30 January 2009

Chinese New Year Street Sights

Green mango peels look like attacking octopi.

Dyed quailettes. Too small to survive.

Red balloons.

Oranges from China.

A duck seat.

An old amusement seat.

Radish cakes and various fried things.

Flowers for the devout.

Hardware store.

28 January 2009

Tummy Out

Inherited mannerisms are funny. Little kids that act like old people are funny.

26 January 2009

Comfort Food In Malls

Chocolate eh, kesong puti, and pan de sal.

Due to unfortunate zoning and local governance practices, many non-informal (doesn't feel right to call them "formal") small businesses cannot survive in the suburbs, periurbs, or small cities. To any foreigner, it may seem counter-intuitive to look for comfort food in a mall, but near the food courts and in the kiosks, you can sometimes find cheap, non-junky and passionate food.

Recently we took an almost-senior-citizen (who was having a bad day) to Glorietta for some Nana Meng's thick hot chocolate, and also grabbed their kesong puti. Nearby Bizu also sold some pan de sal-- fortunately, less sweet than the present-day varieties, but still too sweet for me.

We took it all to a table, untied the banana leaves and unwrapped the keso. We began what was something of a picnic in the middle of the bustling food court. I skipped the cheese (which was reportedly good) and dipped the bread in my cup of tsokolate. Filled with nostalgia for meriendas past, and eating joyfully with his hands, Senior Citizen found a small piece of comfort under the flourescent Ayala sun.

Bottles Without Crates


The fruit stand that always tries to rip me off has just diversified its goods. It now sells cooking oil. They are nicely tied by the dozen, for easy carrying and distribution.

Adorned with a piling of banana.


Quite General Pinoy Fermentation Post

Basi, a good remedy for boredom.

Recently I've taken to sipping Ilocano basi in my idle moments-- during traffic jams, when I wake in the morning, when I'm walking in the garden or attempting to sun myself in this freak weather. The sugarcane wine tastes beery and similar (save for said beeriness) to the fermented lactobacilli and enzyme drinks that were the trendy supplement-of-choice by the health-conscious a few years back. It's quite good cold.

Pails filled with fermented sea animals in Ilocos.

This got me going back to what I've been thinking a lot about the past year-- fermented food and unappreciated place in the Filipino diet. Alcoholic beverages, vinegars, fish and shrimp pastes, pickled fruit and vegetables... the list goes on. They're made to preserve liquids, meats, produce beyond harvest. They add vitamins, amino acids, and other beneficial etceteras to food. They make interesting tastes and textures.

Most literature I've read on Philippine eating of yore has stated an abundance in our diet of cultured foodstuffs, with reactions from foreigners ranging from pleased to neutral to downright disgusted. Maybe in the coming weeks I'll post some of the funnier ones.

A peek inside.

Since most recent colonization, we ourselves have been overtaken by some kind of bleach-crazed mommy aversion towards actually seeing process of fermentation ("If you see patis vats, you'll cry and feel like puking!" or "Do you know that some people die from eating homemade bagoong, only buy the Mama Cita one or something."). This highlights our brute-force approach to cleanliness and living healthy: Obliterate all microorganisms! If they say they are beneficial they are lying! Unleash the hounds of Domex!

Some shrimp paste made by me and my partner in all crimes, several months in fermentation according to a found old recipe. I don't eat meat or seafood, but I make the stuff anyway.

But you never see Filipinos ranting against the grossness of fermenting cheese-- unless it involves maggots, then people view them with a sort of fascination for the unique culture (not primitive, ah). Unless they are paranoid-Americanized, Filipinos view small European farmers working with unpasteurized milk as rockstars.

Rethinking it, the "rotten fish" and whatnot that we eat are our versions of Western "rotten milk" or cheese (as per the quip by Abe Cruz). But I know several people who can identify twenty million hundred varietals of some obscure wine grape. On the other hand, there are probably two people alive who can tell whether sugarcane for this-and-that basi is wild, blackish, or good in a very general sense. And you-- can you name subtle variations in cheeses, but hold all bagoong to be the same damn thing, only this more pink than that, or that one made of some other fish, of which you've forgotten the name? Exactly.

