With fork and spoon or kamayan
A former expat’s memories of food
at home and abroad
|I don’t remember seeing, much less eating, pasta back home in my growing years. We were that deprived in the mountain city where I spent most of my childhood.
Only twice in my life did I spend Christmas far away from home, in another country. The first time was in 1962. I was sixteen and attending a world youth forum in New York as the Philippine delegate. It was my first time to ride an airplane, which had stopovers in Honolulu and Reykjavik (yes, Iceland) before landing at Idlewild—now John F. Kennedy—airport in the dead of winter. It also was my first time to be introduced to international cuisine. I don’t remember what I had on the plane (the defunct Pan Am), or in that hotel on Waikiki, but I remember liking what I ate. I’ve since had a taste, an occasional hankering even, for airline food, no matter how badly others may think of it.
I arrived in New York on December 25, Christmas day. Snow blanketed the landscape, the air was bitingly cold despite my woollen overcoat, and I was suffering from jet lag. I had thrown up in the plane’s lavatory before debarking, and was the last passenger to cross the icy tarmac (no tubes then). I must have had my host family worried until they saw me emerge from the Pan Am’s door. The first of my three host families in America—the Shupes—were very warm and welcoming. We stopped for lunch at the Saskatchewan Lodge somewhere near Bear Mountain Park, and I had my fill of my first real American meal. I remember steak and potatoes, cranberry sauce, heaps of fried chicken, fresh fruit juices and cakes. Months later, living with my second host family in New York—the Cassanitis from Italy—I was introduced to spaghetti with meat balls and pizza. I don’t remember seeing, much less eating, pasta back home in my growing years. We were that deprived in the mountain city where I spent most of my childhood.
Fast forward to 1993: the second time I was away from home at Christmas was during my first year in London working as information officer at the Philippine Embassy. Like most contractual workers abroad—I was an OCW, an “overseas contract writer”, since I was never given a permanent item by the DFA despite my long years of service, but that’s another story—I wanted to have a little more savings in my first year abroad. It was a wrong decision, as I suffered depression and homesickness living all alone in freezing Christmas weather in my north London flat, and my situation was made worse by fever and cough which lasted between Christmas and New Year’s day. Since I was shaking with the shivers and too sick to go to the Co-op grocery in Archway, I subsisted on whatever canned goods I had stored up. It also helped that I lived just above a fish ‘n’ chips shop, owned by my Greek Cypriot landlord, and I can vouch that it was the best fish ‘n’ chips—cod, plaice or haddock—I had savoured in all my years of living in London.
Living in multicultural London for almost fifteen years, I did not for a moment lose the Filipino expat’s hankering for his native dishes—when not relishing the expensive menu in diplomatic dinners, my favorite fish ‘n’ chips and the cholesterol-rich full English breakfast, not to mention the readily available Italian, French, Mexican, Lebanese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese dishes, plus the ubiquitous McDonald’s or Burger King (both of which made me hanker, in turn, for the Pinoy taste of Jollibee, which unfortunately has not been franchised yet in the UK to this day).
Getting Filipino food was never a problem in the UK. I got invited to all sorts of Pinoy parties—baptisms, birthdays, dinner-dances, reunions—and went to the barrio fiestas where one was spoiled for choice at the array of dishes wafting their foreign aroma into the English air and pleasant countryside: adobo, apritada, mechado, lechon, dinuguan, pinakbet sautéed with shrimp bagoong, inihaw na baboy, kare-kare (with veggies, pig’s trotters, beef, oxtail or tripe), and the best pork barbecue in the world; indeed, a carnivore’s paradise and a vegan’s nightmare.
At the embassy, we hosted community breakfasts, lunches and dinners, merienda cena and pica-pica cocktails, where we served (at various times under three ambassadors, whose gracious ladies chose the menus) bacalao, paella, daing na bangus, crispy okoy from Laguna served to the diplomatic corps complete with vinegar-&-garlic dip, pancit in all its noodlicious variations (miki, bihon, luglog, sotanghon), sinangag, longganisa, daing, tinapa, danggit, itlog na maalat at kamatis, in addition to standard Pinoy sauce-based table fare and fiesta food mentioned above.
|I’ve not been to Malabon in decades, so I long for the viands served by my aunt or partaken of in family outings— heaps of tatampal and baskets of talangka...
