Wednesday, April 25, 2012


The heat is so oppressive it weighs down on everything like a thick flannel blanket. The air itself sears. The airconditioner takes hours to get its groove, and when it does it becomes useless because then you can't get out of the cooled room, and the heated air outside scalds the skin.

On weekends when I am home the whole day it becomes impossible to get out of bed. I'd rather suffer the heat asleep, waking up feeling like I just spent hours in a sauna room. When the husband is home I have to get up for meals, and I am confronted by the kids dripping wet from seeking solace in the new backyard pool. I join them later, in the evenings, when the sun has gone and the air becomes tepid.

So when I got up one afternoon to find a platter of smoking-hot seba, saba, that had just been boiled, I rallied to gather the remnants of my dissipating energy - hoping to channel it into anger at the stupidity of having smoking bananas on a torrid afternoon.

But the fevered air combusted the fire I had hoped to muster, leaving me spent and suddenly aware of the emptiness in my stomach. I had to sit down. And gingerly peeled a piece of seba. And a rush of deafening air echoed in my brain, realizing I had been seeking this and had not known it.

It was the best boiled banana I've had in years. Sweet through and through, in spite of that thick outer rim of seemingly hard, white flesh. Unbelievably makul-kulnet, maligat, almost sticky but still firm. It was so wonderful I had to savor every bite, chewing slowly and with childish cherish. I never expected I'd get to eat a boiled banana this good ever again. 

I thought many factors had to conspire to get a banana taste this good - matured on the stalk, ripened just right, boiled in an exact manner - uncovered? at what temperature? how many minutes?

But I was told the major factor was that this banana was native. Ah, the "it" word these days. Native balatong, native garlic, native ginger. I am not sure anymore what it means. It may be heirloom, but it may also mean endemic, or indigenous. Or probably pure and unmodified. 

Whatever it is, I find that any native variety is becoming harder to find. When I do find something, it amazes me to discover it costs the same as the un-native one. It amazes me because I can't understand why the inferior kind is being sold - and getting sold - when the better one is not any more expensive. Perhaps native is more difficult to produce, is not as hardy, is more prone to blights.    

Whatever it is, something cold seeped into my being that one blazing afternoon and settled into the darkness of my core. The cold arose from fear, that I might not see and taste the likes of this banana again. 

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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Best Pakbet I've Had in a While

It was umami with the excellent bagoong, slick with the slimy okra, and punctuated by bitterness from the palya and sweetness from the white kamote, while the bunga'y marunggay (moringa pods) and talon (eggplant) made sure the entire stew was greenily fragrant.

It was cooked in a kaldero, the vegetables soft but still firm. Ginger and sliced red onions added a bit of heat and spice, and enhanced the tasty stew. 

There are as many variations of pakbet or pinakbet as the number of households in Pangasinan. Once in a home economics class in elementary school I saw a teacher layer okra, palya, talon, tomatoes and agamang (salted fermented krill) in a banga (clay pot) and put it over a raging woodfire covered, without a single drop of water. When I asked how the vegetables would cook, she replied the water content of the eggplants and the okra would be enough, though it would result in a dry stew. The pakbet was left to cook on its own without stirring, going through only one hard toss towards the end of cooking.

Eggplants, okra, ampalaya, ginger and bagoong are the basic ingredients of pakbet in the province. There may be tomatoes, but never squash, like how the rest of the country knows what pinakbet is. Squash we mix with other vegetables, traditionally sitaw or yard-long beans, but not, and preferably not, with pakbet.

There is the pakbet that's boiled to kingdom come with beef, which becomes a homogeneously brown slop. There is my HE teacher's, half-cooked and vibrantly-hued. In my childhood it was as ma-sabaw as sinigang, because children were understood to be vegetable-averse, so the best thing was to spoon the "soup" onto our rice that we may benefit from the vitamins that leached into the boiling water. Then I had pakbet with bacon and sauteed tomatoes at a Filipino household in Frankfurt.

In my household I like to add saluyot (jute) leaves, preferably with the head of a grilled bangus. My househelp is used to having kamote in her pakbet. The version in photo was served at my in-laws, who do not cook pakbet strictly like that, but adds whatever is in season.      

