29 April 2008

Burong Mustasa

I recently stayed with Kuya Jon, a farmer in Mindoro whose wife and daughter prepare simple but spectacular fare everyday. They use the vegetables they grow around their house. Since Kuya is partly Capampangan (his dad moved to Mindoro to escape the army), and he does not own a refrigerator, pickled or fermented things make sense.

I am still dreaming about their burong mustasa. Fermenting mustard leaves takes away their bitterness, and produces a lot of good enzymes for the stomach. The organic greens are harvested, chopped, and blanched for a short while, and left with some salt and water.

It makes an excellent companion to all the vegetable dishes we had there. Most especially to this eggplant and kangkong simmered in coconut milk (with some roughly polished rice harvested from behind his house).

28 April 2008

Lokal Cereal

I drink my coffee with coconut milk, and it is delicious. But sometimes I want to, you know, put other stuff in it. Since it is halo-halo season, pinipig is readily available. However, it is more often of the puffed sort, instead of the authentic pounded rice.

When I want some grown-up and Filipino cereal, I mix it all together: kape, gata, pinipig and ripe mangga. Add some mascobado sugar and you have a nom-nom calorie bomb. My favorite part of making this snack is buying the coconut.

I especially like watching coconuts being split in half. Coconut-crackers always do it with such skill and confidence, like they have been doing it since infancy. You cannot help but think: "That is how a job ought to be done!". All model citizens, they are.

This particular merchant had a stone worktop with a channel carved on it-- like a little tributary-- to lead the juice into a waste bucket.

People probably used to take them home in the emptied-out shells. If that seems messy, try to take a reusable container with you, to spare yourself from having to take a plastic bag home.

26 April 2008


I was hanging out on a farmer's porch in the fringes of Calapan, Mindoro. There was good and raucous conversation. Two ladies arrived and likewise hung out. The older was carrying a severed branch of a large tree that makes people itchy, apparently.

Combover Farmer (who would only talk to me with his back against me when I arrived, as he just woke up, and his bald spot was all exposed) got up and started rummaging around the lot. He came back with a small pile of ash in the middle of a large, flat leaf. He dipped his thumb in the ash and drew crosses all over one of the ladies. I later learned that her child was sick and needed some good vibrations from the village elder.

All over the planet-- whether it's through a sandalwood dot between the eyebrows, or an ash cross on the forehead-- this powerful acknowledgment and transfer of energy is part of what makes us human. Simple symbols (whose meanings or use have not been diluted) make us and tell us who we are.

25 April 2008

Snake Oil Vendor on EDSA

Before a recent Mindoro trip, I bumped into a guy along EDSA with a giant jug of oil. Inside was a slowly decomposing piece of snakeskin. Or a preserved piece of snakeskin. I couldn't really tell.

He will fill a small bottle out for you for Php50. The oil is minty and unsettling. It is used for muscular pain and libido failure.

What a curiosity!

15 April 2008

Halva, Halwa: Two Variations

Only looking to use the toilet in the middle of the Jaisalmer desert, I suddenly found myself in the middle of intense inter-village wedding preparations, with all community members manifesting extreme curiosity towards my ethnicity. In a nutshell, it ended in near-indigestion as the village people made us taste a variety of fresh dishes made for the ceremony... and then led us into some riotous dancing.

It was here that I tasted the freshest halva ever. Still steaming and hot, it was moist with ghee (Indian clarified butter). The sweet semolina, ground almonds and pistachios melted in my mouth. If heaven was a grain-nut dessert, this would be it, and it would be cooked just in this kitchen:

Anyway, weeks later, I found myself in the Mission District of San Francisco, face-to-face with a large block of something that claimed to be halwa (in India, the two words are used somewhat interchangeably, and various other peoples mess things up a bit more by saying halawa, helva, etc.). It looked like the Indian pista barfi, which I would describe as essentially a large gob of pastillas de leche.