Living alone in London, I learned to cook Filipino dishes, and got to be resourceful enough in coming up with substitute ingredients for dishes like sinigang and bulanglang. When I came back to the Philippines some years ago, I settled back easily into semi-retirement, enjoying the comforts of home and native hearth, mainly in the form of home-cooked dishes and the infinite variety of buffet offerings in classy restaurants as well as the turo-turo delights in roadside carinderias or the workingman’s sidewalk diners on Metro Manila’s streets.
I have lived a well-rounded life, if this means having dined in the company of royals, diplomats and society bigwigs served truffles and caviar, as comfortably as well with taxi drivers wolfing down 30-peso meals of rice and viand in makeshift eateries or with street folk crowding round balut and fishball vendors.
I’ve not been to Malabon in decades, so I long for the viands served by my aunt or partaken of in family outings—heaps of tatampal and baskets of talangka; fresh oysters from that once-pristine Binuangan river in Bulacan, where we had distant relatives; alimango, alimasag and sugpo from the Navotas market, when Manila Bay was more hospitable to marine life and the prices of giant crabs and shrimps were not beyond the means of the poor; pesang talimusak with pechay, ginger and potato; fried biya, tilapia, dalagang bukid and sapsap—as well as the food hawked by itinerant vendors wending their way through dusty eskinitas and across the fishponds, offering valencia (crisp-fried turon); carioca, fried and caramelized sticky rice patties, binatog, putong Polo, lumpiang prito, alpahor (ginataan with large cubes of sweet potato), rice porridge, ice-drop munggo, with sweet red beans buried in ice topping off the frozen confection, predating Magnolia’s popsicles and drumsticks; all these available for a few pieces of copper centavos, depending on the mood and generosity of my vacation hosts, Tiya Edie and Lola Posta. (Putong Polo was the famous tiny ball-shaped rice cake hawked by vendors along the old McArthur Highway traversing the town of Polo, Bulacan, and we never failed to buy it as we shuttled from Manila to Baguio and back. Both delicacy and roadway were consigned to history by the North Luzon Expressway.)
Batangas, rarely visited nowadays, will always be remembered for the dishes of vegetables and fish and meriendas prepared by my Lola Rosa and Tiya Diday. Fondly recalled too are places like the Spanish-period, pre-SM stone market or mercado of Batangas City, half an hour by jeepney from Cupang. That walled old world was redolent of freshly roasted coffee beans whole or ground, unrefined brown sugar in jute sacks, fish both fresh from the sea and dried, and other assorted aromas. One could buy for five centavos (ten for the special version, with extra ingredients plus ice cream) the best halo-halo in the country, which was what the boy from the barrio went to the city for. But in Cupang itself there was Mamay Balás from whose galvanized-iron cart one bought home-churned soft ice cream for a few centavos per serving, plus a second generous helping for free, more if you were a relative.
Sometime after coming home, I visited Cupang with my wheelchair-bound father, whose thoughts during his twilight years were always about the old hometown. It was about noontime when we arrived, and the heat of an early summer was palpable. There was some relief from the occasional barrio breezes, but then my sister Luchie saw something even more promising—a makeshift halo-halo stand beside the nearby barrio school. A relative volunteered to get every one a glass, and it was like reliving the past: a tall glass of shaved ice topping a mélange of tropical fruits, gulaman, pinipig and corn, crowned with a dollop of brownish yema sweeter than condensada—this was the original heat-buster! The halo-halo of Digman of Cavite and of Chow King may be the rage today, but at fifteen pesos, and with a dozen ingredients the whole lot of which can make you feeling full and cool the rest of the day, the Cupang Elementary School Special would be hard to beat.
We also made sure during this visit that we would stop at the neighboring barrio of Muzon—the junction for Bauan, Lemery, and Manila—to buy several bundles of the famous (if you haven’t heard of it, your sorry loss) suman Muzon, soft and sweetish, eaten straight as you peel off the banana leaf wrapping, or dipped into brown sugar, or fried and given a lashing of butter or margarine. In Muzon I tried in vain to find bonete—the only bread that’s superior to the ‘national bun’ which is pan de sal—but was told it was available only in the early morning. But when I did find the rare bonete in Bauan, I was crestfallen. It was very much deflated, without the prominent dome, smaller and without the flavor of the original. We opted for a box of londres bars, crusted over with red-colored sugar, one of childhood’s favorite cookies, and a perennial in that enduring world of provincial pastries.
|The original bulaluhan, with its seemingly endless row of tubs of the sinful and soulful, has been a compulsory pit stop each time we take a nostalgia trip to the old hometown.
