Monday, January 31, 2011

Pateros Fiesta Cuisine Series #1 - Introduction

The feast day of Sta. Martha is just around the corner, on February 13 to be exact. Since time immemorial, Pateros folks celebrate this joyous occasion every second Sunday of February instead of the Church-sanctioned official feast day on July 29. However, as true sons and daughters of the Church, the people of Pateros still hold a nine-day novena and a dance-procession every July 29. Back when there was still a Pateros River, the “Pagoda” or fluvial procession was also held on both feast days.

Although much has been compromised to progress and exigency, my little town has managed to keep most of its traditions in place, if not intact. The river may have dried up and turned into a garbage dump, but we hold on to our riverine traditions by holding the pagoda on the streets using motorized floats instead of boats. The brass bands have either disappeared or have become too costly, so we now used loudspeakers to blare out the catchy Pandango music. The route of the procession may change every year, but the people managed to follow where the music and the dancing are.

I have dealt extensively on the customs and traditions that make our fiesta unique and enduring through the years. So for this series of posts, I will try to concentrate instead on the fiesta food that made these annual feasts worth the wait and anticipation. I remember that my mother and her father would prepare food for our guests using big kawalis, talyases and kalderos over wood-fired cooking pits in our backyard. When my eldest brother married, my sister-in-law joined the kitchen crew in whipping up these delectable dishes. These foods trace their progeny from the rich culinary traditions of Marikina, Pasig, Taguig and Pateros. They have strong influences of both Spanish and Chinese cuisine, while the desserts are mainly indigenous.

The irony is that I was not taught how to cook at home. Growing up in big household, I was always on the receiving end when it comes to meals. I first experimented with cooking when I started cooking sauteed sardines for our midnight snacks back when hot pandesal was the craze. When I went to a boy scout camping when I was 14, I cooked my first tinolang manok based on my recollection of how it was prepared at home. Using my recollection of home-cooked meals, I started my passionate love affair with the kitchen when I lived on my own in Baguio City during college. I remember the incredulous reaction of my Nanay when she tasted my Chicken Afritada for the first time. From then on, Nanay relinquished the kitchen to me. My posts, therefore, are recollections of my personal experiences with these foods in our home. They are not meant to present recipes and culinary secrets, but hopefully, by keeping their memories alive we can keep them in our kitchens as living testaments to our great culinary traditions.

Since my town is famous for its riverine traditions, let me start this series with fish-based dishes.

When it comes to the bounty of the sea (or the river, or the lake, or the fishpond, or whatever...), there are three dishes, called “putahe”, that I remember from our family spread during fiestas. These are the steamed fish with mayonnaise and vegetable dressing, fried fish with sweet and sour sauce (also called "escabeche")and my favorite rellenong bangus (stuffed milkfish).

Steamed Fish with Mayonnaise

There are many varieties of fish that can be steamed, but the bigger ones such as Apahap and Talakitok are preferred as fiesta fare. This dish has to look grand on the table, and they are usually presented on a big dish called “bandehado”. The fish itself is steamed without much seasoning, perhaps only a dash of salt and pepper. However, some prefer to steam the fish with ginger and onion leaves for a more tangy taste. But the secret really is on the garnish.

Garnishing may include finely chopped hard-boiled egg, pickles, bell pepper and carrots. The steamed fish is laid out on the bandehado and smothered with mayonnaise. Then, the garnishing will be artistically sprinkled on top of the mayonnaise-covered fish separately in alternating stripes, or any design. The designs are limited only by your creativity, so let the fish be your canvass. Tastes good as it looks good!

Escabecheng Isda

When it comes to Escabeche or Sweet and Sour Fish, the preferred variety is the Lapu-lapu. Its tender and delicious meat is ideal for this dish of Chinese progeny. The ideal size of the fish is about 1kg in weight, which is fried whole until the outside is crispy and the inside still juicy (think of Chickenjoy...). The sweet and sour sauce is prepared separately by combining tomato sauce, vinegar, sugar and salt (or soy sauce) in a sauce pan over slow fire. In some cases, I would put in pineapple juice and chunks for variety. Garnishing would include onions, bell pepper, carrot, spring onion leaves and ginger. The sauce is poured over the fried fish just before being served so the sweet tangy taste of the sauce will complement the contrasting crispiness and juiciness of the fish.