Does it have milk? I asked. No, the shopkeeper said quite adamantly, it is halwa, and only has sesame seeds, sugar, pistachios, and some root that it was named after. So apparently, they put something called soap root into it ('erq al halaweh) to make it chewy. Was the root named after the snack or the snack after the root? I'm not so sure, but I speculate that he got it mixed up.

$0.90 got me a good size, and it tasted good, albeit on the too-sweet side. I appreciated the ground sesame. I thanked the cosmos that it wasn't one of those flossy halvas, which are very dry and make squeaky sounds against your teeth as you eat them.

I swear, this whole "we are all connected" thing is making itself more and more apparent to me as I wander about, stuff my face, and listen to people just talk. My fascination was ignited by reading the journal article "The History and Lore of Sesame in Southwest Asia" about four years ago, as well as Doreen Fernandez's Philippine-Mexico discussions in her book Tikim. This perspective makes travel extremely engaging, with your imagination running wild about stories of exchanges past-- from everyday interactions of common people to sudden changes brought by culinary equivalents of invasions.

Anyway, back to halva, halwa, whatever. So our protagonist found its way across the desert, completely transformed and indigenized, retaining almost only the original meaning of halaweh-- sweetness. Halva is, as it turns out, a general term for sweetmeat.

I prefer the moist Indian version to the sesame one, mainly because the latter made me really thirsty, next time I will have just an inch of it. I cut the SF purchase some slack though. I may have liked it equally, or more, if it had been served to me inside a sandstone hut along with crazy music and merriment-- or its contextual equivalent in another end of the desert. After all, our condiments, as Thoreau advised, are often right where they should be-- in the "condition of our senses". To more joy, wherever!

Valderi, Valdera!

Samiramis Imports
2990 Mission Street
(Between 25th & 26th Streets)
San Francisco, CA
(+1415) 824 6555
BART Station: 24th Street Mission

14 April 2008

Jayakarta Restaurant and More Sub-Regional Reminders

If you are Filipino and homefoodsick abroad, perhaps an Indonesian restaurant can satisfy your hankering. There is a great one in Berkeley, California that might be worth a visit for you.

My lola, tita, and nanay and me were in high spirits upon entering Jayakarta on our "girls' day out". We continued to be semi-rowdy and happily pointed out the familiarly named offerings in this Indonesian-Singaporean joint (our lumpia= their lumpia, siomai=siomay, pansit=pangsit, kropek=krupuk, kangkong=kangkong, togue=toge).

Everything we had was exceptionally tasty-- from the lumpia semarang (Indonesian spring rolls, $3.95) to the oseng-oseng tempe (stir fried fermented soy cakes with string beans, $6.95) to the bubur ketan hitam (sweet black sticky rice with coconut milk, $4.25).

The ingredients used are similar to those in Filipino food, except less tinged with colonial influence, and more use of spices (and sugar). It is just baffling how little I know about Indonesian food, and how little of it I have eaten. Not to mention how I never even try to make it, given the ingredients are readily available. I have taken some immediate steps to remedy this.

I sincerely believe that diving deeper into our Southeast Asian heritage can help us discover ways to maximize our local crops (and have good, cheap food) and re-discover parts of our food culture. Finding common strands is a really fun and satisfying thing to do.

2026 University Avenue
(Between Milvia St. and Shattuck Avenue)
Berkeley, CA
(+1510) 841 0884
BART Station: Downtown Berkeley

Onde-Onde and the Southeast Asian Connection

I recently made a batch of onde-onde, an Indonesian/Malaysian dumpling made of sticky rice flour with sweet filling. It calls to mind palitaw, a Filipino favorite. Like most dishes from our region, they have countless variations. But in general, both are boiled in water (and they likewise float when they are done). Both are eaten sprinkled with grated coconut.

The onde-onde, however, is a filled ball, and the palitaw is flat. Onde-onde contains coconut milk, while palitaw uses only water for its dough. Palitaw's sweetness comes from the sugar and sesame seeds on top.

