My Atchara

Atchara is pickled green papaya relish that my Ima made for special occasions like…at Christmas! It is paired with chicharon/fried pork rind, barbeque pork or chicken, adobo or with any dish, really. Atchara is to Filipinos like kimchi is to Koreans and chutney is to Indians. I think atchara originated among my people — Kapampangans. We are, after all, known for our culinary inventions.

Here’s a quick how-to: Peel the green papaya. Take out the seeds. Grate (I used my food processor). Massage with salt and let sit. While waiting, peel and slice the shallots, garlic, ginger. Peel and slice the carrots paper thin. Dice the red peppers. Open a can of pineapple chunks. Chop pineapple. Set aside raisins. Boil white vinegar, sugar, and salt. Sterilize mason jars. Squeeze the green papaya and throw out the juice. Mix with all the ingredients. Pack jars tightly then pour the pickling solution. Will ripen in the fridge for five days.

Homework: As you sit with the finished atchara, meditate. What is going on here? What just happened? Write your impressions:

To the Sun, Moon, Air, Water, Soil, Worms — that grew the green papaya seeds laid down by the farmer (perhaps in Mexico, Hawaii, Texas or Florida) — I am grateful.

To the farmers that tend the rows of shallots, garlic, ginger, carrots, pineapple, red pepper — I am grateful. To the oxygen that makes ascetic acid that turns into white vinegar — I am grateful. To the sugar cane that makes brown sugar and to the rock crystals that formed millions of years ago to make pink salt from the Himalayas — I am grateful.

To the driver that drove the truck from San Francisco (I think) to bring the produce to the local Asian store in my neighborhood — I am grateful. Most of the Asian vegetables in this store are probably grown in the Central Valley where majority of Asian farmers are Hmong. The Asian store owner is a Cambodian refugee who came to the U.S. in the late 70s. He is one of the few that remained in Sonoma County when the local refugee population migrated towards Fresno and Stockton to live closer to their community. They started farming like they did back in their homelands and now we enjoy Asian vegetables daily like eggplant, bitter melon, malunggay/moringa, bok choy, etc.

When I arrived in the U.S. in 1983, once we got settled, we connected with a local nonprofit that helped Southeast Asian refugees (Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laos, Hmong) adjust to their new life in the U.S. We supported a Cambodian single mom who was raising four kids. They often dined with us and we played with the kids. One Christmas I was able to get a girl scout troop to collect toys and clothes which they were able to share with other families. Then a few years later, we lost track of them. They must have moved to Central Valley.

During this time I also worked at Santa Rosa High School as a Community Worker and I often made house visits to students in the Title 1 program which aims to “improve the educational achievements of students from low income families”. I enjoyed these home visits as I got to know the refugee and immigrant communities locally. There were times when my supervisor warned me not to enter some “dangerous” communities. I ignored her.

So as I was making the atchara, I sat on the floor in the living room while watching the PBS News hour. I laid out a table cloth on the floor and did all the peeling and slicing the way my Cambodian friend did. When they were with us, we did a lot of things together while squatting on the floor, including eating our meals. I am glad that my old body can still get off the floor without using my hands. Must be the yoga training — which I am grateful for.

The atchara is ripening in the fridge in tiny mason jars. Each jar has the name of a friend I treasure. A jar of love infused with sweet memories of holidays gone by. Before covid. Atchara making has become a ritual to me. I only do it at Christmas time. So many friends are passing around homemade cookies. I pass small jars of atchara. It is a probiotic.

Still I was tired after 8 hours of this. This is supposed to be communal work just like how the village women in Korean dramas gather together to make their kimchi. But I was alone. I was a bit lonesome and nostalgic as I contemplated that we might not see my son and his family at Christmas.

As my thoughts began to darken, I found this from David Whyte’s Consolations: Despair: The antidote to despair is not to be found in the brave attempt to cheer ourselves up with happy abstracts, but in paying attention to the body and breath, independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even strangely, in paying attention to despair itself, and the way we hold it, and which we realize, was never ours to own and to hold in the first place.

So last night as I was laying in bed bone-tired from the day’s work, I tried not to cry and not to hold on to thoughts that cause suffering. In yoga I learn that this attachment to memories that may cause suffering is called an avidya*. What about memories that remind us of our joy? Like my mother’s atchara; like the smell of sweet sticky rice dessert with coconut milk filling the rafters as sweetness simmers on the wood burning stove; like the smell of bringhe (our version of paella). Like the smell and look of Christmas in my hometown, San Fernando, Pampanga.

My yoga teacher said that “the prakriti** of memory can cause suffering or not. Memory and imagination are activities of the mind — this prakriti can help us understand our purusha*** …or not. Attachment is not necessarily avidya. I believe that this prakriti can help us remember what is important — clarifying our values. So as we come into this season with uncertainty and missing loved ones, how can we have the perspective that can feed our sustained joy?”

I have been gone from this hometown for more than half my life now. The memories of the way things were are still alive only in my imagination. For this moment, I give in to nostalgia. I give in to Memory. I am grateful for Sustained Joy. I am grateful for Atchara.

What do you make from your homeland that brings back precious Memory?

— -

*avidya: obstacles to clarity

**prakriti: all that changes

***purusha: Unchanging

Leny is Kapampangan. Settler on Pomo and Coast Miwok lands. Founder and Elder at the Center for Babaylan Studies.

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