However, preparing the sauce need a deft hand and perfect timing, as the improper use of vinegar can spell disaster on the brew. If not done properly, the sourness induced by the vinegar can be too strong for comfort ("buhay ang suka", as the old folks would say) . A perfect sweet and sour sauce should have your tongue alternately savoring the sweet, sour, tangy and salty flavors playing on your mouth as you chew on the crunchy fish meat. And a word of caution: it is a mortal sin to use catsup instead of tomato sauce. It’s like using catsup for Italian pasta. If you want an all-natural recipe, then fresh tomatoes cooked long enough to attain the consistency of tomato sauce can be used as an alternative. No short-cuts for this dish!

Rellenong Bangus

One of my favorite fiesta dishes is the Rellenong Bangus. Although it is very convenient, and deliciously satisfying to eat, the preparation involved is very tedious. The fish needs to be prepared carefully, with the meat separated from the skin without damaging it. The whole skin is marinated using soy sauce and calamansi to give it a distinctive flavor. Then the meat is boiled, deboned, flaked and then sauteed with green peas, carrot, bell pepper, onions and garlic. For variation, potato and raisins are added to the mixture. The mixture is then stuffed into the marinated skin and sewed up. The stuffed fish is wrapped in banana leaf and then fried in a big “kawali”. The relleno is then served on a bandehado with garnishes of sliced tomato, native lettuce and onions. This time, feel free to indulge in catsup as it is the preferred condiment for this very Filipino dish.

We'll explore more fiesta fare on the next installments of this series. Kain na po!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sapientia Edificat?

We were in 4th year college when St. Louis University (SLU) celebrated its 75th founding anniversary during the school year 1985-86. Young as we were then, it was one celebration that we were mighty proud of. Twenty five years after we left SLU to face life in the real world, we were beckoned again to relive those happy memories - this time to celebrate the SLU Centennial. One hundred years is definitely worth a grand celebration, and I would not miss it for the world.

So off to Baguio I went together with 4 other college friends. I have not been to the SLU campus since I graduated 25 years ago, even if I have been back to Baguio a couple of times after graduation. The organizers did a good job in hyping up the event. It was supposed to be a grand celebration – after all, we would have to wait another 100 years to be able to have a celebration of such grand scale again. I was excited to see my former teachers and schoolmates. I wanted to see what had changed, what had the seeds of activism and reawakening we sowed during the waning years of martial law had grown into. We were looking at almost 300 kilometers of grueling land travel, trekking through dark winding roads enveloped in fog and mist. But we were undaunted.

We left rain-soaked Manila around 9 in the evening of Friday, and it was almost 3 in the morning of Saturday when we arrived at the guest house where we stayed. We knew we had to be up early so we can join the morning activities, but we can’t seem to sleep at all. We were conjuring up images of thousands of SLU alumni crowding Session Road, of hotels and inns enjoying brisk business with the influx of visitors. We felt lucky to have traveled at the most unholy hour so we can avoid the traffic. It will be a grand celebration just as they said it will be.

Disappointed - that is the most charitable word that I can think of to describe how it felt when we finally went to SLU early Saturday morning for what was supposed to be the first day of the 2-day Grand SLU Centennial Alumni Homecoming. It was anything but grand. Where were the happy, excited alumni who would fill the streets leading to SLU? We were late for the first event, the Centennial Mass at the SLU Chapel, so we parked at the Baguio Cathedral thinking that the campus grounds would be full of cars as there must be thousands of alumni coming for this once-in-a-hundred-years event. We would not want to be stuck in traffic and be late for the events.

