Friday, February 19, 2010

THINKING FOOD

My grandfather, Filimon Lavina (with an enye) was the eldest son of Alejandro who moved to Cabuyao, Laguna around the time of the Cavite Mutiny. Years later, Alejandro's great grandaughter (thats me) would speculate about his participation in that event.
Lelong Andong was a veteran of the Philippine American War, and, like many others of the time, would bring his baon to the battlefield, usually wrapped in banana leaves. During that time, wars were more civilized. Both sides would take lunch and siesta breaks before renewing hostilities in the afternoon. He would also go home at night. At least that is the kwento that got passed on down to me.
Prof. Vic Torres is a historian and professor in a prestigious university on Taft Avenue, who, coincidentally comes from my lolo's hometown. We haven't yet discovered any blood ties, but considering that Cabuyao really is a small town, I wouldn't be surprised.
 

Memories of Cooking in a Laguna Town)

“In fact, in the traditional Filipino school of
virtuous cooking, known as “mix and taste,”
rote measurements are disdained as inimical
to a true cook’s creativity. One simply knew
how to make superlative sweets from watching
them made in one’s house numberless times;
no one bothered to write down measurements.”
Luning Bonifacio Ira
“Sweet and Sour”



The Cabuyao I remembered in my youth was not the bustling, modernized fastfood lined streets you would see now.

 
The Cabuyao I knew then was a quiet town of Laguna - a two-hour bus ride from Pasay City where the BLTB bus terminal was. The South Superhighway then reached up only until Alabang. Going to Laguna meant passing through Muntinglupa (where the smell of roasting coffee was in the air near the Nescafe factory) before entering the first provincial town - Biñan.

Going to Cabuyao for me also meant tasting old-fashioned provincial cooking.


Cooking was one of the means of livelihood for my father’s family. Papa once told me how he earned money by selling buko and chicharon in Calamba (which, like the days of Rizal, was the center of Laguna’s economic activity). He would then deposit his earnings in a savings account that he dipped into from time to time to buy personal things. He would proudly point to one of the tocadors in their house saying he bought that cabinet with chicharon.


My father’s ancestral house in Cabuyao was located beside the town school. So they decided to put up a canteen managed by my two aunts. It was a high-roofed room that was annexed to the old house. One side was lined with counters with glass-covered shelves filled with kakanins, short orders and the menu of the day. The eating area can seat fifty students on long wooden tables and benches.


My childhood summer vacation days in Cabuyao meant eating three times a day (not including meriendas) in that canteen. A meal prepared for me by my aunts meant a mound of steaming rice scooped from a large pot on the stove onto a plastic plate and a pile of viands taken from trays in the glass shelves.


Every time there is a family occasion, my two spinster aunts Tita Ising and Tita Siani (Cha Ising and Cha Siani) would begin preparing food early in the morning. Preserves and pickles were made at least a week before. Kakanin was in stock for the two would cook a large batch for the canteen.


It was Tita Ising who woke up at four a.m. to go to the public market in Calamba. At around eight, she would return home with a jeepload of goods. A jeepload meant a lot for the jeepneys then were the extra-long, stainless-steel, twenty-seaters manufactured in Biñan.


A special pasalubong from Tita Ising was butchi - that fried pastry of glutinous rice stuffed with sweetened mongo beans or kundol . She would buy half a dozen pieces for me and my cousins. They came in a paper bag which would soon become stained with the oil the butchi was fried in.


The unloaded goods showed hints of the different dishes to be cooked that day – slabs of fresh pork and beef, chunks of cow’s liver for the pastel hubad (more on this later); bags of vegetables varying from leafy cabbages to sticks of ubod; the saucer-size circles of raw nata de coco swimming in metal tubs of fresh water; a dozen niyogs along with some macapunos; kaengs of green mangoes for the buro; paper sacks of malagkit rice to be ground into galapong – the base for some of the sweetened kakanin.


These were piled on the kitchen counter with the bottles of condiments and sauces. On one side were the plastic packs and cans of spices like pamintang buo, saffron, pamintang durog and rock salt. There were no pre-packed sauces yet. Everything was made from scratch. Vinegar was the pure, fermented coconut water or palm juice and not the chemically-treated ones. If bottled condiments were needed, the two cooks were not particular about any brand as long as everything was mixed properly and the final result tasted right.


