My sister, Rhodora, cooks steamed rice cakes to sell. Locally, these are known as “puto cheese”. Her routine involves waking up at one o’clock every morning, loading up her playlist, then get to work starting with making coal fire for the steamer. After that, it’s basically non-stop moving around the kitchen that ends up with packed Steamed Rice Cakes waiting for each of her contracted vendors at 7 AM.
And then her day begins.
As I endeavored to help her in the weeks I was home, this non-part of her day became part of my own routine and, as time went, it became a big part. It was a decidedly tedious manual labor, so when I started to feel the boredom at the perceived monotony of lining up the cakes and individually packing them (hah, kidding—it was monotonous), I decided to avoid this negativity during our time together by asking her questions about the baking process. As I continued to watch her, help her, and listen to her answers, I realized I wasn’t just learning the process but also being reminded of the important lessons about life and work.
1. Everything Has a Right Time
One morning, she woke up an hour late. She ran around and was operating like a frenzied machine. At some point, she took out one batch of cakes a few seconds too early; just before her timer went off and it came out a little sticky. It was still good and cooked, but not the way she wanted it. She put them back on the steamer to salvage them and she was able to, but it didn’t quite meet her standard. After that, she ran more and more late by the minute but she never treated another batch the same way again. “You must give it time, you have to wait,” she said. If it wasn’t for the spiced pork recipe we were talking about that time, I’d have sworn she was giving me advice about living a life and making decisions.
2. Forget perfect. Practice makes better.
It wasn’t such a difficult process, but my sister has techniques when it comes to taking out the cakes from their mould, wrapping them, and packaging—all designed to cut time, especially since she does all these alone on a normal day. I took my time getting used to the techniques, and by the time I did I was able to provide considerable help (300 mini-cakes wrapped and packed in 20 minutes, how about that!) I remembered what I learned a long time ago: we shouldn’t berate ourselves with the lack of perfection, but practice in order to be better than what we were before.
3. Multitasking is NOT doing many things at the same time.
Aside from steamed rice cakes, my sister also cooks and prepares—during the same time period—a bunch of Even Brown Rice Cakes (Kuchinta) and packs cold Coconut Pudding (Maja Blanca), which she prepares the night before. With all these delicacies she prepares, at the same time, I had to admire how she gets to finish it all and not have the numbers and processes tangled up in her head. Then I realized that whenever she was doing something, her attention was on it. Her secret was that she was able to switch her focus at the sound of a timer, or the second she realized she has a wait time. She didn’t do the steamed and brown rice cakes at the same time, but one at a time, just in overlapping order. As I caught on to her work style, I remember thinking the same thing about multitasking.
4. Quality work begets more quality work.
My sister insists on steaming the rice cakes using coal fire. I know because we have discussed this many times on previous occasions: not wood fire, definitely not over stove. It has to be coal, because apparently it gives…something to the rice cakes. It is quite tedious, but the 300 rice cakes we pack for one vendor alone all gets sold at the end of the day, every day, and when people from around the neighborhood come to the house asking to buy her Maja Blanca and why on earth did she not make more could she pretty please do so tomorrow, I stopped arguing with her about being more productive. For her, quality is a balance between making great delicacies and producing as many of them as she could. I decided it was admirable for her not to give up her palate’s standard just to produce more.
5. Everything becomes better with laughter.
We do this starting at one o’clock in the morning. I start helping by two, and this goes on until five thirty, when packing begins and hopefully ends at just about six. My eyes feel heavy and my head groggy from lack of sleep, but those hours with my sister became a lot more fun than I thought it would be, because we talked and laughed like before, when all her worries were about finishing house chores and mine was avoiding them. This wasn’t even part of her day, because once everything is packed and ready for pick up, then—only then—will her day begin.
It was not part of her day. It was the highlight of mine.