There is a technique to a more intense umami - sauteeing the bagoong with garlic and onions before adding it to the stew. The pakbet is richer, and does not need any sahog of pork or hibe. But one thing is constant - much as I try, it's hard to eat it without rice. 

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Perhaps to remind us of what Lent is all about, clumps of papait with lush green leaves were omnipresent at the public market in my hometown in Pangasinan. Literature in the internet suggests the weed is seasonal, but this was the first time I have seen it being sold. Of course I was not a prolific market-goer in my childhood, but papait never appeared at our table, and my in-laws have not cooked it before. 

The leaves looked similar to the Baguio spinach, in the shape, size, color and thickness of the leaves, and indeed they belong to the same family. They looked harmless enough.

Perhaps I have not seen it before because it wasn't sold before - it grows at will, gathered freely in empty fields, or in the kaalugan. Perhaps we never had it, as neither did my in-laws, because of its reputation as the bitterest thing one could ever eat. But I wonder, because we eat ampalaya - the leaves as well as the fruit - like it's fried chicken.  


Since there were more papait at the market than ripe tomatoes, which was alarming, and there were as many papait as there were sibuyas at this time of the year, which was normal, I couldn't deny fate, and I had to buy. An in-law was with me that time, and I uttered aloud my decision. She didn't seem thrilled, but replied, sige, ag mo ni atawayan sirin? (okay, so you haven't tasted it before?). 

Vendors confirmed the leaves were ampai-pait (too bitter), but that they cure a lot of illnesses and various afflictions. They also volunteered that the leaves are traditionally sauteed with tomatoes after parboiling them.  

I was thankful for those freely given information, because when we got home it turned out nobody at my in-laws' household knew how to cook papait. The designated cook hemmed and hawed, uttering out loud she'd boil the leaves briefly, then after a while recanting, until she decided not to cook them, wrapping them instead in banana leaves and shoving the lot in the dark confines of the refrigerator.

At Php10 per bundle, I thought nothing would be wasted if the leaves withered. But I thought again that it won't be money wasted - it would be the opportunity to learn something, and that something was significant because it concerned the food culture of my hometown, and a big part of Luzon, as I learned afterwards.   

So I was nothing but persistent, and pointed out one day soon after that it would be nice to have the leaves as a counterpoint to the igado we were having for lunch. So the leaves were dug out from their burial place, and were promptly sauteed, without the advised pre-boiling. There was a bit of "soup" in there, because the leaves were not thoroughly drained after washing.  

The cook is what elders call "makaluto," because she can cook ampalaya fruit which turn out with only the slightest hint of bitterness that children spoon lots of it onto their rice. Maybe that magical quality also lent itself to the papait turning out to be not as bitter as foretold.

It was bitter, but not so bitter that it was intolerable. In fact it was milder than ampalaya leaves. The bitterness was normal, in the same acceptable level as, say, mustard greens, or bokchoy. I think it would pair nicely with balatong, or with chopped pechay, if I can get hold of a bunch again.  And I will buy again, if I see it. It would be a good addition to my green leafy vegetable repertoire at home, and who knows we might benefit from its purported healing powers. 

So I was glad I chanced upon papait, and we had the courage to cook, and eat, it. Good discoveries happen to the brave.

Papait is the term for this vegetable (weed actually) in Pangasinan and Ilocano. It is known in other areas of Luzon as amargoso and sarsalida, and elsewhere as bitter leaf, slender carpetweed, cheng geng xing su cao, with scientific name Mollugo oppositifolia Linn. It is eaten to combat diabetes, hypertension, anemia and various other ailments.

Living With Nature

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Kusina nen Laki Digno

The name of this restaurant means the food comes from the kitchen of Lolo (Grandfather) Digno. Laki Digno is the progenitor of the long-time catering service and bakeshop Pinkies in Dagupan City. The small, open-air, pavilion-style restaurant sits in the front portion of a one-hectare, mostly vacant property far from the bustle of the city, and is being managed by Laki Digno's grandson, Alvin Siapno. 

