, folks, is how it all started.
“Like I said, I choose the ingredients myself. And so, during extreme lockdowns, my daughters would not let me go to the wet market. So we would stop operations. Now we take orders the whole week, but delivery is only on Wednesdays and Sundays,” she said.
So what can we expect from her in 2022?
“My daughters are planning to add more items on the menu. Right now, we offer ginataang langka and alimasag. We might add sinantol, igado, papaitan and our own version of beef/pork caldereta and adobo,” she shared.
She is also looking into bottling her signature laing, since the now-famous home cook is getting inquiries from people they hardly know — here and abroad.
But before we go into another lockdown, do yourselves a favor: grab a tub or two of Mama Ayen’s laing for safekeeping.