In July this year, I returned for a short visit to my home city in the Philippines, after having been away sixteen long years. My youngest daughter, who has never been there, was my traveling companion. She and her oldest sister, who lives in Baguio, met in person for the first time during this trip.
A few months before, as I began planning, I’d read an article about how, further north of Baguio, somewhere on the slopes of Mt. Pulag or Mt. Data, in 2011 a team of Filipino and American scientists rediscovered the dwarf cloud rat. I’d heard occasional mention of this unique mammal in regional folk tales, though it was last seen more than a hundred years ago. The specimen recently found was sitting on its overdeveloped hind legs on a mossy tree canopy around five meters from the ground, preparing to launch itself through the air to another branch. As we boarded our plane for the longest leg of our outbound flight, I recalled the cloud rat and wondered what brought it back, after all these years, from seeming extinction.
Immediately after arrival, for a week we were whisked off to Cebu (an island in the central Visayas region) by my eldest daughter and her partner Karen. They had found roundtrip “piso” fares equivalent to about $110 for all four of us, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. It also gave us a chance to meet some of Karen’s family there, visit Magellan’s Cross and the Basilica of the Santo Nino, both famous landmarks dating back to the Spanish colonial era. Further, Cebu is famous for its lechon or roast pig and other regional delicacies. And of course, as we made our way through meal after memorable meal— several kinds of lechon, prawns cooked in crab fat, humba or pork knuckle stew, daily breakfasts of assorted dried fish washed down with fresh buko (coconut) or dalandan (citrus) juice— I realize that these were merely the outward, alimentary rituals for easing any initial awkwardness due to our long separation, for softening the years (too long) of our yearning, for tearing those intractable hunks and dividing them now with our fingers into small pieces we could dip into bowls of oil and relish and sauce…
After the plane ride back to Manila from Cebu, with several pieces of monster luggage among us, we caught a bus just as rain broke from skies the color of cast-iron pots. Approaching Baguio at the end of our six hour bus ride from the capital, I peered out the window and felt the first anxious pangs of expectation mix with shock and grief. We plodded through unfamiliarly thick traffic and I saw, just as in more metropolitan lowland areas, evidence of urban blight in place of the landscapes of my childhood. The hillsides, once dominated by evergreens and limestone outcroppings, were crowded with all kinds of housing and construction; we passed building after unfamiliar building announcing rental spaces, restaurant after restaurant whose names jogged nothing in my memory. Billboard after billboard advertised Thai massage or “Unli” (unlimited) text and talk mobile phone plans, some of the signage in Korean and Japanese.
We spent our last two weeks in Baguio, and these two weeks out of our nearly month-long visit were drenched day and night with bone-soaking monsoon rain. Because the rain severely limited the range of activities we could engage in, we found that the only things we could do were eat, tell stories, and sleep. We simply repeated these, in between short visits to the market and the silver and curio shops, the Cathedral, and BenCab’s famous museum in Tadiangan, Tuba.
We stayed at Casa Vallejo, which in the old days was known as Vallejo Hotel. Now designated a heritage site, it was built in 1909 and so displays pretty much the same architectural features as when it was originally built, despite the updated interiors. I chose Casa Vallejo for our stay for another reason: my maternal grandfather Lorenzo, who was a farmer in Bacnotan, La Union for most of his life and an entrepreneur in Baguio for a short time (he owned and operated three small barbershops along Abanao and Kayang streets), had worked at the hotel for five years as a cook. When we came downstairs each morning for our complimentary breakfasts at Hill Station restaurant on the ground floor of Casa Vallejo, I would look toward the kitchen, trying to imagine what it must have been like for my 19 year old grandfather when he started to work there. I imagined he might have looked as young as our usual waiter, who told us he had a degree in Communications and that his name was “Choco.” I wondered if my Lolo Lorenzo also wore the vintage type uniforms of the wait and kitchen staff— long-sleeved off-white shirts tucked into loose-fitting trousers, two breast pockets with flaps as in the style worn by porters in the colonial period.
