Saturday, January 03, 2009

Peeling the Cebuano

ARE we the only ones who like our bananas green and boiled?

Ann K. asked, my first email this year.

Before the old year ended, my friend quit her job and came home to Cebu.

As a dog will turn circles around itself before settling down for a nap, Ann K. also went through rituals to dust off all those years in Makati.

That day, while munching on bananas dipped in pork fat and rock salt, my friend complained that Cebu had changed so much. There used to be a time when she could confidently give directions to strangers asking how to find, say, Echo Electrical Supply.

Now the landmarks are replaced by flyovers, my friend griped.

Though not a food historian nor a cultural cartographer, I emailed an attempt to comfort my friend, displaced in her own city: I can be content to dunk (“tuslob”) my boiled banana in a two-layered dip of vegetable oil floating over soy sauce. But I really prefer to pair off (“suwa”) unripe bananas with “maos nga ginamos” (salted fish so “ripe,” it is grey sludge, accented only by red intestines).

If I prefer salted fish, it must be because my father was born in Camiguin, I emailed my friend. His part of Tupsan faced the sea. Whenever the pregnant waters crossed the threshold of his home, my father had no choice but to scoop the dying fish left in the waves’ wake and preserve them in salt.

Fish smells better than a corpse, Papang once told a fellow doctor who stared at the small platter of grey sludge adorning our holiday table.

Now, after downing more bananas (ripe and raw, boiled and fried, fatter than my finger, longer than my sins), I wonder if my reply was of any help to Ann K. I forgot to tell her about Yaya, companion since my childhood.

Though not yet a maiden when she left Samboan to find housework in the city, her family back in Bato only had to scrape a layer from a vat in their kitchen to have a dip for their meals of banana, ube, gabi, biga, kamoteng kahoy and other tubers. Found permanently beside the “sug-angan (native stove),” this vat contained leftover fiesta pork, which their mother reserved for guests and emergencies.

But that ocean of pork fat was there for anyone. It never ebbed, proving more constant than the sea. Pork fat was already an entire meal, perking up the blandness, predictability and occasional itch of the daily fare that strung the days between one Maytime fiesta and the next.

This habit of “tuslob” is Cebuano moderation. While the Filipino palate is no stranger to sauces and dips, the Cebuano will never mistake the self-restraint in “tuslob” for the indulgence of a “sawsaw (soaking),” heedless of what comes after.

Thus, Cebuano coeds “make ‘tusok’ and ‘tuslob’ (skewer and dip) the fishball” in the street vendor’s sweet-spicy sauce. In urban ghettoes, the daily affordable treat is “tuslob-buwa,” sizzling brains and fat fried in a mobile cart and used as a communal dip for customers that shell out P2 for the “puso (hanging rice)” to be dunked. Should someone attempt to “sawsaw” in that spitting sea of lard, his fingers will surely end up swimming with the yellowish brains.

Deserved or not, legends have been spun about the Cebuano’s lean resources, his reflexive stinginess. Viewed by this Bisdak (“Bisayang daku,” one raised in Cebu), our “tuslob” culture just skirts extremes: not unrelieved parsimony but also stopping short of a bacchanalia. We know how to dole out what is meager to flavor the tedium of need, work and sacrifice.

Yet, despite what our more affluent neighbors think, the Cebuano is not only caught up with survival.

In “tuslob,” the secret does not lie alone with the savory but in the pairing of contrasts. What are a few days of frenzy without the yearlong industry that makes it possible? Yaya, who has worked in the city since the age of 13, has gone home to the south for their fiesta these past 43 summers.

And Ann K.? Though she may feel she exchanged one city of flyovers for another, my friend can’t deny the instincts of a Bisdak who will turn her back on opportunities for the mixed bliss of sleeping in one’s bed.

As well as the peerless pleasure of exorcising old ghosts with a “tuslob” of pork lard, rock salt and hard, green bananas. 09173226131

* “Matamata” column published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 4, 2009 issue

No comments: