By Fe C. Abogadie
One thing I have in common with probably all Filipinos living abroad is the feeling of excitement and happy expectancy at the thought of going to the home country for a holiday. In my case, I go home once a year, usually during the Christmas season. Nothing beats spending Christmas in the Philippine islands, notwithstanding the heat and humidity, and even as we compare it to the dreamy winter wonderland we associate with Christmas in North America and Europe.
It has become a habit of mine to anticipate my holiday by making a mental list of the things I will do once I get there. This usually consists of taking care of personal business, visiting friends and relatives, doing some shopping and sightseeing, but most of all, of eating all the food that I miss during the rest of the year when I am not living there. The latter is the most fun part.
Sometimes I worry that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. I know people who couldn’t care less what they’ll have for dinner any day. These people eat to live. But me, it’s almost as if I live to eat. But I know that I’m not alone in this because I have friends who are as passionate as I am about food. These friends and I really enjoy eating. And I do not mean gluttony. I mean eating so that one derives the utmost pleasure from even the smallest amount of food. This means being adventurous enough to try anything new and being open minded to the many different cuisines one encounters. Globalization has made it possible to obtain in the local supermarket many ingredients once considered highly exotic. Thus the proliferation of many ethnic restaurants in major cities such as London and New York.
Having lived the past ten years of my life away from the Philippines, my recollection of Filipino food is always associated with specific memories of life back home. Invariably these are memories from way back, when I was a child growing up in a small fishing village in one of the Visayan islands. It is usually around the months of August and September, when I find myself pausing at work here in London and having fantasies about the food I will eat back home. Others may think this is pathetic and bordering on the obsessive. But this keeps me going, because the thought of Filipino food brings back happy memories and consequently a smile to my face. A Swedish friend once told me that whenever I talk about food, my eyes glow. That should give you an idea just what an important part food plays in my life. A few years ago, I sent my parents a list of things I wanted to eat when I got home for the holidays. They very gamely obtained everything on the list except for one item. And so here I am again making a mental list of the food I expect to eat when I go home in a few months. I am restricting this list to the seafood which I love the most, or else I’ll take up several more pages of space.
The typical fare of the coastal communities in the Visayas islands understandably consists mostly of seafood and local vegetables in addition to the staple which is rice. The seafood includes not just the usual fishes, but also the different kinds of seaweeds and seashells, octopus, squid, shrimps, sea urchins, crabs, and others. Other people might cringe at the thought of eating these creatures. Not me. I cannot get enough of these things. It is indeed very unfortunate that these are very expensive and difficult to obtain in London. As I often tell friends, I can happily eat rice and seafood everyday, no problem.
In the village where I grew up, when the day’s catch is more than enough, people have three ways of preserving the surplus fish: salting, sundrying and smoking. Salting is done usually to the small fishes such as "bolinao" (anchovies) and "mungpung" (these look like anchovy fry) to make "ginamos" (similar to the "bagoong" in Ilocano). Each family would usually have its own jar of home-made "ginamos". I remember the conversations among the housewives, exchanging tips on how to make the best "ginamos" in town. Apparently, not only does one have to start with fresh fish, the critical thing is the proportion of salt to fish and also knowing when the "ginamos" is ready, which can take from several days to a few weeks. My mother never made her own "ginamos" but my aunt used to give us some. There are specific names given to different types of "ginamos", depending on the state of preservation of the fish. My favorite kind is the "maos na" (literally "limp already"), when the fish is almost disintegrated. If the "ginamos" is very well made, it should give a nice smell at this stage, so nice you want to use it to make a dipping sauce. In my family, we would use it to make a dipping sauce for fried fish, especially "bariles" (tuna), "tuwas" (red snapper) or "tikab" (mackerel). We would cut up some fresh "kalamansi" (the local lime fruit; see Newsweek issue of 31 August 1998, London edition, page 6) and mix the juice with the "ginamos" to give just the right mix of saltiness and sourness. You have to dip the fish into the sauce with your bare hands, bring it to your plate to roll with a ball of rice and voila! You have the perfect mouthful! And it just would not taste the same if you use a spoon and a fork. I tell you, we in the islands really know how to enjoy eating!