Filipinos rarely ponder their relationship with the rest of Southeast Asia, probably because we are isolated from the mainland, and have an identity so defined by our supercolonial past. It thus came as quite a surprise that onde-onde's name is so obviously related to the Pangasinan snack unda-unday. This regional sweet is also made with sticky rice flour, but has no filling, is flat like palitaw, and is served with coconut sauce. (Are you confused yet?)

To complicate matters further, I decided to include some of the onde-onde (sans toppings) in guinataan, a Filipino pudding made with coconut milk. This is to celebrate the mixed-up-ness of everything, which is a reflection of the beautiful movement of people and knowledge through time. Food reminds us that we are part of a larger, evolving whole.

This is how I made my version of onde-onde:

First I made a pandan-tanglad extract by boiling pandan and lemongrass leaves in water. I strained that and mixed it with enough coconut milk to make a dough out of about two cups of sticky rice flour.

You need to pinch enough dough to make a ball, bore a small hole in it. In this hole goes raw sugar. Indonesia uses palm sugar, which was rendered obsolete in the Philippines by the Spaniards. So I used the more available raw mascobado sugar (from sugar cane), which works just as well, except it has a heavier and more cloying molasses taste.

For good measure, I added pulp from ripened Indian mangoes, as well as a bit of sesame seeds.

Seal it, and seal it well so it does not leak as it cooks.

Every ball goes into a pot of boiling water, rising to the surface as it is ready. After letting them drain, roll them in freshly grated coconut. Liquid sweetness will burst forth with every bite. A good but heavy snack!

11 April 2008

Dosa Memories

Regular crêpes are inferior to the savory South Indian dosa. (Usually) made of rice flour and slightly fermented ground beans, they come with lovely sambar and chutneys, and often exceed normal plate size. This makes them slightly comical.

Eating dosa is a sensory experience. Of course, being in awe everytime they bring out your gigantic serving. Smelling the masala filling as you tear open the crispy dough. Popping that morsel into your mouth... Aaahh.

Here's to the dosa, to its various incarnations, to friends I've made over plates of it. Most especially, to the folks who keep churning them out in hot and steamy kitchens-- you are my absolute heroes!

08 April 2008

Palangke Eats and Etc.

One recent early morning, we ended up at the palengke (market) near the church of Anilao in Mabini, Batangas. I bought pinipig and some vegetables. And then, lured by campy 80s music, we decided to sit down for a post-breakfast snack at Robren's, one of the eateries bordering the wet market.

I had bulanglang, which is basically boiled vegetables of different sorts. It was only Php20 and pretty good. The okra, squash, and young papaya were all firm. However, I could taste the slight use of cubes in the broth-- MSG bombs, in other words. Ah, well, I enjoyed it anyway.

Rob had that Batangas specialty, lomi. It's basically a noodle soup with egg and pork in it. This one was strange. It was really sticky and goopy, with chicharon, ground beef and hotdog (!) on top. It was only Php25, and it seemed people flocked to Robren's Eatery to have it. Rob said it was pretty tasty, but was way too thick. I guess they put too much cornstarch.

In the palengke restroom, you have to leave your shoes outside and wear these wooden slippers so the floor doesn't get all dirty. This is because, like many provincial Filipino banyos, they like to keep the floor wet all the time to keep it clean. I figured this out too late, and by then my slippers had left mud marks all over. Ay!

Isn't it cute how the dots on this sign are little plates with spoons and forks?

03 April 2008

Paco Park and Cemetery

I recently saw the UP Guitar Orchestra perform at the Paco Park and Cemetery (they did a wonderful Songs of Ararat, among others). As the night creeped in, the fountain gave off a good reflection, and the sky was bright blue! Farkin beautiful.

The park is surprisingly peaceful compared to the roadways outside, and it's got wonderful structures, including the Chapel of St. Pancratius (patron saint of the pancreas?). The walls connect and have a walkway on the top level. There are numerous calachuchi, acacia, and palm trees, as well as bougainvilla, among others.

The place is lined with crypts, some empty, others occupied. Some contain eerie pleas (in Spanish), such as the one below. "Naning! Why did you leave us? How sad is life without you! Your Parents". So much for resting in peace.