Unforgettable too in one’s remembered childhood was the pancit guisado of Bauan’s panciterias in front of the historic church, or inside the town’s smaller version of the capitol’s mercado. There was always a distinct taste to it, an oily heap of thick noodles with vegetable bits and chicken or pork strips. The only other comparably cheap but delicious native noodle I have ever had is the unadorned, ingredient-free, basic-noodle pancit habhab of Lucban, Quezon, which one scoffs with ravenous mouth straight off the banana leaf on the palm of the hand come the Feast of San Isidro Labrador on May 15. The taste has not changed, only the price has—from 2 pesos to 6 pesos over twenty years. I have only been to Lucban’s Pahiyas festival two times, but have vowed to go back again and again, to experience delight with the town’s visuals and victuals on this special day, when hangings of colored rice wafers, trellises and tapestries of vegetables and chandeliers of fruits compete for attention with the roadside array of local cuisine and confections. Ah, Lucban! I would be happy to have been born there, ‘habhab-ing’ for the rest of my life and gazing wistfully at nearby Mt. Banahaw, majestic and mystical, eternal source of healing and drinking water, and sanctuary to rebels in various periods of our history.
I wish I could write a whole chapter for my father’s favorite restaurant in the world, Rose & Grace in Sto. Tomas, Batangas. The original bulaluhan, with its seemingly endless row of tubs of the sinful and soulful, has been a compulsory pit stop each time we take a nostalgia trip to the old hometown.
In Baguio, some of our ‘indigenous’ fare has included succulent sayote and its delicious crunchy shoots, cooked as sinigang with shrimp and tomato and Chinese pechay; longganisang hamonado (red) or de recado (yellow, spiced) from Lapid or Dipasupil in the city meat market; and all-time Ilocano favorites pinakbet (vegetables sautéed with bagoong) and dinengdeng (boiled vegetables with bagoong, plus broiled bangus or any dried fish mixed in, making it the complete dish). When we still had a dry goods store in the old Baguio market, we often bought cooked food on the second-floor carinderia above the fish stalls on Kayang Street, and my all-time favorites then were igado and bopis.
I also remember attending a wedding reception amidst the vegetable farms of Trinidad Valley during which I tasted, for the first time and very memorably, a spicy, saucy kalderetang aso that even Korean canine cuisine might not be able to top. Otherwise it’s been Batangas cuisine all my life, even while living in Baguio, and even when moving from the Philippines to the West.
In London I kept a bagful of dried sliced kamias for souring my version of the pinais/pinangat/sinaing na isda beloved of the people of the Southern Tagalog region, Batangas in particular. Dark-brown kamias, salt and water, simmering with the fish on low fire, produced the precious patis sauce from the mackerel bought from Tesco, or the giant galunggong imported from Manila, in lieu of tulingan or tambakol. Back home, it is always a treat to have gulay Batangas on the table, the way it used to be prepared by my mother, and now getting raves over the way it is prepared by my sister Ellen.
There are at least two ways of preparing this vegetable ulam that’s healthy to look at, to smell, and to eat: a) drop crushed or chopped garlic pieces in hugas-bigas (water from the rice-washing) brought to the boil, add grated young fresh corn, papaya pieces, and malunggay leaves; or b) drop garlic pieces in water, bring to boil, add diced squash and squash shoots and flowers, malunggay leaves and bunga (pod seeds), sliced patola, patani beans, miniature eggplants, and sigarilyas (wing-beans). Eat with relish, preferably with pinais/pinangat/sinaing na isda or grilled tawilis and steaming milagrosa rice cooked with kibal beans.
She has also discovered a special tuyo bought in Quiapo. The size of tawilis, this dried fish remains soft even when fried, and is in fact almost tawilis-like in its texture and taste, aside from being much cheaper than the Taal lake specialty. But the classic tawilis is second to none, roasted six to a spit and dipped in fish sauce and calamansi or lemon juice, but unfortunately priced beyond the means of poorer folk. The Quiapo tuyo goes well with boiled or blanched camote shoots and sliced tomatoes seasoned with salt or fish sauce and calamansi, and sunnyside up egg.
|The bitterly cold nights, sometimes even days, in that city had few consolations, and one of these was slipping into that crowded hole-in-the-wall…well, no, a four-table Chinese noodle eatery called Stick and Bowl...
