Saturday, December 18, 2010

Eat, memory*

MY niece, Aurora, is a force of nature. We waited a long time for her but when she finally came, you could say there was a lot of surprise on both sides.

Just before Rory turned six months old, my sister’s family came home so our youngest member could meet her Cebuano side.

Approaching the airport, our generally nearsighted horde already spotted the wee creature propped against my sister’s belly.

Look at those eyes: hungry and angry. She’s one of us, another appetite, we chorused and closed in.

A few minutes into our home-cooked “salu-salo (meal),” we were horrified, dismayed, shaken to the core. Rory could not take any solid until she was back in Australia. This would be a few weeks later, when she turned exactly six months old.

I don’t know what medical mumbo-jumbo a New South Wales general practitioner spooned into my sister, but she would not budge beyond giving a few drops of boiled mineral water to the wee one we planned to induct at that holiest of holy, the dining table.

Naturally, we stooped at nothing. Bribery: “Why don’t we take care of Rory while you address this 24-egg yolk leche flan?” Watery humor: “It’s not as if we expect a baby (sniff) to gnaw the whole lechon (snort)”. Machiavellian logic: “Don’t tell the doctor. Don’t see him so you won’t lie. Get rid of that quack”. Political correctness: “That culturally insensitive ignoramus does not know what Philippine law says about infant abuse during reunions. How can we culturally indoctrinate someone whose taste buds know only your milk?”

We only desisted from all-out aggression when my sister finally cried while nursing Rory. My poor sister’s fat tears plopped on that innocent, giving probably her first taste of the salty—still, a very pale imitation of the 7 levels of nirvana attainable by way of “pusit (dried squid)” and “danggit (dried fish)”.

By the time they flew back, we conceded but remained hopeful. Rory stuck to her pure diet of mother’s milk, but her eyes followed our hand-to-mouth existence and her pudgy fingers would snap off an imaginary crispy “panit (lechon skin)” to plop this inside her tiny mouth, pretend-chewing.

Long his reach may be, but Dr. Frankenstein cannot deny family.

It’s been four years since Aurora’s first visit and our first brush with reverse First World deprivation-Third Word bounty. Every year, she looks like my sister, who looks like my mother. Or not.

Like battle-scarred veterans, our family can plow through “lechon,” “bam-i,” “lumpia” “kaldereta,” and ”manggang hilaw” and “uyap.” Rory and older sister Nana have a mystifying, mystical attachment to pasta. Spaghetti, that cloying children’s party classic, mere merienda staple, has encroached on our irreproachably pure (okay, Filipino-Chinese-Spanish) meals.

I long to initiate my nieces to the trick of deconstructing an “alpiler (safety pin)” to spear and pull out “aninikad,” “sa-ang” and “bongkawil”—my sister’s favorite shellfish—but I postpone the day I have to convince them that eating these will not turn them into alien life forms. For now, “lukot” is “sea spaghetti “ without the seafood (one day, I might elaborate how these green noodle-like strings come from the “donsol (dolphin),” more specifically, which orifice).

I am content to celebrate our differences. On the phone, Rory can spare only a second to listen to my Filipino English before she switches to her Aussie-accented singing. I’m hopeless at untangling all those brawny vowels but when she does her Karen Carpenter medley, I hum along.

Though Rory is still uncharacteristically tiny, she recently brought “ensaimada” to her class Christmas party. She came as a fairy, wand, wings and all, but dived into those ensaimadas, unrefrigerated, half-melting, snout first. As girls, my sister and I raced to be the first to wipe out an ensaimada, licking clean the dusting of sugar and margarine melting on our nose and chin.

You can take the family out of the country, but you can’t take the eating out of the family.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 19, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Letter to the fishes of Balili

PETS are very good to their humans.

Anyone who lives with a dog will not argue. Sloppy, sticky and abiding, doglove is the secret to world peace, if only we could find a way to translate this to human-for-human terms.

The felines are not far behind. Even if its innate unshakeable dignity dictates that a cat permits its human only one pat throughout its entire nine lives, we humans accept without knowing why we let these creatures walk in and out of our lives. And back again.

I’ve lived, too, with goats, all kinds of birds, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, rats, cockroaches, ants, centipedes, mosquitoes and so on. At any time, there’s a host of creatures sharing our space without demanding human affection, just tolerance or indifference guaranteeing coexistence.

A pet that’s wrapped around itself, shutting out everything, oblivious even to the human that’s waiting on it hand and mouth—that sounds more like human, rather than non-human, behavior to me.

Then my son brought home a pair of fishes.

Tiny and transparent except for a glint of gold on its scales, the fishes were bought at his school’s Christmas fair. Each was as small as the nail on my little finger. When they didn’t grow overnight into shark size, my son lost interest. That’s how I became an aqua-mom.

How is it to live with fish?

At the start, their size stirred up a panic of protectiveness. Purchased at P15, the pair quickly racked up more costs and serious commitment. To set up a conducive world inside their fish bowl, I walked up to a pet store clerk and walked away feeling like I was the clueless, irresponsible participant of an unplanned birth.

Rushing home in time to see the fishes rush to the surface of the water, the tiny mouths puckered into desperate Os to gulp air, I felt the surge from plugging the pump that aids their breathing inside the bowl. Life lesson: never underestimate the capacity of about 10 centimeters of scales and flesh to teach nurturing and responsibility.

Later, size issues became an impediment to bonding. A fish face has no expression that can be interpreted by humans. Try magnifying an expressionless countenance that’s about the size of a fingernail cutting, and you’ll have an idea how the nature of fish-sitting concentrates most, if not all, of the emotions on one party.