Though I was not born in Baguio, my parents moved the family there when I was two. Baguio is of course the city that the Americans colonized into a hill station at the turn of the last century, driving to the outskirts the indigenous Ibaloi communities who had occupied these ancestral domains in centuries preceding. American architect Daniel Burnham was brought in to draw up the blueprint for the new colonial city— a plan that envisioned no more than 25,000 inhabitants maximum (in contrast to the current population figures of just under 400,000, counting students, local tourists, and other transients). Located toward the lower left on the spleen-shaped map of the province of Benguet, Baguio at 5,000 feet elevation above sea level is considered by some to be the doorway to the rest of the Cordillera region.
East of the spleen is one of the closer provinces belonging to the Ilocos region— La Union, and its capital San Fernando, where my father was born and where sometime in 1959, a full fifteen years after the Liberation of the islands from Japanese occupation, he first laid eyes on my mother (not quite 26) tending the cash register at a restaurant. Because of the war, he and many of his contemporaries had gotten a late start on their professional careers; and thus now, in peacetime, mostly lawyers in their early forties, they felt they could live a little. More than a little, in fact— they liked to get rip-roaring drunk at The Midway. As the story goes, that one evening, when he first noticed the striking new girl in front, he motioned in a way that was meant to suggest that he wanted her to come over and personally attend to their table. She of course said no— she might have only been a farmer’s daughter but she did not believe waiting tables was part of her new job description. And as the story goes, he stumbled over to where she stood, and threatened to break every single wineglass displayed above her head if she refused to come to their table. Fearful she might lose her job, she went. A year later, they were married.
I was very young when my mother first confided this story to me, and I did not think to question it then— did not feel, until later as I grew older, the incredulity of these details when I measured them against the general mildness and soft-spokenness of the man I’d come to know as my father, and later as the grandfather to my daughters. But by the time I was in first grade, he’d given up smoking (his usual daily pack of Salem menthols) and quit alcohol cold turkey. He’d also long before that stopped driving, after the scare of having almost run a pedestrian over (I don’t know any other details about this story). His only obvious remaining vices were the cinema (and that too fell away somewhat in his later years); and he liked to cut a dapper figure and was meticulous in his choice of dress. Also, he loved good food, and had a predilection for pastries. Among the other things I know and remember of my father: he was a sweet and sentimental man, becoming increasingly pious as he aged. Before getting dressed, he began each morning by saying the rosary, after which he said the prayers in a well-creased, laminated trifold Novena to San Pancratius kept in the left-hand pocket of his bathrobe. After his bath, he sat down to breakfast, attended to by the women in our household— eggs and something savory, bread and butter and jam, and coffee; and then he left the house and walked to work.
He also was— how did he become so?— very superstitious: if someone needed to leave before a meal was over, he commanded all those still at table to turn their plates at least once clockwise, in order to avert any accidents befalling the one who had prematurely broken rank. At each of my daughters’ baptisms, as soon as the church ceremony was over (these were group baptisms, with other families bringing their babies), he was at my elbow urging me to rush out of the church doors as soon as I could, and not lag behind. This would supposedly ensure that the baby in my arms would be among the first to be admitted to heaven when it was her time. These were also years of still relative ease for him, and so he would order a small lechon de leche (roast suckling pig) for the baptismal party held in his home for each granddaughter. The impressive thing was delivered to the table, fragrant crackling skin a deep molasses-gold beaded with fat, holding in the steamed layers of soft roasted pork beneath. Almost unable to contain his excitement, he would rush to the kitchen for a knife with which to extricate a specific morsel from out of the lechon’s mouth. This he would bear to me, so that I could make each baby in her own time suck on the tip of the roast pig’s tongue: and as my child’s mouth automatically closed on the tidbit as if to suckle, he’d crow, “Yes, yes, may you grow to have the gift of words!” After this little ritual, an apple or similar round fruit could be popped into the noble lechon’s mouth for decorative effect— or perhaps as apology for the recent, first dismemberment.
