Tito Genova Valiente
LAST Tuesday, I arrived, via the bus coming from Manila, quite early in the morning. It was four o’clock when I looked at my watch. I am used to coming into the city, crossing the Mabulo Bridge, looking out beyond the river line, when the light behind Mt. Isarog is turning into a tender gray, before the light comes out from behind that old volcano. The kind of sun from that side determines for us what kind of day we will have.
That morning, the mountain was not visible; the night has barely moved away, and there was an easeful darkness around the bus terminal.
Would the vendors of suman and ibus still be around? That question, for those who know our city, is not fanciful, errant or flippant. The five o’clock of our mornings here in Naga is taken over by the bread – products from bakeries of different persuasions and range. There are shops that promise multiple nutrients in the basic pan de sal; there are institutions with ovens as old as the chartered history of the city, boasting of concoctions that are supposed to be found only in this place.
At night, however, between ten in the evening and I do not know till when, vendors from the barangay of Carangcang in Magarao, come to Naga bringing with them their rice cakes. Ibus, suman or sinuman, suman arroyo, binutong.
When I am in the city, I would walk from Plaza Rizal, cross the street where New England Bakery used to be, then go to the other side, where the Bichara Theater was many years ago. There is no sign of cinema on that side, unless you consider the presence of pirated DVDs a sign that movies are alive in this town. From that portion of the street, I would walk towards the supermarket, now named People’s Market. I do not understand the attribution of this structure, known as the biggest supermarket in the entire Southeast Asia in the late 60s. Just a few meters from New China, which still stands there, a bit altered but still the place to buy the best Pancit Canton and lumpiang shanghai in the region, one could see these women – middle aged and some almost as old as seventy perhaps, with their nigo full of rice cakes.
Rice cake is the closest we can label the products of these women. The Tagalogs use kakanin, which could refer to the main ingredient, glutinous rice or pulutan. I marvel at the fact that there seems to be no generic name to package the ibus with the sinuman and binutong into one category. The cognitive anthropologists are right when they say that to understand a culture, one should begin with the native classification, with the insider’s categories, with folk taxonomies. Could it be that each of this product is special unto itself?
That Tuesday morning, at four, I was there again in the area. And there were two of them: the younger woman, near the door of a doughnut franchise, still up; the older woman closer to New China was asleep. On the nigo of the younger vendor were two pieces of suman arroyo, the one in purple, and still many ibus wrapped in the young leaves of the coconut. “Ibus” or “ibos” is interesting because the name refers to the light yellow leaves of the buri tree. These are the same leaves used for “palaspas” in place of olive palm leaves during Palm Sunday. Looking to the sleeping vendor, I motioned to the one I was dealing with that I needed Binutong. She then stood up and walked to where the other vendor was and, without waking the older woman, took the only Binutong in that area at four in the morning. They would settle this trading when they travel back home.
The way of wrapping gives the name for this product as I would find out. Upon reaching home, I arranged the things I bought and, like any obsessed member of this mobile-phone generation, took photos of my morning harvest. The next predictable step was to post them on my Facebook account. Whereupon, I received a flurry of comments as early as five in the morning. This could be an indication of many things: my friends and acquaintances are early risers; those who know me have not yet slept because they were working on their Facebook accounts. There was another revelation: I have friends living in other time zones where my 5ams are 5pms in their rooms or 8ams in their offices.
The ibus, the suman arroyo, and the Binutong – all photographed and posted – started to link the worlds of the many I know, from near and far. Emmanuel Quintos Velasco, a writer based in Manila and whose wife is from Nabua, asked if Binutong was similar to Pinuyos. I looked at the term and agreed immediately albeit tentatively. A few minutes after Canada-based Steve Manzano confirmed Binutong is indeed Pinuyos. I was amused with the exchange because I was confirming the wrapping as the naming source. In Ticao, “puyos” refers to an uncircumcised penis. Think of how the Binutong is wrapped and tied altogether and imagine, and be convinced.
Pete Marquez, from the US of A, inquired where these products could be found. I mentioned Bichara Theatre and he responded quickly: I know where that is. Maruyama Masanori, dear old friend working with Canon and living in Tokyo, was curious: are they like “chimaki?” I said yes. Winn Meito Ishizaka, who is from Hong Kong but now residing in Yokohama, rhapsodized how she misses “chimaki.” She might as well miss Binutong.
As I write this, I am grappling with the use of “arroyo” to further define a “suman.” By linguistic reckoning, the Spanish “arroyo” means “river” or “stream.” I like to think of riverine products but that uncertainty presently overtakes me.
What I am sure of is that I am going back to those women and ask them more questions. Their products are us. They speak of who we are, what food we prepare and prefer, what standards of sweetness we create, what bitterness we uphold.
There is an old book in sociology called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” written by Erving Goffman. Each day, the book says, is a theatre for all of us. Each day we present ourselves and manage the impression of others with regard to our identities. Our life is a chain of performances with us as performing. Goffman says: “As performers we are merchants of morality. Our day is given over to intimate contact with the goods we display and our minds are filled with intimate understandings of them;” And yet, he continues and cautions us: “but it may well be that the more attention we give to these goods, the more distant we feel from them and from those who are believing enough to buy them.”
I do not readily agree to this. I think we have already distanced ourselves from these products. We need to pay more attention to these products and the women who continue to cook and serve them. They make the character of this city. Come Peñafrancia again, the street leading to the Cathedral, will be populated by vendors selling the native products from the provinces in Laguna and Quezon. It would be good for this city and our love for our own that we give a space to the women of Carangcang to sell their suman and ibus, the San Jose and Lagonoy vendors to display their “binamban” against the claimed products, by virtue of the onomatopoeia of its name, the binamban of “Bombon.” I could even ask the women of Ticao to brave the Ticao Pass in September and bring with them the “suman latik,” a rice cake tedious to cook but sinfully delicious and quick to consume. In other words, bring them positively on!
The Virgin can always forgive us and our taste for the succulent indigene.