Cooking in the canteen kitchen for a family affair meant lighting up six burners: four were from two table-top gas stoves while the other two were from two kerosene kalans with those tanks that you continuously pump to get a blue flame going. There were also open charcoal cooking grills and makeshift hearths in the backyard for the kawas and cauldrons.


The unforgettable flavors that I tasted from provincial cooking were sweet and sour. – sweet from the fruit preserves and kakanins that Tita Ising prepared; sour from the various buros and atcharas that Tita Siani made.


Preserves were a specialty of Tita Ising. I remember the kamias, siniguelas, santol (both pulp and skin) and even watermelon rinds that were collecfted in small plastic basins, waiting to be transformed into delicacies. Tita Ising rolled the kamias fruits with the palm of her hand on one of the wooden benches while pressing down to squeeze out the juice. What was left was a wrinkled, green mass like an elongated, wet prune.


For santol preserves, she peeled the rough santol skin then broke the fruit open to scoop out the pulpy seeds. Both rind and seeds were then placed in separate containers. Slits were cut into the siniguelas fruits deep enough till the knife point touches the seed.


Watermelon rinds required some work. Tita Ising chose the ones with thick skins. After slicing out the pulp (which we kids would greedily eat with red juice dripping from lips and fingers while spitting out the pips on plates or at each other), she then peeled the skin. Tita Ising showed me the greenish-white rind with a thin sheen of red pulp. “Peel it this way,” she said, “Leave some of the red pulp for color.”


The fruits were then soaked for a day in a solution of apog (powdered lime) and water. The measurement of the lime and water is a classic method of “mix and taste” cooking. Asked how much lime is to be used, Tita Ising held out her middle finger and press down on the first digit with her thumb.


“That much,” she said, “depending on the amount you want to cook.” Add a little more if you have more fruit. “Pangkunat lang,” she says.

After pickling in the lime solution for a day, the fruit is washed thoroughly then dropped in a boiling solution of syrup made out of equal cups of sugar and water. The secret is to literally pickle the fruits in the syrup. But not too long and not too short a time. Let the fruits stand in the syrup for a couple of days. Then it is ready.


The atcharas and buros of Tita Siani were easier to do. The secret for its delicious sourness is the timing.


The boiled vinegar must be of the right temperature: not too hot or the bottle will explode and not lukeward or the atchara will not pickle right. It should be just hot enough to semi-cook the vegetables (to remove its rawness) and then pickle it.


It is the same thing with her buros. In this case, it was either mango, mustasa or spring onion leaves. Except for the mangoes, Tita Siani always emphasized washing the leaves first in hugas bigas (rice washing). Then she pours in her vinegar-sugar-salt brew. The measurements were not exact and Tita Siani never mentioned spoonfuls or cupfuls. “It’s all in the taste,” she said. I often wondered how many experiments she made before she got the “taste” right. But the results were unforgettable. Her buros were a favorite sidedish in family reunion meals.


A traditional dish which served as both viand for meals and pulutan for the family drinkers was the pastel hubad (literally ‘naked pastel).”


The dish is almost identical to the Spanish pastel but without its thick, baked crust. The Cabuyao pastel was a mixture of cubed fatty pork, liver, carrots, pickles, soy sauce, tomato paste and the entire bottle of juice the pickles were packed in. No water and no other added seasoning. Just simmer the meat, vegetables and seasonings into a pot until the pork begins to render its fat. Add the tomato paste for color then some pickle juice until a sweetish flavor is obtained. No exact measurements. Again, mix and taste enriches the flavor fo the food.


Aside from the preserves, dessert was a sugary treat consisting of a glutinous rice cake we called sinukmani (biko to other Tagalogs), antala and halayang ube.


These three kakanins were cooked with the skill and care that only old-time cooks knew. The sinukmani and antala were made from malagkit, coconut milk and sugar. The malagkit is boiled in a pot then cooked in a pan with the milk and sugar. Sinukmani is made with brown sugar while antala with white (refinado). It is then stirred over a low fire until it solidifies into a sticky mass. Latik is made from coconut gratings and sugar toasted into brown sweet fragments. This is then sprinkled over the kakanins.