We then walked through the Boys High compound and exited to Assumption Road so we can enter the SLU Campus through the Sacred Heart Hospital. This was our regular route when we were young students on a shoestring budget. It was therefore so strange to see very few people on the road and on the campus itself. People were going about their business as if there was nothing special happening that day. I was even joking with my friends that maybe we got the dates wrong. Surely, there should have been a more festive atmosphere. We went to the chapel and caught the tail-end of the Centennial Mass - where only a handful of people attended. I felt bad, but consoled myself with the thought that people might have traveled far like us and they will be late. Or maybe they skipped the Mass and were already waiting in the gym for the program to start so they can get better seats. Maybe... hopefully...

After the Mass, we went up to the Burgos Gym, passing the grandstand by the parking lot where we held many protest actions which eventually led to the rebirth of the Student Council and an independent student publication in the early 80's. It felt good standing on those historical steps, reliving the days when there was more idealism, when we were willing to risk our dreams and aspirations to fight for what we believe was right and just. Unfortunately, when we reached the homecoming venue, our elation and nostalgic trip back to our younger days easily turned into disappointment and frustration. There were very few people in the cavernous hall of the gym, and not a few people were turning away and leaving. Where were the alumni? The Facebook site said almost 600 have signed up. I was pretty sure there are a lot of SLU faculty and employees who are alumni themselves. Baguio City and Northern Luzon is SLU country, so where were the Louisians?

When I first heard that the registration fee was ONE THOUSAND PESOS, I thought it was a big joke. Surely, the organizers would want to have as many alumni to be able to attend this momentous event. They would not keep them away with such an expensive registration fee. When it dawned upon us that we would really have to cough out 2-days worth of minimum wage to be able to become part of this important milestone, it became clear to us why there were so very few alumni who actually came despite the historical significance of this event. Yes, all 5 of us may be able to afford the thousand-peso registration fee – but it was just so WRONG. It simply means that those who cannot part with their hard-earned thousand bucks are not welcome. Obviously, the event was meant for those who have the money to spare. The 2-day Centennial feast that the organizers prepared for the Alumni requires a P1,000.00 fee on the first day, and another P2,500.00 fee if you want to play golf on the 2nd day. Only the Centennial Mass did not involve a fee - and we missed it. We decided to skip the event altogether and joined the others who left disappointed.

What did the organizers hope to achieve with this event? Isn’t it to gather the alumni to commemorate this historical and momentous milestone, regardless of what had become of them since they left SLU? Or is it to raise funds even if it means the exclusion of those who will not be able to afford to shell out the registration fees? And since the election of the officers was done during this exclusive event, what happened to the principles of democratic participation when only those who can afford the one thousand pesos registration fee were able to cast their votes? This is like saying only those who pay their taxes can vote during elections. Would it have been better to have an Alumni Homecoming that welcomes everyone, and then have a separate fund-raising event for those who can afford and who want to help the association’s projects?

The Organizers squandered a golden opportunity to gather together the school’s alumni wherever they may be now, or whatever they may have achieved in life. The homecoming should not have been just for those who have succeeded and made good in life and can afford to financially help the Alumni Association in its projects. SLU was established so that it can be the light that shines for all those who would otherwise find it hard to attain higher education in Manila and other centers of education. SLU provided the golden opportunity for the youth of the Cordilleras and Northern Luzon to have access to quality education. The elitist centennial homecoming was everything that SLU NEVER stood for.

It could have been a defining moment for the Alumni Association, when it could have been the instrument by which SLU can gather as many alumni as possible to celebrate our school’s legacy of education that transforms and builds. It could have been the spark, the catalyst that will inspire the alumni to participate more actively in future activities and projects. We let go of that once in a hundred years chance. But all is not lost. Louisians from all walks of life must come together and reclaim the proud legacy that our Alma Mater has entrusted to us. We are the Alumni of SLU. We are the light that can transform. Let us build again.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Birthday Tribute to Nanay

She would have turned 83 today. She is an ordinary woman who had an extra-ordinary life. She was, and will always be my mother, my Nanay.