                            sizzling bangus                                                                                           sizzling pork sisig

Pinkie's has long been a reliable caterer and events venue, and is well known for roll cakes and made-to-order cakes for all occasions. It operates a small eatery near the bus terminals of Five Star and Victory Liner, where pasalubong and pastries can also be bought, and where the cakes are ordered.

Kusina Nen Laki Digno provides additional venues for catered parties, and is the first to offer restaurant service. The menu is short, but provides great insight into what a good, hearty Pangasinan meal can be. 

For almost a year now, we've been enjoying the ambience of Laki Digno's, all to ourselves, every time we go home to Pangasinan. My husband and I love the food, which is macho, and is not for the squeamish. I keep telling Alvin his dishes are pulutan, and the place would score big as a bar, but the family does not want to deal with the security issues involved in operating with a liquor license, and does  not want to change its reputation as a wholesome family enterprise.

Which is mighty fine by me. I want to continue eating the food there without the noise, the cigarette smoke and the kakulitan of inebriated guests. When my husband feels like it, he brings a bottle to share with Alvin, who is his close friend, after the restaurant's operating hours (it closes early). I, meanwhile, can be content   quietly sitting in one of the corners by the landscaped gardens, at peace and serene, contemplating the vast expanse of the sky as well as the property around me, after a simple but pleasurable meal.   

There are several sizzling dishes, and the tuna salpicao (first photo) tops them all. Mixed with fried cubes of tofu that have absorbed the garlicky seasoning, the tuna is succulent and lip-smacking. Extra rice, please.

The sinigang na tuna is very much a Pangasinense sinigang, with the mild, almost sweet sourness of tomatoes, the bite of ginger, and the zing of red onions that gives any dish a new depth of flavor.  

But we go there mainly for the pinapaitan or papaitan, that stew of goat innards that's sour, gingery and bitter all at once and which is a treasured dish for Pangasinenses. Because goat meat is not as readily available as other commercially-raised animal meat, any dish made with it attains a festive and indulgent status. At Laki Digno's, the flavors are assertive enough to cut through the gaminess of the offal, and balanced enough so that I want to eat the entire bowl by itself. Toothsome, revivifying, life-affirming. No rice for this one. 

But if there's anything better than pinapaitan, it's being able to get all the meat. And at Laki Digno's I learned that such a dish actually existed - the soup was made to boil until it was reduced, so that the flavors became concentrated and were absorbed well by the meats. The flavor intensity is raised to the third degree. Heat and aroma from the sliced green peppers add to its delectability.

This dry pinapaitan is called kinigtot, which is funny because the word means it was made to be so frightened that it jumped out of its skin. I was definitely akigtot  by the exquisiteness of this dish, and by the realization that I had missed it my entire life. But now that I know, I shall make amends about it. With a big platter of rice. 

buttered talaba

This leche flan was served on the house one day after Christmas, and it was a very fitting ending to a makapakigtot meal. Its texture made me swear - it was assuredly velvety and so silky, that I wanted it to stay on my tongue forever and cherish its fineness. I couldn't do that, of course, and the next best thing was to swallow it, and keep spooning it into my mouth until I emptied its llanera. To my embarrassment, the manager noticed, and asked the waitress to serve me another llanera. Aaah, bliss. It was peerless, like the meal that preceded it.   

Kusina Nen Laki Digno
Tebeng Road, Dagupan City
Tel. No. (63-75) 6153974
Open every day until 6PM

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Monday, April 09, 2012


It's road trip day today, for people going back home from out of town. It was a five-day weekend, because of the Holy Week and the national holiday Araw ng Kagitingan, which, fortunately, fell today right after Easter.  

Traffic wasn't so bad from Pangasinan to Pampanga, probably because we started on our journey early, but it slowed down to a crawl at the North Luzon Expressway due to massive volume of assorted vehicles. Still, it wasn't so bad compared to previous experiences in my more than thirty years of traversing this route.