Halayang ube is made from ube tubers grated very finely. The violet mass is then mixed with condensed milk and sugar. Like sinukmani, it is continuously stirred over a low fire until sticky.


The difficult task in making these kakanins is the stirring of the sticky mass so it will mix properly. Tita Ising’s arms became beefy through the years of hard stirring she had to do. Aunts, uncles, cousins and even hired help would beg off from doing this. Now I could only smile and think how much good food can come out of hard work.


There were other dishes that graced the family table in Cabuyao. What I write here are the only ones I now remember. Sometime in the early 1990s, I wrote down the recipes of the preserves, atcharas and buros in a small notepad. Unfortunately, I lost the pad, misplacing it among the papers in the house. I managed to experiment on these recipes based on what I remembered and was successful in some especially the preserved watermelon rinds.


True to the tragedies of family recipes, the ones in Cabuyao have almost disappeared. Tita Siani died in 1998 while Tita Ising died in 2003. Almost none of my cousins inherited the perfection of Tita Ising and Tita Siani’s cooking. But from time to time, they experimented. I recently discovered that one of my cousins has duplicated the delicious pastel hubad. I quickly got the recipe from her. There will come a time when I would cook it myself. Maybe to relive a food taste from the past.

I guess it is enough to say food lives on.

10 comments:

Anna said...

What a delightful post.

Ube dessert is one delicacy that I almost forgot existed... I haven't tasted it for decades; didn't realise that it was such hard work to make it.

Would very much like to make it but your description of the arm flexing movements required is daunting. Could I perhaps use an electric mixer to do it (granting of course that the fruit is available where I sit?)

Can tell you now that if I succeed, I shall be one very very happy human being. :-)

reyna elena said...

Gawd! That ube! Naglaway ako!

Whenever I am home, I never miss out on the "kakanins" which is funny dahil that becomes my breakfast, lunch and dinner hehehe which is why everytime I go back to the US, I always gain pounds hehee

I go nuts with the sight of colored kakanins that I'll break bones if I don't get to have it haha

vic torres said...

hi anna,
the nearest thing i could describe for an electric mixing thing is the one they use in bakeries for mixing dough. i use to help my aunts with the mixing and, i tell you, mahirap talaga. a friend of mine from quezon province still cooks it the old way and she used to complain a lot how her arm would be stiff for hours after cooking. but the product (the delicious kakanin) is worth the effort, she says.

alexv said...

wow, it's 2am and i'm hungry after reading your post.

please post your recipe for naked pastel.

what a coincidence that you mentioned saffron - my wife and i were just talking about it tonight. we couldn't decide if it's really the same as kasubha.

DeliSyosa said...

Ma'm Anna, I don't even dare. Thats why I buy my ube. :D

Reynz, I'm assuming you like sapin-sapin?

juliuscesar103 said...

Thank you Vic for that anecdote. The present generation is not as sentimental as you and I. Many a good recipe had been lost due to disinterest. Your story brings back a many good memories of my childhood.

Anna said...

Hi Vic,

Thank you for elucidating. Oh dear... bakery mixer? That will be enormous. I wouldn't know where to start or put it in my pocket sized kitchen? Hahahah!

But maybe I will try using my lil muscles with one lil fruit and follow the "instructions" in Deli Syosa to the letter and see where I will be at.

(Will have to search for the ube first :-)

vic torres said...

hi alexv,
the "recipe" for the naked pastel is in the post. sorry there are no measurements. everything is so "mix and taste" funny thing. i asked my father last night (through ym messages to my sister) to teach me the laguna "menudo" no tomatoes except for tomato paste and this is just for color and the sweetish-sour taste. to my surprise, its the same recipe for the pastel hubad but with no pickles. the secret i think, is in the gisa and the simmering until the pork renders its fat while cooking.
i remember kasubha because my aunts use this to cook lugaw and arroz caldo. but i don't know if it is the red or the yellow one.

vic torres said...

trixie!
i forgot to remove from the text but my mom found the notepad where i wrote down the recipes. can't understand my handwriting though. haha. but i'm glad it was found.

vic torres said...

hi anna,
if you do get ube, the secret for a smooth halaya is in the fine grating. the tuber should be finely grated. i don't know where to source it but there is a kind of ube that is not so fibrous. (i don't know if it is the one from the visayas).