The one dish my mom cooked that never failed to impress guests was laing. Her laing came in small packages – pork, sometimes fish, wrapped in taro leaves, tied securely with a string, then stewed in coconut milk spiced with bird chillies. At the table, she would serve the guests a package each, first making sure there was enough sauce on every plate and then, with a bit of flourish, snipping off the string, thus unravelling the meaty, spicy, coconut-y treat.

Laing is a popular Filipino dish using taro or gabi leaves. These leaves are huge – almost a meter long and just as wide at the base – with a soft, furry surface coating that I found fascinating as a kid. In fact, I thought the gabi leaf looked and functioned pretty much like an umbrella. “Look, ‘ma, it’s water-repellent!” I remember the horror on my mom’s face when she saw me with a gabi leaf over my head. Before I knew it, I was itching all over – thanks to the needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate that occur throughout the plant. Thankfully none of those toxic particles got into my eyes, but the experience was such a trauma that I swore off laing for good.

It wasn’t until my 20’s when I started eating laing again and decided I actually liked it. Even then, I didn’t think I’d ever cook this dish – too many hazard warnings, too many cautionary footnotes about its possible toxicity and the calcium oxalate that could cause itchy mouth and throat.

Then I read a Facebook post about laing made, not with gabi leaves, but spinach.

Tanke Tankeko, an advertising creative director turned restaurateur, wrote about this version of laing that she serves in 1521, her restaurant at The Fort. Spinach! Why didn’t I think of that? I’ve always loved spinach. As a kid I thought all green leafy vegetables were nasty – but not spinach. Spinach was cool. After all, wasn’t it spinach that Popeye ate to gain strength and rescue Olive Oyl, the damsel always in distress? It was spinach that got him all beefed up to beat bullies like Bruto. It was superhero stuff, for sure, as even I stopped being anemic and no longer fainted in churches or crowded spaces.

I decided to write Tanke and ask for the recipe.

“I’m really quite a miser when it comes to sharing my recipes,” she wrote back. “I am completely comfortable, though, to let you into my spinach laing secret. Foodie instinct, I suppose.” And with a smiley, she shared the recipe with me, including tips on ingredients, proportions and serving.

So that’s how laing found its way back to my table, and how I finally found the courage to cook it, even experiment, substituting spinach with kale, for example, as in the laing pictured above.

Now, if only I had my mom’s sense of theater and presentation…