Monday, September 25, 2006

Spice up

HOW do you seize happiness, by pinches or handfuls?

After hunting intrepidly in New York City, my lola brought back bottles of whole black peppercorns and assorted condiments.

As she was unable to find a single canister of Chinese star anise, it was its scarcity that caught her attention.

When the papers recently featured an item about star anise, my lola was very interested to hear that this aromatic herb contains an acid for manufacturing Tamiflu.

It should have impressed me, too, as this happens to be the only drug known to be effective in treating bird flu.

But I was distracted by the whole black peppercorns, all 256 grams of it in clear plastic canisters.

Even just a single shriveled pimienta negra entera is a thing of wonder. Crush it and an entire universe blooms at the tip of the tongue, pierces unimagined recesses in the nose, breaches inlets of memories.

Two hundred fifty-six grams of peppercorn though is not amazing. It is confounding.

I have never been to New York City. Of all the sights I cannot imagine, none can rival the grocery shelves my lola casually mentioned as holding 256-gram canisters of whole black peppercorns, so full to the brim the tiny berries only gently jostle its neighbor when the canister is shaken.

Imagine the affluence of a society that deluges their grinder with peppercorns, blanketing their food with cascading freshly ground pepper.

In contrast, paminta or liso is sold here in pinches. For 50 centavos or a peso, the sari-sari store owner hands over a knotted plastic tube containing peppercorn seeds equivalent to a third of the length of your second finger.

Even if housewives could stock on peppercorn, what would be the use? A twinge or pinch already transforms the simplest dish.

The other day, a restaurant owner bought all the good fish in the wet market near my lola’s home. Not even a decent fish head was left.

My mother decided to prepare a “simple” dish my grandmother made for her children. As the recipe called for adobo cuts of pork belly, I argued that it was hardly simple fare.

But my mother insisted that humba Bisaya was the pared down version. The fancy fiesta version requires salted black beans or yellow strands of azucena. If rendered the Chinese way, whole boiled eggs bob along with the gelatinous cubes of pork. A sweet-sauced version liked by children calls for sugar, pineapple chunks and juice.

But on days when someone with more money has been to the market before you, humba Bisaya is the only life-saving version. While waiting for the pork to turn reddish brown, grind native garlic with peppercorn. The garlic pulp will keep the pinch of pepper from scattering out of the mortar.

Saute. Simmer the pork in soy sauce and water. Share with whoever is at home. Wait at least an hour before taking a nap.

In terms of size of berry, there is no discernible difference between the pimienta negra entera of New York and the paminta in Banawa.

I can only muse at the difference in the amounts of pepper sprinkled over the food. Because our dishes only contain a hint of an aroma, are we at heart emotional skinflints, too scared to revel in the snap and kick of life?

The latest Pulse Asia survey shows three out of four Filipinos consider themselves to be poor or very poor.

Visayans rank highest (70 percent) in terms of those who consider they are “worse off now” than in the past.

But our food contests such a miserly view of life. Isn’t one better off for finding happiness in a piquant speck, rather than in lavish doses?

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