For my taste, and countless others will agree, my sister presides over the most versatile kitchen this side of healthy cooking. She can dish up a simple fare that can have one asking for more: ginisang munggo with alogbati, fresh or dried shrimps and shredded tinapa. Common enough, yes, but some people just have that special touch. From bulanglang and dinengdeng to gourmet green salads, from the perfect totso (bangus cooked in soybean sauce and tahure or tofu) and pressure-cooked sardines to a whole slew of pasta dishes, she serves up a feast that makes eating out unnecessary, expensive and not worth the journey. Unless it’s another kind of feast, at cousin Ruben’s Muang Thai restaurant off Matalino Street in Quezon City.
This cousin has a big farm in Tubao, La Union, where he grows many of the ingredients for his Thai restaurant. Our family has a small plot nearby, with several fruit-bearing mango trees and a tiny fishpond stocked with tilapia. The last time I was in Tubao, what we had for lunch I would scorn to change with the most gourmet of Western cuisine: inihaw na tilapia, dalag and hito, sautéed kangkong dipped in bagoong, barbecued native free-range chicken, kambing cooked three ways—kilawen, papaitan and kaldereta (well, the sad part was we saw the billy goat earlier in the day, tethered peacefully on green pastureland, and Paul and Linda McCartney came to mind)—then the pièce de resistance: tinumbo (in Ilocano, tinukil being the Batangas version).
This is chicken cooked inside a tube of young bamboo three inches in diameter, about two feet long with a closed node at one end and open at the other. Half-cooked chicken pieces, freshly-sliced green papaya, ginger and peppercorn are stuffed into the tube, garnished with a fragrant herb. The top of the tube is sealed by pushing banana leaves into it. The bamboo container is put over the fire for about half an hour, to allow the chicken, papaya and other ingredients to stew in the airtight tube, generating their own soup, with additional moisture produced from the bamboo itself—the original tinolang manok, native cooking at its very best and most basic.
It would be wintertime in London as I write this. The bitterly cold nights, sometimes even days, in that city had few consolations, and one of these was slipping into that crowded hole-in-the-wall…well, no, a four-table Chinese noodle eatery called Stick and Bowl which was the favorite of the late Consul General Ernesto Castro, and he might as well have held Assistance to Nationals consultation right there, because the place happened to have Filipino DHs as its regular clients. They knew him as a friend, not a bureaucrat, and he was well-loved, dispensing advice and engaging in banter and community gossip while savoring his hofan noodles, wonton soup and char shiu pork cutlets. I was not a regular customer, but did drop in an average of twice a month as a treat to myself, because I preferred to enjoy home-prepared noodles at very much less the price of the eatery’s standard fare, which averaged three to five pounds per dish.
For less than a pound, I could have my fill of noodles and nourishing greens, by buying packet noodles at Tesco or Sainsbury or the ubiquitous Indian grocery store, and mixing in chopped lettuce, spinach leaves, spring onion, mushroom, chopped crabsticks or boiled shrimps, sesame oil, ground pepper—the whole lot steeped in boiled water for up to 3 minutes as per instructions on the packet, and voila!—my steaming baon which I often had for lunch at the embassy kitchen.
Otherwise it was sinigang na ulo ng salmon, adobo and pinakbet and other Pinoy all-time favorites all the way, with ingredients sourced from the Filipino stores at Earls Court, other ethnic stores, or the major convenience establishments.
Goodbye to all that survival cooking in a foreign clime, creatively finding substitutes for the ingredients we’re familiar with, as now I live a quotidian life subsisting on native, traditional Filipino cuisine. Why, I even have a pocket garden in front of my house, where I grow alogbati which makes the perfect companion to powdered mushroom and corn soups which you dissolve and boil in water; to eggs, tomatoes, onions and garlic for a healthy and delicious omelet in the morning, and yes, to local packet noodles for a tasty merienda or main meal at lunch or dinner.
Or I can always call for a delivery of roast chicken or burger with fries, my choice of pizza or pancit, tapsilog, sisig, crispy bangus and just about anything that a Pinoy, expat or otherwise, relishes to eat with fork and spoon or his bare hand, kamayan-style.
A part of this article has been adapted from the author’s introduction to A Taste of Home: Pinoy Expats and Food Memories (Anvil 2008) which he co-edited with his daughter Len Maranan-Goldstein. A longer work by the author on the subject of noodles appears as a chapter (Noodling in a Cold Climate) in Erlinda Panlilio’s Comfort Food (Anvil 2007).
© Ed Maranan