Contemplating Slow-Food Movement in Negros and other matters
This afternoon, during our late lunch, I was excited when Gloven (Gerogalin), one of Tanya Lopez’s reliable deputies in Sine Negrense, mentioned the name “Pangat” as one of the dishes they planned to order. I was not missing Bikol food - far from it - but the shock of recognition about a name of a food can always trigger some excitement. And for all my exposure to all kinds of research - festivals, rituals, and foods - I naively expected the food to come as possessing the appearance of the “pinangat” in Camarines Sur: dashed freshwater shrimp mixed with coconut meat, with some pork, sili,and other ingredients, wrapped in taro (gabi/natong) leaves, and cooked in more coconut milk. I will not go into the details on the kind of coconut meat to be used, the grating process, etc. because all these will vary anyway from one town to another, from place to place, depending on the tradition of the chef or cook engaged to produce the Bikol pinangat.
Anyway, the food soon arrived and was I surprised! On a small bandejado, was this spread of softly mashed (upon first inspection) greenish concoction. I assumed they were made from taro leaves and I was assured to be correct. Tasting it, I realized the dish was on the sweeter side; in fact, my Bikolano palate (make it Tigaonon - from Ticao - tongue) told me a bit more sugar and a heftier accident of guta or gata and that cultural invention in front of me would have ceased as a viand and became instead a distant prima carnal of a kakanin or any of the delicacies to which suman or biko rightfully belonged.
But in cultural delectations, there is no right or wrong. The relativism and/or singularity of traditions in cooking - or keeping things uncooked - are all held under the sway of cultures. With that also are histories and other peregrinations that impact on societies and communities.
In other words, I am not in a position to tell anyone here that their pinangat or pangat is wrong and that ours (Bikol) is correct. Bikolanos, at this point, should already know how familiar we are with this kind of debate between the pinangat of Camarines Sur and that of Albay. The conflict is really because both sides refuse (why only the gods of wisdom and taste would know) that the difference between the contentious dishes is a difference in terminologies.
Going back to the pangat for our lunch, I saw that the kind of preparation that went into the production of the taro leaves mashed to porridge consistency matched my memories of the utan na gabi or gulay na gabi cooked in our home in San Fernando, in Ticao Island. The stem of the plant included.
To the mainland Bikolano eater of gabi or natong, that dish would have come across as overcooked. To the women in our family, it was a way of dealing with the itchy quality of taro leaves when not properly handled. One curious point: Bikolanos of both Camarines Sur and Albay seem not to be cautious about the flippant quality of taro leaves. In most of the areas, they have developed the eye for the right kind of leaves that need to be dried before they become the resplendent natong of the highly essentialized and heavily mythologized Bikol culinary traditions.
The point is it is so easy to be ethnocentric - viewing other cultures always from the lens of our own culture. But we know where ethnocentrism brings us - to naivete, ignorance, and annoyance. We become imprisoned by our own parochial taste and anything outside is threatening.
Here in Negros, I have encountered this slow-food movement, which is back to the old way of preparing food. There are no shortcuts, certainly no nod to the fast foods of our childhood, youth and senility.
Helen Arguelles, the creative tourism officer of Sagay City, which is about 80 kms from Bacolod, and also the person behind Sine Margaha, is a crusader of the said movement. In one of my trips to their place, she fetched me from the airport and took me to this restaurant where the owner worked closely with his chef. Both still in their 30s, progressive and daring, they talked to us about foraging! To the student of physical anthropology, you must recall how you always encountered these periods in human civilization, which always included the “hunting and gathering phase.” Now, we have these foragers, who aim to discover the long-lost ingredients and food resources that have vanished under the attack of the manufactured and the synthetic.
I hear now for example a rich array of wild berries and figs. I look at a tree and I cease calling those little tough fruits as poison but to ask, what can I do to incorporate them into the diet of the people around me?
It was with Helen where I was introduced (pardon my ignorance) to this rice-substitute called “Adlay.” Served in the restaurant, the grains of the Adlay appeared to be extremely white, shiny even, and thick. The owner of the place called it the “rice” the early Filipinos (a generic label of course) consumed.
I became curious and did my own cursory research. The plant is also known as “adlay millet.” There are documents that freely call it a cereal. Going around Bikol, I found out the store operated by the Central Bicol State University of Agriculture (CBSUA) in Pili has stocks of Adlay. They also offered me the information that the university cultivates a small farm dedicated to the said plant. Amazing though is the name given by Linnaeus to “Alday” - Job’s tears.