Unfortunately, many factors have stopped us from exploring the details of cultured food, improving on the processes, creating unique formulations. While Frogs are reporting that wine keeps heart disease at bay, and Koreans tell us that kimchi prevents bird flu, we know little about the nuances of our rich fermented food history. Although we sometimes use an element or two with much fanfare and tokenism. Better than nothing!

God no, this is not a nationalistic rant. It's a prod for people to explore, and it's a wrench in asking you to redefine what being a "foodie" means to you. Do you just regularly swallow what mainstream media regurgiated? Go ask your lolas about their buro recipes. Save them from oblivion! And eat them to, all the time, as sides. Make your life more interesting.

Sandy Katz with a little display of fermented foodstuffs, he is dressed to convince you that fermentation is realm of the Everyman.

To further convince you, I bring you a last bit from author Sandor Katz, "fermentation fetishist", no doubt a dreamboy of sauerkraut-making chicks the world over, inviting you to join him " on this effervescent path, well trodden for thousands of years yet largely forgotten in our time and place, bypassed by the superhighway of industrial food production."

25 January 2009

Ice Biker

Bike fast.

How to get ice through the narrow intestinal roads of old Manila.

24 January 2009

Lucky Palay

Pampaswerte, pansabit sa pinto. Brings luck, for hanging on the door.

At the beginning of each year, our streets are teeming with lucky charms for sale. We Filipinos usually hedge our luck by choosing from our smorgasborg of several cultures' centuries' worth of symbolism and evolution. Some cars bear Chinese coins, pictures of saints, and an occasional folk amulet, hanging from the same rearview mirror. My more cosmopolitan friend yesterday showed me her pendants, which she wears at the same time: the evil eye, a Benedictine medallion, and a Mayan goddess.

Closer shot.

My lucky charm of choice (bought in Quiapo) is a bunch of palay or unhusked rice grains that you hang on your door. I hung mine overhead, on the door frame. I'm not one for superstitions, but I believe they make life more interesting (especially if they involve aesthetically pleasing elements).

This one reminds me that 2009 will be a year of "going back to basics". When hopefully, our knowledge of nature and eating will once again become more nuanced and joyful than the Age of Food Commodifucation had it.

19 January 2009

Itaks and Coconuts


I am soon buying my very own itak. Now, if I lived in an agricultural community, this decision would have come sooner and with much less romance. I would have had an itak hanging off my left hip (I am right-handed), using it to clear the persistent tropical vegetation that is often in one's way.

Handmade and heavy.

The straight ones associated with various equatorial revolutions are preferred for making people taga-- and not ripping them off, as it has come to mean, but chopping them to pieces. The curved, top-heavy variety pictured in this post is ideal for slashing banana trunks, sugarcane, softwood, young trees. I've often used ours in place of a trowel (to dig a whole in the ground), in place of a saw (to go through heavy branches), or a cleaver (to open unwieldy fruit like durian). Not to mention coconuts!

Wooden handle and case.

Though I have no photos to illustrate, I really enjoy watching people use their itak to poke, lift, and slap (after removing it from the knife end, to listen for juice content) coconuts, then proceed to whittle a side down until the white flesh peeps out. This they punch a whole through with the tip of the itak and pour the juice out. And I won't even begin to talk about the simple cleverness of slicing "spoons" from the outer husk to eat the meat!

The coconut, unlike other fruit, grows not by letting humans eating its meat, but by leaving it alone. We need force to get into this giant seed, and in human settlements, it is intent (or neglect-- or satiation) that causes its propagation.

A baby coconut palm tree.


We are People of the Coconut. Poking around a provincial backyard will inevitably yield tools and traces of interacting with palm fruit. One of them is the kabayo, a wooden "horse" (sometimes fashioned out of a single piece of driftwood) with a metal attachment that shreds the mature coconut for milk extraction. It isn't used for fresh green coconuts.