Sundrying is another way to preserve the surplus fish. The fishermen have mat-like screens made of thin bamboo slats strung together. These mats are laid on top of table-like structures made of bamboo, a few feet high, and usually located in the open area near the beach where one gets the best of both the sun and the wind. "Labtingaw" is the term used to refer to one-day old dried fish. I don’t know why but the "labtingaw" are always in great demand, especially by the old folks. Maybe because the taste of partially dried fish is peculiarly delicious, so different from anything else I have eaten. The fishes most commonly dried are the small ones such as "bolinao", "mungpung", "karabalyas" (silver fishes with yellow fins) and "mangsi" (sardines). Some of the fishes with thick flesh such as mackerel are sundried as well but first they have to be split lengthwise on one side but not all the way through. The fleshy half is stretched out, the fish degutted, and one ends up with an opened-up fish. This makes the sundrying process more efficient and the fish gets dried more quickly.
My favorites among the dried fishes are the anchovies, the "mungpung" and the "danggit" (sorry, I do not know the English term for this). The danggit is not very common in our area and we have to buy them already dried from the neighboring towns. The danggit is typically only a few inches in length, has thin flesh and a lot of bones. But it is traditionally split open and then sundried so the dried fish is really very thin. This is why my dad always insists that the danggit be fried right, or it doesn’t taste good at all. This means frying it in hot oil for just a few seconds. When fried right, the whole danggit can be eaten; head, tail and all. If overfried, one ends up with something that tastes like charcoal and this may turn people off danggit forever, which is such a pity because it is one of the most tasty of the dried fishes. Danggit is probably the fish equivalent of the durian fruit, because both "smell like hell, but taste like heaven" (again, see Newsweek issue of 31 August 1998, London edition, page 6). Here in London, I have a stock of dried danggit that my mom sent me. Unfortunately, I can only cook them when my flatmates are away on holiday. Frying danggit gives this horrible smell that I don’t cook danggit when my flatmates are around out of consideration for their sensibilities. But in a few months I will be home and then I can have danggit as often as I want and not worry about offending people with their smell.
For some reason, smoking as a way of preserving surplus fish is done only with certain kinds of fish. I remember smoked "mangko" (small tuna) and smoked "karabalyas" but not much else besides. In fact, when I think of smoked fish, I always think of smoked "mangko". When I am home on holiday and would request my dad to buy some smoked fish, he knows without me telling him that I mean the smoked "mangko". He also knows what I want to make out of it, which is my favorite vegetable dish, the "utan". "Utan" is probably our unofficial village dish, and is a stew of commonly available local vegetables flavoured with fish (either dried or smoked or fried). In our house, our "utan" usually has "malunggay" (horseradish) leaves, "bago" leaves, tomatoes, onions, lemongrass and flavoured with flakes of smoked "mangko" and "patis" (fish sauce). A common variation is the use of dried anchovies or fried mackerel instead of the smoked "mangko". Eating this dish gives me a very healthy feeling. It is very nutritious and full of flavour. And there is that satisfying feeling that comes from cooking vegetables that were grown in one’s own backyard. Somehow, this makes me feel very close to nature and is such a contrast to my lifestyle in London.
The people in my village, especially the men, are fond of "kinilaw", a dish of raw fish, usually tuna, flavoured with coconut wine vinegar, ginger, onion, salt and pepper and coconut milk. As a child I never liked this dish. In my family, it was only the men who went for this with gusto. Lately however, I have acquired the taste for it and now I look forward to having some "kinilaw" soon. This dish is often eaten by the villagers to go with the beer and the "tuba" (the local wine made from coconut sap) during their drinking sessions.
Another favorite of mine that I look forward to eating is the "tahong" (mussels). Because of its relatively easy availability here in London (most supermarkets and fishmongers sell them), I don’t miss mussels as much as the other seafood items. But I like the way we cook it at home in the Philippines, just sauteing it in hot oil with garlic, onions and ginger, adding a bit of water, some green onion leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Eating it freshly cooked and savouring the soup causes one to perspire even more in the tropical heat. Last December unfortunately, my mom did not want us to buy any mussels because of the red tide scare. Apparently, a number of fatalities had been reported from eating contaminated shellfish. I hope that this time around, there will be no red tide to spoil my eating pleasure.
"Guso" (a kind of seaweed) is another favorite that I had eaten only in the Philippines. This is commonly available in my island and is very cheap. We usually just cut the seaweed into small pieces, blanch it in boiling water and make it into a salad with chopped onions, ginger and tomatoes and flavour it with "patis" and coconut wine vinegar. Some people add a tiny bit of sugar to enhance the taste. This makes a very good appetizer or a side dish.
