How I went on a hunger strike over ‘gulay na langka’and damn if I don’t miss the stuff today!
|That hippo-potamus so perfectly balanced on top of a branch, not dangling from, but languidly stretched like a Size 18 Cleopatra on her settee...
I carried anxieties growing up when my Tita Bella insisted on certain foods as being essential to one’s health. I have no quarrel with ordinary greens and squashes, beans or what-have-you vines. Even when they are slippery as saluyot or okra, I’m game. But I draw the line on one particular dish: gulay na langka.
I believe a Caucasian red-haired lumberjack would draw the same line if you tried to persuade him that at a dim sum feast he had to try (“just try!”) adidas or what the waiter points to as the best chicken feet in town. Gag me, Saints of Heaven, did you say feet? As in “claws and toe-like” feet? Wouldn’t these approximate his response?
Langka. Langka. Langka. Grapefruit? Breadfruit? Nooooo! Jackfruit! That hippo-potamus so perfectly balanced on top of a branch, not dangling from, but languidly stretched like a Size 18 Cleopatra on her settee, poised to take in the sun and to arrive at its full and undulated ripeness. Despite its prickly helmet covering, this elephantine “fruit” is royalty in any backyard.
The first time I laid eyes on it, I shuddered because I never saw it “growing.” (That’s how perfectly camouflaged it was!) It was not there one day, then one day it appeared majestic in size! To contemplate the growth of the langka fruit, you have to wait and wait and wait. Then, its sickeningly sweet aroma fills the air, and you begin salivating even before your eyes catch sight of the great green bulge ten feet away. The mammoth fruit is now ripe for plundering! It would be so ripe, you could almost see it burst open sometime in the night to the accompaniment of a profound Twack! but you never heard it—you “saw” the sound the following day when you spied the crack in its armor, revealing bright yellow succulent crevices. I would die for fresh ripened, sweet-smelling langka. And so would bluebottle flies! I savor by licking my fingers off to remove the glue-like sap in prying out the langka’s honeyed flesh, and with my other hand I ceremoniously swat away buzzing bluebottles—Scram, go lay your eggs elsewhere!
Langka, I learn, is similar to the coconut: whatever part of the fruit is unfit for consumption, one simply appropriated to good use. The giant kidney pits are later boiled, peeled and also eaten; the pit being as smooth as a pebble, you could artfully pitch it on a lake and watch it skip over the waters. Even the discarded helmet covering could be considered lethal if thrown at one’s enemies, hoping it left pockmarks on their faces. But only grown-ups—devious Bicolanos as they happen to be—would think of severing an infant langka away from its mother tree!
Bicolanos cut the meaty part from the covering and toss colorless, firm and raw (as in not ripe) langka wedges into a cauldron of coconut milk; there to bubble, bubble, boil and bubble with a whole daing (salted dried fish) to flavor the mixture. My Tita Bella considered this delicacy as “food for the gods.” Not literally, but that’s the gist of how it was presented to me at the dinner table. In fact, a homily preceded its presentation for the benefit of my hearing after I made a face at being told what it was. It didn’t smell right. It didn’t look right. And what made it suspect was seeing the tail of the fish sticking out as if to warn me to respect its lying in state.
|Closing my eyes and toughening my throat walls, I lifted a spoonful with rice, held my breath, chewed away and hurriedly swallowed the infernal gob of langka drenched in coconut sauce.
I was going on thirteen; surely, that qualified me to say no thank you to gulay na langka. I ignored its presence on the table. It never occurred to me that the dish might make encore appearances simply because the fruit was preserved in coconut milk. As a leftover, its flavor is supposedly enhanced with time. And of course by the circumference of the baby-sized fruit, there were possibilities of feeding an army! Thank you, but no thank you. I pass! May I have the adobo, please. . .
But Tita Bella was relentless. She was a fundamentalist down to her ankles when it came to vegetables for growing children. Machiavellian in every way, but nonchalantly, she insisted on reheating gulay na langka for every meal. I continued in my obstinacy. Sometimes, for show, I would put a few choice bits on my plate, move it around, spreading traces of the sauce, and then when I was sure she wasn’t looking, palmed them off to a cousin-in-cahoots on my right.
I remember one week when we came home from school famished for lunch and I was the first one to spy the food on the table. There were only two dishes: a steaming platter of newly cooked rice and a platter of freshly made gulay na langka! My cousins all dug in; poised with forks, like musketeers, to lay claim on the salted fish. They savored the gulay, broke off pieces from the daing and spooned coconut sauce on their rice. I dripped soy sauce and pumped out the Mafran (banana ketsup) on my hill of rice and downed my concoction in hurried spoonfuls. Then I prayed for cosmic intervention that supper at seven would present a better variety. To stave off my hunger, I would wait for merienda when boiled kamoteng kahoy or boiled saba would appear on the table.
God is on Tita Bella’s side. At suppertime, my nemesis reappeared.
This went on for more meals than I could stand and one day I ended my hunger strike. Closing my eyes and toughening my throat walls, I lifted a spoonful with rice, held my breath, chewed away and hurriedly swallowed the infernal gob of langka drenched in coconut sauce. Definitely, this would take getting used to. And I couldn’t, for the life of me, get used to the texture and the taste.
Did I grow up more appreciative of vegetable dishes? Oh, but of course! I am so appreciative I successfully blocked them from my life! Until one day . . .
I stopped off at the Philippine Oriental Market on Lee Highway in my neighborhood to pick up my week’s supply of takeouts. I thought I caught a whiff of a familiar dish. I felt panic gurgling in my insides. No, can’t be! I hadn’t encountered the whatchamacallit for almost half a century it seemed, but there it was, fresh from Ms. Evelyn’s kitchen, now on display. My salivary glands went spastic! Seeing my dumbfounded expression, Ms. Evelyn insisted (being familiar with my regular orders) that I try it, just try it, and she handed me a small paper cup with gulay na langka and a plastic fork. Until that day, I never realized how much I missed what I hated. Dispensing with forethought and sound decision-making, I ordered six takeouts, one for every day of the week.
(Editor's Note: This originally appeared in A Taste of Home
Pinoy Expats and Food Memories, Edgar B. Maranan and Len S. Maranan-Goldstein, eds.
Manila: Anvil Press, 2009.)
© Remé Grefalda
top | about the author