We were forewarned, thanks to accessible, real-time communication technology, so we were able to make the necessary pit stops, and stops to fill back our stomachs. We were carrying tons of food - I overspend every time we go out of town, vegetables, and fruits, and fish, are so darned cheaper and fresher! - but our route provides just such an interesting array of places to eat that we just have to sample one after the other on out trips. 

sinigang na malaga 

It's such an improved state from when there were no clean comfort rooms anywhere along the road, much less any decent place to eat and lounge for a while to take a break from the monotony of driving. And what's nice about it is that even a province away, there's a restaurant where we can still get a taste of home, coming from Pangasinan, or we can have a prelude of things to come if we are going back to our hometown. 

Matutina's, the seafood shack by Tondaligan Beach that expanded to five outlets all along that stretch of coast in Bonuan, now operates two branches outside of Dagupan City. Both are along the MacArthur Highway, one in Tarlac City, and another one in Urdaneta City which is a favorite pit stop for people proceeding to Baguio City or further up north. 

At these branches one can have inihaw na Bonuan bangus, sinigang na malaga, barbecue, adobong pusit, talaba and other bestselling dishes in the main outlets in Bonuan, with the complimentary bukayo pastillas serving as a sweet ending to a Pangasinense meal.

I am so finicky when it comes to bangus, and I have to admit, though, that the inihaw na bangus we had at the Urdaneta branch one time when we went to Baguio tasted like it had been frozen. The distance to Urdaneta from Bonuan, where the best bangus are bred, is not that great - about an hour at most - so I can't forgive this lapse. Perhaps the difference is not that obvious to some, especially for those who did not grow up eating Bonuan bangus, but to me it was a scream. 

My fastidiousness aside, frozen Bonuan bangus still tastes great, no matter how it is cooked, yes even grilled, so it can be not such a bad thing. But then again, I have so many other restaurants to try. ;-)  

Matutina's kare-kare

Matutina's Seafood Restaurant
  • Tondaligan Beach, Bonuan, Dagupan City
  • National Highway, Urdaneta City
  • MacArthur Highway, Tarlac City

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Sunday, April 08, 2012

Biyernes Santo

A peek at the Good Friday procession, or libot, in my hometown. It's been many years since I've seen the libot, much less participated, because we're not always home during Holy Week, and when we are, the libot does not pass by where we usually stay. 

Last Friday we went to some relatives' house that was along the route of the libot and planned to just stay as it passed by. I had wanted to go to the town plaza earlier to watch some people performing penitential rites, but the husband thought it would terrorize the kids so we just waited for the libot. When it came I was surprised that my older kids needed no convincing in joining their lola, and stepped right into the procession.

It was a pretty organized, and somewhat quiet, affair. I seem to remember Biyernes Santo libot of past as full of din from the banda or band accompanying it, plus singing and the novenas being said by various religious groups over megaphones, and the noise from teenagers chatting and laughing as they wound around the poblacion. I also remember that the Santo Bangkay in its carroza rumbled on its way like thunder, with a mass of men old and young pressing around it, delaying its progress back to the church.

This year it was very low-key, and started early due to forecasted rain that didn't fall anyway. There was only a single line of men around the carroza. Young people mostly made the thin crowd, who walked fast, and so even before twilight the procession had arrived back to the church.

That made the libot lose a bit of its mystique for me. The Biyernes Santo libot of my childhood until my teen years always culminated in the dark, and we always brought candles - inserted with a carton cut-out along the center of its length to catch the melting wax - that we lighted half-way through the procession. And each house along the procession's route had a pair of lighted candles in front. The libot was noisy,  but we were quiet, intermittently breaking our self-imposed silences when uttering the responses to the novena.         

My citified children embarrassed their lola by frequently complaining out loud why the procession took a long way around the church. They forgot their distress, however, upon arriving at the church grounds, where local treats being grilled were enveloping the air with the scent of burnt banana leaves.  

They were promptly rewarded with thin discs of bibingka made from real galapong - ground rice slightly sweetened with brown sugar which made the kakanin look pasty, but a little water, some gata and a leavener rendered it light and soft. No eggs, and the top was smeared with margarine upon purchase. The crumb was grainy, the whole thing redolent with the banana leaf liner it was cooked in. It was as rustic as any provincial treat could be. And the kids loved it, looking forward to having the treats again on Easter.