There is one dish that is becoming more and more rare, at least in my village. I am referring to the stuffed crab cooked in coconut milk. When I was a little girl, this was a special treat, because even then it was not an everyday fare. It was always expensive, maybe because it is very laborious to make. And apparently one has to use a particular kind of crab, not just any kind, to make this dish. I have never actually seen this dish made but I can imagine that it must be a labour of love. First, one has to take the meat out of the crab shell and cook it with some seasoning and pieces of young and tender coconut meat. Then this whole mixture is put back into the crab shell as stuffing, and the whole crab assembled again, using strips of banana leaves to tie together the pieces if necessary. Usually there will be more stuffing than can fit back into the shell. This extra stuffing is wrapped in banana leaves and shaped into rectangles which are tied closed with strips of banana leaves to prevent them from opening during the cooking. Then both the crabs and the banana-wrapped stuffing are cooked together in coconut milk to the point where all the water is evaporated and only the extracted coconut oil remains. The taste of the stuffing is heavenly, especially when eaten with rice! I particularly enjoy taking out the stuffing from the shell with my bare hands. I remember that when I was a little girl, there was only one lady in our village who made this dish for sale. She was my grandmother’s friend. She owned a little "sari-sari" store where my grandmother used to buy her daily supply of "tuba". Both she and my grandmother are gone now, but I will always remember those days when my grandmother would ask me to buy some tuba from this lady’s store. On those occasions when she had the stuffed crabs for sale, I would gaze longingly at the crabs on display then rush back home to plead with my mom to buy us some for lunch. It was always for lunch because it was believed that to eat anything with coconut milk for dinner is not good for the stomach. I am not sure if there are still people in my village who make this dish. It is one of my fears that the customary passing on from mothers to daughters of family recipes may not have happened, especially in this case, and it will be a great loss indeed. I will have to remember to ask the old folks in the village so I can learn to cook this dish myself.
There is one thing I haven’t eaten for years and years and I’m really hoping to eat it when I go home this December. It is squid in all its black squid ink glory. The squid commonly available in the UK is already degutted and de-skinned, looking white and very uninteresting. I like squid best when it’s cooked with its ink sac. The ink gives the sauce a distinctive flavor. Many years ago, my brothers and I used to tease each other as to who has the blackest mouth and teeth after eating squid. When the squid is fresh straight from the sea, one does not have to do much to bring out its flavour. It can be plainly boiled quickly in water with onions, tomatoes and lemongrass, and flavoured with salt and pepper. The simplicity of this dish brings out the hint of sweetness of the fresh squid. Or the squid can be sauteed briefly in vegetable oil, with garlic and onions, flavored with soy sauce, "kalamansi" juice, salt and pepper. But my favorite way to cook squid is to broil it quickly over charcoal after seasoning it with a bit of salt. Then the squid can be sliced into bite-sized pieces and dipped in coconut wine vinegar with a bit of salt. Some people prefer their dipping sauce to have crushed garlic and some chili pepper. I always eat this with cold rice. And this has to be with bare hands. This tastes even better if you lick the tangy flavor from your fingers. As the Visayans would say, "Lami gyud kaayo!" ("This tastes really good!").
It is only recently that I re-discovered the pleasure of eating with bare hands. As a little girl I used to be embarrassed that many people in my village used bare hands to eat. I thought nothing could be more pleasing to look at than people eating with proper spoons and forks. And as an adult I found it interesting and fun to use the many different kinds of spoons and forks, not to mention knives, at formal dinners. But now I realize that eating in the home islands, especially in the beaches, where the sea breeze is constantly blowing and the seafood is always fresh, is most pleasurable when done with bare hands. Nothing can be more effective in making people relax and shed off their inhibitions. Consequently, people will find eating a lot more pleasurable, maybe even a bit of a sensual experience. Of course there is a time and place for everything but now I have resolved that next time I’m home and my family goes on a picnic to the beach, I will use my bare hands to eat. And I will make the special request that we use banana bracks or leaves as plates. This brings back memories of when I was a little girl and the whole community would celebrate St. John’s day in June by everyone going swimming. Everyone went, without exception. It was like a fluvial fiesta. And people prepared a lot of food and brought them to the beach where everyone shared food. We would eat with banana bracks for plates and use our bare hands. I have decided that I don’t have to wait for St. John’s day to eat this way. I cannot wait!