By Gilda Pasion-Balan, Manila Correspondent
Being a kid in the 1980’s, it was a sheerdisappointment to see my bigger sisters coming home with nilupak (mashed cassava with coconut milk and margarine on top)when you expect Chippy (a Jack and Jill brand of junk food made of corn) as pasalubong.
During a time when instant gata and powdered glutinous rice were taboo, I grew up with TiEster’s merienda. She roamed aroundthe barangay pulling her cart full of kakaninand “minindal” goodies – guinataang bilo-bilo or totong, pancit luglog, puto maya and tadtarin.And by the way, despite being an Iglesia ni Cristo, she made the best dinuguan.
But I will never forget how my thin and frail bodywas nourished with my Tita Ching’s adobo(the best I ever tasted!) and sweet and sour pork (whose sauce I have beentrying to replicate for 25 years now) while my mother’s laborious Pancit Molo was an influenza staple. Atthe far end of the street, Ti Banang’sbibingka was everyone’s birthday main course.
This is how it was growing up in the CaLaBaRZon(Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon) area. The 1980’s kids had no ideawhat was a junk food (and anyone who ate it was stigmatized). The mix andfusion of indigenous ingredients with a colonial twist made our childhoodtolerate vegetables and all these flavors were the baseline of how we learnedto be discriminating with the food we eat. Who wouldn’t be? The abundance ofnature’s supply from the seas, mountains and fields yield great gifts for ournourishment.
Last March 24, the Philippine News (PN) Manila team was invited by the Department ofTourism Region 4 A to attend the opening of the Quezon Kulinarya. It’s a goodthing that the van PN illustrator Randy Valiente and I were riding would dropby Villa Escudero briefly to pick-up Chef Cocoy Ventura who prepared hot cocofor us.
“Oh, I don’t feel extenders here” I said, while torelishing the bitter-sweet, roasty-milky taste as I try to figure out if therewas cornstarch or xantham gum taste in it. Sad to say, most hot coco I knowrelies on thickeners and they sell for a steep price.
“Our coco is scraped from 100% cocoa bar. It’sbrewed using ipa (rice hull) to heatour kawa and kettles,” explained Chef Ventura, Villa Escudero’s director forFood and Beverage Operations.
Opening doors from culinarypast
In the Calabarzon area, Quezon isgifted to have citizens who from memory preserved a cooking heritage. MiladaDealo –Valde of Dealo Kofee Klatch wrote “The Cuisine of Quezon” which featuredBinombay –batchoy cooked in bananaleaf pouch that resembles an Indian turban and dishes such as Pirihil, Sinantomas, Pasag-oy and otherunusual dish names prepared in a ritualistic manner.
While from memory, Don Conrado “Ado”Escudero vividly wrote glimpses of his past celebrating with food growing up inTiaong. The “Villa Escudero Coconut Plantation Cookbook” connects us to liveslived in opulence with the abundance of ingredients readily available in one’sown backyard. It focuses on events –religious feasts, family gathering, seasonschanging and family growing –and what was served during these celebrations.
Younger chefs like Marvin Aritangcoand Vino Veluz of Buddy’s are exerting efforts along with other food andtourism establishment owners to reach out to more people as possible as theycontinue food preparation traditions for individuals relish while basking underthe Quezon skies.
Titas of Lucena
Our night was welcomed with overflowingfood at the Halina Z Compound Pop Up Food market where the Quezon Mercato diningis held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Young entrepreneurs spendtheir nights running their own food carts. They concoct ingredients, develop afood product and sell at reasonable prices.
The thing about the Mercato was thatit was wholly supported by the Titas of Lucena (I referred to them as) whoordered for us. The Titas Tina Decal, Felisa Florido, Cynthia Eleazar, Carmen Marasiganand Luisa Martinez joined us for the night.
In contrast with the Titas ofManila, who wore their big dangling earrings and posts their OOTD (outfit ofthe day) on social media sites, the Titas of Lucena are tourism advocates whoworks hard to preserve and promote their heritage and culture. They are the “to-goto people” in product development and promotion. They are the guiding light ofthe younger Quezon generation.
After tree planting trees at Ouan’s FarmResort in Kanlurang Mayao in Lucena the following morning, March 25, we allheaded to Sariaya to engage with the true chefs of Quezon. They are the manongs who harvested the raw materials;processed everything through manual grinding, shredding and chopping; collectedfirewood for cooking; mixed all the ingredients and prepared the finishedproduct.
According to Manong Bert, kalamay has always been a family stapleevery Christmas. For them, it means abundance.
“Sabing tatay ko, kahit wala tayong manok, basta may kalamay tayo ngayong Pasko,”he said. (My father said, even if we don’t have fried chicken, our Christmas iscomplete with kalamay.)
In the age of food processor and inductioncooker, nothing beats kalamaypreparation the traditional way. It requires all the members of the family, ifnot, the community to be involved during the process. Why? Grinding has to bedone by someone manually using the mortar and pestle while the other prepares thefire. Once the ingredients thicken, it takes four people to mix the thickeningglutinous rice, cassava or coconut mixture. One pair of two first and once theygot tired, the next pair follows and as they rest, they need to watch the fire.Either the flame grows stronger or weaker, one has to be a lookout. It takestwo hours or more of mixing to attain a very smooth, well mixed consistency.
I tried mixing, the coconut jam andthe glutinous rice and my arms and hands trembled after two hours of off and onmixing.
The kawa (cast iron pan big enough to be a bath tub) was heated. ManongBert and his crew gathered buntalleaves and stalks. Out of the buntal leafstalks, they made long mixing sticks for the kalamay.
“Pagmalapot na ang jam, ilalagay nap o natinyung binilog na malagkit at hahaluin para di sila magdidikit-dikit.” (Oncethe coconut jam thickens, we will add the glutinous rice balls and continuemixing so they won’t stick together).
“Pagnaluto na ang malagkit, tatanggalin natin sa kawa tapos paghahalu-haluin. Pag nahalona ang malagkit at jam, ibabalik sakawa lahat hanggang maghalo na yung coco jam at malagkit. Yung paghahalo, tawag dun yapusan.” (Once theglutinous balls are cooked, we remove them from the wok and blend themtogether. Then we put it back to the wok until the jam and rice mix becomesthick. The mixing is called yapusan.)
Yapusanis a method of mixing where both the persons mix in opposing directions as ifdrawing a semi-circle in clockwise and counter clockwise. It takes an hour ormore and should be done in this manner for the kalamay to blend well.
It takes real arm work during the yapusan process that’s why it was the manongs who basically mix the kalamay. I was only able to do tensemi-rotation. Yes, it’s a guy’s work. Not for the fragile woman.
It’s always about the distinct flavourof coconuts mixed with freshly butchered livestock or sea food. If not, root cropsand rice. It’s about what is readily available and the work from scratch is askill one has to master.
The old cooks were creative to putdistinction between the flavors despite using the same ingredient in such atime when all yards has the same produce. Calabarzon has the same agriculturalyield and yet Quezon was able to stand out from its neighboring provinces.Using buco (young coconut) strands asan alternative in the time of egg noodle crisis, the war made the peopleinnovate and develop their own cuisine. Some dishes are trying to break-awayfrom Spanish influence as they explored possibilities in scarcity that resultedto a well done dish that has a rich history of overcoming traumas. With asimple ingredients yielded a complex flavor.
It takes a village to produce the native dishes andin every bite, one can feel the loving hands of those who made them. And thememories of well-thought delicacies linger.