A kabayo in Cavite, with some husks all about.

When I was little, I would watch our helper sit on the kabayo and rhythmically grate niyog against the sharp "head", producing the white shreds that looked not unlike flaky sea salt. She did this until brown specks appeared, signaling that she was beginning to grate the shell portion and making her shift the niyog to attack a different section. (If you still don't get it, here's a YouTube video.)

Nailed firm.

While some city households still prefer to grate their own, most rely on mechanized graters in markets or groceries. This is just fine, as long as we can get to them easily. I have personally developed a newfound appreciation for the kabayo after, in colder climes, I had resorted to the arduous scraping of an imported niyog with a fork, or breaking the hard flesh apart and dumping it in a blender with some water.

18 January 2009

Folk-Dancing Trannies

A trannie doing a male northern tribal dance in full makeup.

A recent trip to Cebu before the Sinulog got me thinking how, in almost every community fiesta or celebration in the Philippines, you can assume that gay, cross-dressing males take charge of the dance choreography. Increasingly, they are becoming part of the dances themselves.

The same dude as above.

We are lucky to observe how Filipinos integrate baklas into traditional dual-division of dance roles. I'm not exactly sure how many trannies are truly into folk dancing, but tourist demand, coupled with the Filipino gay eagerness to perform, has led to recent abundance of faux eyelashes in that area.

One of the hot-dogging dances involving balancing water.

At a recent small-town performance, the "male" role of the dance was (as far as I can tell) taken by a bunch of non-crossdressing gay guys. One long-haired transvestite was dancing with the female group. He had a slight alteration in costume, with the bib-like extension hanging shorter than in his women counterparts. If the modern flesh-tone bodysuit were to be excluded, the woven material would end right above his nipples, while his female troupe-mates would have their breasts covered. Otherwise, his costume and routine was identical to the females'.

The short bib-like thing is obscured by a large fan.

At another "traditional" dance showcase, the trannies were in the pant-wearing, foot-stomping male side of the dance. I still call them trannies because they were in full makeup and had long, female-like hair. However, they performed the typical moves with a lot more flair and hip movement than the usual versions.

Pandango and padded bras.

I'm not sure how they felt about doing the male dances. One friend from the province offered his take on it: "They are happy to just be dancing. Of course, they dream of doing female routines. But guests like us have opened up opportunities for them to perform, and they are pleased to participate in any dance they can."


All this delights and interests me. It also makes me wonder about the growing absence of folk-dancing straight men.

(Note: The more urban arena of cheerleading is perhaps more flexible. A couple of years back, the half-time show of Ateneo rivals UST had a dance troupe composed of girls, straight guys, and male transvestites. The latter had their own uniform and routine, distinct from the first two groups.)

16 January 2009

Breaking The Ice With Kakanin

Sharing food and stories.

A couple of months ago, I heard Michael Pollan talk about how different cultures eat for many reasons other than the "medical" or health motivation-- it was basically a rant against nutritionism. It reminded me that many instances of eating in the Philippines are for community, for the beautiful (and maybe riotous) act of getting together.

Shortly after I listened in, I found myself sitting in a NAIA airline office waiting for my ticket to be rescued from the limbo caused by the Thai airport hooha. After waiting for more than an hour in silence, the lady beside me produced a plastic bag of kakanin from her native Laguna. She passed it around our sofa of bored and waiting people. Stories began to surface about where we were going, why, and eventually, about our lives in general.

Laguna suman, with some ube in the background.

The suman I chose was truly delicious, moist and not too sweet. Thanks to the lady, I was able to avoid a trip to the dreaded Manila airport food gutter, and also fill my imagination with stories about lesbian daughters who get themselves impregnated by Italian internet boyfriends and dump them for local chicks.

15 January 2009

Living Posts

A low basketball ring on a tree.

The best support has roots down into the ground. A walk around a home in the province will give you ideas of improvisation along those lines.

A chair resting on a coconut trunk.

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