In a droll mood, dogs roll their eyes when their humans act queer. Even a cat, whose triangular visage is fixed in a permanent moue of disdain, will close their eyes from the pleasure of a nape tug or an ear scratch.

But a fish is a fish is a fish. Our two fellows don’t even glance at the faces ballooning behind the glass. My guess is that even if coal ash were dumped inside the bowl, their expressions before this action and later, after they’re floating on the surface, will not vastly differ. Death erases the need for facial subtleties.

And then there’s the absence of sound. Living with pets means one is attuned to the sounds they make, of hunger, warning, anger, fear, pain, joy. Scientists say, contrary to common thinking, fish communicate by sound. They squeak, quack, click, growl and hiss—all on a higher frequency their humans cannot hear.

I’ve told my hopeful son to forget the idea I’m buying an underwater microphone to catch what the fishes are saying, about or against us. Living with fish means, more or less, a one-sided relationship built on thought balloons: to keep a semblance of communication, the more articulate or expressive party fills with his or her thoughts the balloons representing the views of the silent or silenced party.

On late nights or early mornings, when all I hear is the vibration of the fish bowl pump, errant thoughts sometimes pause my writing or reading, like the dance-like darting the fishes make, often after we’ve changed the water or sprinkled flakes:

When you have the power of life and death over creatures incapable of speaking, do you fill in the silence or try harder to listen?


* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 12, 2010 issue of the Sunday “Matamata” column

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Merry “tawilis” and happy “tamban”

MY holiday began early when I received this gift bin. In a season replete with generosity, this group of companies stands out for its consistent patronage of locally made products and reuse of materials.

Made from recycled newspapers, the bin was braided by local community groups. The weaving can compete with the best works of artisans of South America and Africa, whose weavework is so magical, it can keep in or out liquids despite the use only of organic, porous materials.

Granted, we are fortunate not to have to transport water in a locally made vessel after walking for miles to draw from a remote water source. Yet, affluent or not, we are interconnected. This argues for using especially the holidays as an opportunity for sharing “ethical gifts”.

Consume consciously; consume with conscience. While past Christmas gift packs contained meaningful mementoes—such as “kasing (wooden top)” and “takyan” that brought to mind the childhood games of old, which were fun, inexpensive and not harmful to player and environment—this year’s bin contained food products made by people’s organizations in areas where the companies are located.

A fish lover, I was drawn to the “tawilis” in corn oil. This was produced by the Family Farm School, a Batangas association of youths, families and professionals that partners with the Research and Development Center of the Department of Science and Technology.

Buying a bottle of sardines contributes to the group’s livelihood project, which aims, among other things, to educate rural youth.

It has been recently reported that ham, a major feature of the traditional Christmas feast, may be more expensive this year. Care for “tawilis”?

Before you look down your nose, “tawilis” is only found in the Philippines, specifically in only one lake in Luzon, Taal Lake. “Sardinella tawilis” used to thrive in the Balayan Bay until a major eruption in the 18th century sealed off Taal Lake from Balayan Bay. Over the centuries, the marine waters turned completely fresh, making “tawilis” the only member of the Clupeidae family to exist entirely in freshwater.

For those with less snobbish tastebuds, “tawilis” is related to the other clupeids, more familiar to Cebuanos as “tamban” or “tuloy”.

It can be the cheapest fish in the wet market at P35 a kilo. In December, when food prices normally go up, the “tamban” schools are populous; thus, the price dips. To enjoy “tamban,” you can broil, fry, stew in vinegar or cook in oil. The thick and omnipresent scales work best during charbroiling because these keep the fish meat tender and juicy. Freshly caught “tamban” is so oily, the Omega 3-rich droplets will drip and make the coals sizzle, a “sizzling” dish that will not make your pocket or diet erupt in flames.

Another jar contained gourmet “tuyô.” Though daunting in name, the dish turned out to be another familiar. Dried herring flakes in vinegar and oil is, translated, “tinabal”. It is comfort food that must be consumed with extreme prejudice, swimming in oil , spices and salt and requiring avalanches of piping hot rice to douse and tame.

Herring is known to Cebuanos as “malangsi” or “mangsi”. It resembles “bolinao” but with scales. In Badian and Alegria, fishermen evolved the Sabi net, a combination of the purse seine, bag net and beach seine, to catch this fish.

After tasting the gourmet “tuyô,” I remembered my late aunt’s “bacalao”. Until she passed away, my aunt’s table was famous in the family. One dish that was never served during feasts but given to her relatives during Holy Week was “bacalao”.

In place of the required but imported cod, lapu-lapu or any large premium fish was substituted. Deboned, skinned, salted, dried, desalted, flaked, boiled, fried, simmered—only past generations could invent and go through all that slaving in the kitchen just to go around the rule of fasting and abstinence.

Never a stickler for tradition, religious or otherwise, my mother loves “bacalao”. For my mother, my aunt made “bacalao,” a Lenten shortcut, into a celebration of Advent.

My aunt has moved to the kitchen in the sky. Unlike Lake Taal’s overfished and vanishing “tawilis” or “biyâ”, “mangsi” and “tamban” still thrive. Yet, our growing population unduly taxes the sea, necessitating the concept of eco-markets. Fishermen must not only abide by the law but buyers, too, must not feed the demand for illegally caught fish, undersized fish and overfished species.

In the midst of merriment, consume consciously; consume with conscience.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 5, 2010 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column