It is amazing how Nanay turned out to be the mother that she was, when she had lost her own mother when she was just 7 months old. She had wanted to be a teacher, but she had her first child when she was barely 20, followed in succession by 8 more. She did not make it to a classroom, but she taught valuable lessons in life to her 9 children.

Nanay was far from perfect. She had her moods, her ups and downs. She gets angry, she cries when she feels bad. But she was never haughty, she kept her feet firmly on the ground. She was fair to her workers and to everyone else she dealt with. She knows the dignity of labor, and made sure that her children know this as well early on.

She earned her own keep, but never considered the fruits of her labor as her own. Whatever she earned, it was shared with her family and those who came to her for help. She was a doting daughter to her father, and a loving and solicitous sister to her brothers and sisters. Her father remarried even before she can walk, and she was left to the care of her aunts. But she never showed any resentment towards him. She adored him, and was devastated when he passed away. Her best friend was her elder sister Ate Mely, and was fiercely loyal and protective of her Kuya Rusty. Yet, she also loved her younger half brothers and half sisters as if they had the same mother.

Nanay loved Tatay the best way she knew. She was not showy, but she supported him in all that he did. She was an entrepreneur extraordinaire, but remained a full-time mother and wife at the same time. When Nanay got sick in her later years, Tatay took care of her and never left her side. I did not see it then, but only a love so deep, so intense and so passionate could have seen them through those difficult years.

It’s been 12 years since Nanay passed on, but her spirit lives on in the people whose lives she had touched. Her accomplishments lay not in what she had achieved in life, but what we had become in life because of her.

Happy Birthday Nanay!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Mea culpa.

I have not been writing on this blog as often as I should. I have been preoccupied with so many things – mostly work and, well, sleeping and just simply daydreaming. Honestly, I have been too lazy to really go out like I used to do. The comfort of my room has been my refuge and my Shangri-la of late. I can cocoon myself in my room the entire weekend and feel not having lost anything.

Maybe I should blame it on my weight gain. I read it somewhere that people who gain weight tend to be more sluggish. Seems to me lately that sleep is the most precious thing in the whole wide world, and my bed is the best thing that was ever invented by man. Sleep, sleep, sleep. That’s all I look forward to when weekend comes around.

Or maybe I should also blame it on Facebook. Almost like a ritual, I find myself online on my netbook and logging into FB whenever I am home. A comfy bedroom with temperature control, a housekeeper who dotes on me and brings anything and everything I need right into my bedroom, and DSL that keeps me connected to my online friends – definitely a sure-fire combination to ensure that I stay oblivious to what is happening outside the four corners of my bedroom.

I need to get a life.

Maybe change is what I need - a change that can really make a difference in my life. I have always preached about change that is dynamic, innovative, edgy and life-changing. It is a mantra that I never fail to use as a springboard of discussions with colleagues and clients. Maybe somewhere along the way, I grew tired of dreaming about change. Maybe I stopped hoping that meaningful change can happen in my lifetime.

I stopped being angry at the undisciplined drivers who make driving through our little town's puny main road a stress-busting daily struggle. I stopped being mad at how our government seems so helpless with the daily chaos we go through. I stopped at waiting for the traffic aides in red to do something about the mayhem on the street. I ceased to be incensed at how Pasig, Makati and Taguig bully our little town and treat it as their garbage dump, end-of-the-road garage and cheap bed space for its workforce.

I simply lost the appetite and will for change. The longing stopped when the anger ceased.

But I am fighting back, getting angry once more. And my pen, or my keyboard to be more precise, will help me on as it always did in the past. And so I am back again, writing and blogging. I need to see more of the world again through my little town, so I can write about what I see, what I hear, what I feel. I need to walk the streets. I need to smell the stench of the river, savour the taste of fishball and crispy fried chicken skin, and feel the heat of people as they bump into each other on the cramped sidewalks.

This is the real deal. This is life - Redux.