The intemtem were plump and moist, not so sweet, the buko not wanting. The smell of grilling intemtem is an indelible part of my childhood memories of cold dawns and misty mornings, and it was just fitting that intemtem would also greet us after the Abet-Abet, or the Pangasinan version of Salubong, for Easter.

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Friday, April 06, 2012

Balatong, Agor, Impabasik

Balatong, or munggo/monggo, and called mung beans in English, is considered poor man's fare because it expands when cooked, so that a cup of dried beans at Php20 can feed a household of more than ten.  It's very filling, and because it's a legume, it's very nutritious and protein-packed.

I'm not sure how balatong is related to lentils (dhal), or if they are one and the same, but they certainly look the and taste like two peas (or beans!) in a pod. The only difference is that monggo is sold whole while dhal beans are halved/split, and dhal costs ten times more hereabouts. 

I grew up eating balatong - boiled until soft and almost mushy, flavored with bagoong, made much more substantial with chopped ampalaya and malunggay leaves, and sauteed with garlic, onions and lots of sliced tomatoes when cooked. We'd usually have grilled fish on the side, so we didn't put pork (normally the fatty cuts) in our balatong like many Filipino households do.

It was only recently, though, that I became picky in the beans I buy. I choose the kind with a sort of white fuzz covering the beans, which make them look kind of dusty. The vendor at the public market in my hometown told me that variety is antigo, which literally translates to "antiquated," but more like "ancient." In culinary/biological terms I think she meant it as "heirloom." Another, younger vendor said this variety is called kasube. These heirloom beans make for a thick stew, mapalet - mapal-palet - or malapot as also preferred in Tagalog country.  

I've grown to love the beans. I used to eat bowls of it, and I still do. I now venture into putting other green leafy vegetables in it, like spinach, and even baeg, or sigarillas. While I can't remember how often we had it in my family, I make sure in my household we have beans - balatong, alternating with black beans and white beans - at least once a week.

We were not particular about what day of the week we had balatong, but it surprised me to discover that in Manila and thereabouts, monggo is served only on Fridays. In various canteens I've toured, a cursory check at kiosks serving turo-turo food, even the plastic-bagged cooked food sold along pedestrian routes and MRT stations - it never fails that monggo appears on Fridays.

I guess this is a hold-over from having monggo on the Fridays of the Lenten season, when Catholics practiced abstinence from eating meat. People were so dedicated that they carried over the abstinence throughout the rest of the year. 

In Pangasinan, we eat balatong in at least three of its growth stages. Balatong, the dried kind. At the onset of summer, we harvest the young pods, and eat them along with the fresh young beans popped from slightly more mature utong. These are tender beans that take less time to cook, and have the fresh, dewy taste of newly-gathered vegetables. 

These beans, along with the pods, are called agor.  I am told agor is the general term in Pangasinan for anything young, or immature, vegetable fruit. So there can be an agor of  malunggay pods. But agor generally refers to the young balatong pods and fresh beans, and when you look for agor in my hometown public market you'd be presented with sacks of newly-gathered young balatong for popping, or wait for the tia to pop a can's worth of fresh beans.        

The agor is cooked the same as the dried monggo beans, sinagsagan with bagoong, with other vegetables of choice. Agor doesn't expand as much, though, and cooks far before the point of mushiness, so that the dish is soupy. Other "chunky" kinds of vegetables are added, like okra, or baktaw, and even bunga'y lakamas and bunga'y marunggay.

Because agor is young and still full of moisture, just a couple of days in the refrigerator will result to "tails " coming out of the beans. Everybody who has attended preschool and grade school knows this is a precursor to having sprouts growing out of your bottled dampened cotton. Adults know it is a prelude to having togue

In Pangasinan we generally don't wait that long. As soon as that tail lengthens to more than a centimeter and the skin loosens up, we shake the beans and throw out the chaff, then cook and eat them, much like the more-advanced-in growth togue, sauteed with Chinese pechay and julienned carrots, salted. Crunchy and a bit sweet, it also pairs well with cubes of fried tofu.

We called these impabasik, and I couldn't find monggo in this stage in Manila when I grew upThere  was actually no togue  in my hometown when I was a child, but we had lots of impabasik. So I never knew lumpiang togue. We probably had lumpiang impabasik.

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