Some have modern blessings for dead rockstars:

Since no one has been interred here since 1913, alternative uses are apparently being developed by resourceful employees. This area has been converted into a graveyard vegetable garden:

And this area indicates that people must be getting bored with their jobs:

On the whole, it's a good place to walk about or just zone out. Insider tip: at around 6:00 PM, a tree by the exit starts treating the air to this unbelievable fragrance.

You need to pay a whopping Php5 to get in this peaceful and quirky little park. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. On other days it is open from 10:00 AM til 5:00 PM. Exceptions are on Fridays (there are free concerts at 6:00 PM) and Sundays (there is Holy Mass at 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM, and 6:00 PM).

Oh, and one interesting extra peek into the "octagonal" origins of Paco Park.

Here is their calendar of events. Look under Paco Park Presents, which is below the schedule of Concert at the Park. Do not get the two mixed up, as the latter is a concert series in Luneta or Rizal Park.

Paco Park and Cemetery
San Marcelino Street and General Luna Street
(near Padre Faura), Manila
(+632) 524 2384
LRT1 Station: UN Avenue
From the station, it's about a 10 minute walk. Alternatively, you can get a pedicab.

I Missed Buko, Obviously

(One of the) first thing(s) I did when I got back home: bought a coconut, drank its juice, scraped its meat out, cooked said meat with veggies, and ate that out of its empty shell.

02 April 2008

Fely J's Kitchen

Fely J's Kitchen is a new place in Greenbelt 5 that serves Filipino and Asian food. It takes some menu items from everyone's favorite Abe. (Both places are named after the parents of late restaurateur Larry J. Cruz.)

Anyhow, we started off with four pieces of soft tofu with crab fat (which I removed) and drizzled with sesame oil (Php225), served on those Chinese soup spoons. This was pretty tasty! I think I will try to recreate them somethime. Then we had a typical Abe meal of rice (Php55 each) and veggies in coconut milk sans shrimp (Php245).

Moving on to dessert. The bayabas or guava pie (Php115) was indeed "nicer than apple pie", with the fruit still firm and in surprisingly large cubes. The gula melaka (Php85) was tasty and just the right amount of sweetness, but a bit too goopy (soggy?).

It was all very satisfying-- nothing stellar, though. I think I prefer Abe for some reason. Maybe it's the atmosphere (more consistent and Capampangan) and the great outfits they have.

The night ended in some pondering about why LJC opted to create a whole new place, instead of putting up another Abe, given that the latter lends a ton of items to the former's menu anyway.

The meal came up to around Php850 for two people who ordered vegetarian. I guess it comes out to way more for meat-eaters. The general verdict is that you can get better value for money elsewhere-- Abe, to be specific!

Fely J's Kitchen
Greenbelt 5, Makati
(+632) 728 8858 / (+632) 728 8878
MRT Sation: Ayala
Walk across SM, Glorietta and Landmark into Greenbelt 5

01 April 2008

Buchi Impostor, Raw Honey, Pampa-Regla

I took the MRT to GMA/Kamuning and walked to Kamias Avenue for a meeting. Along the way, I saw a guy on the sidewalk peddling what seemed to be a mound of buchi. I bought one for Php5. I was in total shock when I ate it and it turned out to be a deep-fried piece of bread! An impostor! But a pretty good one.

There was also a dude selling raw honey (or "honey bee", as it is so often called around the Philippines) from Mariveles, Bataan. He even had the honeycombs with him, as well as the bees that inhabit them. They were flying all over the place, freaking people out. I have mixed feelings about honey, but I bought a bottle anyway for Php60, because raw honey is so expensive everywhere else, and because he let me take photos.

On my way back to the MRT station, I bumped into an old lady selling what you'd usually find in Quiapo: herbs, medicinal syrups, poisonous seeds, incense, and pampa-regla (literally "something that will make you get your period", or abortion potion). I bought two packets of resin incense for Php10 each.

What fun!

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