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High blood

Hallway of hearty delights

I held my nose up in the air. Garlic! Somebody was frying garlic and it smelled heavenly. The next second, something even more divine charged through the air. Butter! Garlic and butter — definitely one of the most perfect pairings in the world.

Shrimp in garlic butter? French baguette slathered with garlic butter and topped with Gruyère? Garlic noodles with butter? Who’s cooking what, and how do I ask for some?

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Time to play Nancy Drew.

I opened my front door and strolled casually through the hallway, inhaling deeply as I passed my neighbors’ door. Who could it be? The Chinese couple in 8D? The Indonesian newlyweds in 8B? Definitely not the thirtysomething single in 8F who I’ve met twice in the elevator, and was munching on a hamburger the first time and salty chips the following evening.

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Really, I must find out who, in this compact community we call home, has the gall to tempt the rest of us with gourmet meals — or at least their aroma — cooked in a tiny kitchen-cum-dining room-cum-living room.

For shame! And here we can hardly cook seafood for fear of spraying our curtains and upholstery with eau de fish. As for a proper stew, who has the space for all those vegetables, sauces and various cookware?

Like most condo dwellers, the extent of my kitchen repertoire strays no further than eggs, hotcake, cold cuts and one-dish meals like adobo and pasta that can be simmered in a rice cooker.

For variety, I sometimes whip up a salad from the greens stocked in my ref, cleverly hiding the wilted parts under dressing.

When the sunny-side up eggs stick to the pan and come out scrambled, I console myself: Just close your eyes and imagine yourself decades younger, making do with dorm meals.

But of course there’s always takeout. Pizza. KFC. Max’s. McDo. It gets tired real soon.

All right, how about eating out when there’s time and the budget isn’t too tight? Too much trouble dressing up, especially if it’s a weekend and you’d rather lounge around in pajamas watching Netflix.

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So you can understand how having tasty home-cooked meals is the one luxury condo dwellers aspire for most. Home-cooked means Time — to choose and buy fresh ingredients, prepare them, and mix them into a dish that carries with it one’s individual memories of mom’s cooking, Lola’s comfort meals, one’s first try at kare-kare, and even that disastrous dinner one made to impress a date.

Home cooking also gives one the chance to stamp one’s distinctive taste and preferences on a dish. That slow-cooked adobo speaks of Choice—pork or chicken? What kind of vinegar? How much soy sauce, pepper corn, bay leaf and garlic? Fried after stewing to render the pork fat, or smothered with chicken liver to thicken the sauce?

And in our cramped condo space where most of us spend idle moments speculating about our next-room neighbors, home cooking is the golden opportunity to try to decipher cultures and nationalities, as well as the predilections and economic status of people you only meet in elevators and hallways, all the while politely averting your gaze lest you wind up staring.

Without breaching privacy, home-cooked meals give away the tightly-guarded secrets of the people behind closed doors.

So you walk the hallway digesting information gleaned from the varied smells of home cooking. Is someone cooking stinky tofu? Must be Taiwanese. Oooooh, that smells like my mom’s tinola, must be Tagalog. Danggit. Again? That’s the third time this week. Is that goto with plenty of ginger? How did they manage to tenderize the tripe? Oh God, that smells like spoiled meat. The cook must have a stuffed nose and can’t tell the difference. Oooops, somebody just burned a toast. Oh, f—k, it’s me!

And so it goes: a virtual olfactory feast just outside the door. Someday I swear, I shall find out who’s cooking with garlic and butter, and befriend my way to a home-cooked meal without me messing up my kitchen.

* * *

Pennie Azarcon dela Cruz, 64, has been an Inquirer editor for some 27 years now.

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