My daughters, who have in fact turned out to have a great facility with words themselves, know this story. And perhaps that first ritual and physical introduction to the world of tastes defining our mostly Ilocano household, is what has equipped them well for their own forays in language and literature, as well as in the kitchen (the oldest three are perceptive, original cooks who have the ability to replicate memorable tastes as well as create their own recipes; and the youngest one seems to be coming along fine in this direction as well). They have always been unafraid to taste— even in childhood, they handled most everything they were introduced to with eager curiosity (except for just a very few things, including, for two out of four daughters, bitter melon or ampalaya, which is still not on their favorites list). One daughter, when she was in fifth grade (in an American public school), purposely asked me to make dinuguan or blood stew for her lunch, so she could relish the experience of telling her schoolmates that she was eating blood (and she did, but they didn’t believe her).
We’ve cooked and/or eaten sea urchins, sea snails, sauteed swamp spinach, several varieties of seaweed (some look like tapioca-sized clusters of grapes, some like velvety branches; some like wiry pubic hair, thus befitting its name in the local tongue: Ur-urmot). We’ve made stews of ox tails and peanut sauce (Malay influenced), as well as rich, heavy stews composed of slow-simmered honeycomb tripe, chick peas, carrots, olives, tomatoes, and chorizo (Spanish influenced). We favor the other kind of tripe, taken from the third stomach of the cow— the one we call biblia or bible tripe (what the French call le feuillet)— for a specific Ilocano dish flavored with bile, called Pinapaitan (literally, this means “made bitter”). Ilocanos, who’ve lived along the coast and tried to coax growth from hardscrabble ground, are known for their thrift: winged beans and slimy vegetables are used to bulk up dishes, and even the dark welts imparted by fire to smoked banana leaves become a main flavoring agent for the rice cakes around which they’re wrapped.
Is this why, though sweet things have graced our table, it’s mostly toward the savory that our tongues lean: the pickled, brined, fermented; things packed away to ripen in cool jars or blistered and leathered in the sun? Early formed in childhood, the bible of taste (and its triumvirate of hunger, appetite, and need) is not so easily unlearned. Even in different climes and places, its passages haunt and entice; and its lessons, imbibed and embodied, become both colony and spore, inciting toward acts of remembrance, invention, poetry, and appeasement if not satisfaction.
Ampalaya (Bitter Melon) Pickles
Wash and core (remove the seeds and pith of) 4 medium size Ampalaya or Bitter Melon gourds (preferably Okinawan variety). Slice ampalaya into thin circles. Slice a small onion or shallot into thin circles or semi-circles. Bring a small pot of water to boil, and drop only the ampalaya slices in; when they turn a brilliant green (or after around 3 minutes), quickly drain the hot water and plunge them into a bowl of ice water. In another, non-reactive container, have at the ready: 2/3 cup rice wine vinegar, into which has been dissolved 1/3 cup white sugar, and a teaspoon of salt and several pinches of black pepper. Layer the drained and blanched ampalaya slices and onion slices in the vinegar mixture. Cover and store in refrigerator. Good up to two weeks. Great accompaniment to fried or grilled meat or fish.
Pinapaitan (Ilocano meat broth flavored with bile)
1/2 kilo beef tripe (bible tripe or “biblia”) sliced into thin cubes
1/2 kilo beef intestine or beef heart, chopped fine
1/2 kilo beef, sliced thin
2 Tbsp bile
2 Tbsp thinly sliced (matchsticks of) fresh ginger
1 medium onion, diced
5 cloves of crushed and finely chopped garlic
8 cups water
5-6 tsp salt, or to taste
black pepper to taste
(or, alternatively, small bird chillies to drop into bowls upon serving)
Saute garlic and onion in 1-2 Tbsp vegetable or olive oil.
Add ginger and continue to saute until fragrant and almost toasted.
Add tripe and other meats, salt, and pepper.
Add water and bring to a boil, then simmer covered for 40-45 minutes on low heat until tender.
This dish is meant to be soupy, so adjust seasonings and add water as necessary.
When meats are tender, add bile, and simmer for another 15 minutes.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped bird chillies if desired.
Wild lime (kalamansi) and fish sauce may also be served alongside.
Serve with hot steamed rice.