Thursday, February 21, 2013

Friday Monggo

I attended Ash Wednesday mass at my kids' school, and as expected, the homily was lecture-like. Since the captive audience was composed mainly of elementary and high school students, the lesson for the day was very basic, delving on the rules for Lent.

Far from being boring, I found the lecture enlightening. I attended non-sectarian schools my entire life, and even though I was active in our local parish church from Kindergarten up to high school graduation, there were many things missing in my haphazard Catholic education, which came from unstructured, irregular  catechism classes. 

One of the revelations for me was that in the Philippines all Fridays throughout the year are Lenten days, and so are subject to abstinence from meat. So now I understand why there is always monggo every Friday in every canteen, eatery and karinderia I've eaten, been to or passed by. I previously thought it is carrying a bit too far, outside Lent.   

For monggo is the ultimate symbol of penance and abstinence. It is considered lowly, and is sold cheap, but like the bread and fish in the parable, it multiplies when cooked to feed countless mouths. 

It is also very nutritious. Monggo stew is a hearty, filling one-pot meal that's good any day of the week. It has become a favorite that I actually consider it a treat to eat come Fridays.  
This is how to cook monggo. Wash and drain the beans, then put in a large pot with water. Monggo beans is usually sold in packets of 250 grams. This needs about 3-4 liters of water for cooking, and is good for about a dozen, even more, people when cooked.

Cover and bring to a boil for approximately one hour, checking regularly to add water as needed. When the beans are soft and have split or the green hulls have separated from the seeds, add preferred vegetables and/or leaves. Season to taste. Bring to a boil until the added vegetables have cooked as desired. Remove from heat.

Peel several cloves of garlic and crush with a flat, wooden ladle or the handle of a big knife. Peel a small onion and slice thinly. Wash 3-5 medium tomatoes and slice into quarters or smaller. 

In a frying pan heat some oil, then saute the garlic in it, stirring until a bit brown. Add the onion, and fry until translucent. Mix in the tomatoes and stir. Let the tomatoes cook until wilted and soft. Transfer everything in the pan to the pot of cooked monggo, stirring well to incorporate. Ladle into a bowl and serve. 

That is the basic way of cooking it, and from there it can be taken to a multitude of different directions. In Palawan I've eaten monggo with banana blossom cooked in gata. In Pangasinan we add bagoong and a thumb of peeled ginger to the cooking monggo, just like how we cook all our vegetables. 

If using meats - fatty slices of pork or chopped chicken - they are added halfway through the cooking time of the beans. If meat is added in Pangasinan we season with salt or patis but not bagoong. When not using meat, since it's usually for Lenten Friday, we season with bagoong then add a piece of grilled bangus just before turning off the heat. Some people like adding crushed chicharon on top when ready to serve, though I don't favor it because I like chicharon crunchy, not waterlogged.

Outside of Lent I like adding left-over grilled meats - lechong manok, most frequently - to any stew. I even keep the bones for making soup stock. When using, I usually add the grilled meat right after cooking, and mix this into the stew.

Almost any kind of vegetable can be added to the stew. Ampalaya is the most common, probably to keep with the penitential theme. As is ampalaya leaves. We frequently combine ampalaya fruit, deseeded and sliced thinly, with malunggay leaves. A grand-aunt liked her stew with the local spinach. My in-laws added bagbagkong when in season.

Whatever mixture it is, it would be prudent to remember some things when eating monggo. Cook the beans thoroughly to avoid indigestion and even constipation. There is no need for pre-soaking. It would also be wise to serve it only during lunch. Store cooled leftovers in a clean, tight container in the ref and serve the next day reheated. When the leftover stew has formed little bubbles, throw it away.

And lastly, the best kind of beans for stewing is the one with tiny fuzz all over, like sprinkled with a fine dust. They cook to a thick soup.  

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The Three Forms of Monggo
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chinese New Year's Eve 2013 in Binondo

With the promise of buying some sports equipment as prizes for good behavior in school, I dragged my older kids to the oldest Chinatown in the world, again on the eve of the Chinese new year.

And then I was cursing under my breath, and wondering aloud why people should choose to buy hopia on that very same day that they knew lots of people would be flocking to Binondo, so that the lines snaked out and around the several Eng Bee Tin shops along Ongpin Street, and by the time we arrived at lunchtime the only flavors available were, to my extreme horror!, just mongo and ube.

I was there to buy the new custard hopia, introduced last year, but of course there was not one piece left. I don't care much for Chinese tikoy, which lined shops' outer walls several boxes deep, so we were in danger of being empty-handed. Empty-stomached, more like. 

Of course I conveniently forgot that I chose to be there on new year's eve, too, when I could have bought custard hopia just the day before, or the weekend before. Hopia is available Mondays to Saturdays, year-round, after all. To confirm my greatest fear, EBT staff said other hopia flavors would be available come Monday, two days after. 

I am in Divisoria, and Ongpin, several times a year, but the vibe during new year's eve is just incomparable. I can walk by myself along the entire narrow stretch of alley that is Ongpin Street any day, poking into shops left and right, but on new year's eve I walk with throngs in the middle of the road to the beat of drums and in sync with dancing dragons and lions. There is the danger of being sideswept by cars or the tail of a horse dragging a kalesa - I can't understand why they can't close the street to vehicular traffic even for just one day in a year - but I rely on Chinese superstition and belief in karma to get me through to my several destinations unscathed.  

Roughly at midpoint along Ongpin, by a small alley and at the outer wall of a building, is this enshrined crucifix, with laminated posters on each side with the prayer before lighting a candle. That was for Catholics, or even Christians, who happened to pass by, I suppose. 

But the funny thing was, up close I saw hundreds of smoking incense sticks at the base of the crucifix. When I crossed to the other side of the alley I noted people - Chinese, physically - were lighting these sticks and bowing down several times, like they would in a Chinese Buddhist temple. 

To the side, a little away from the cross, was the space for lighting candles. For the Catholics. How this happened would be a very interesting tale to listen to, but at that moment I didn't have anyone to ask, though I noticed that several cultural tour groups happened to pass by and it looked like it was one of their destinations, but I didn't see the guides.

I seem to recall that this crucifix holds some major import, though I can't recall from where or when I got that. I think this was a landing site of our colonizers, thus the cross. I may be wrong, but I can't seem to find anything on the internet about this as of this time. 

 Hindu monks chanting around Plaza Calderon, where stands a giant statue of the first Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz.

The charms being peddled street-side were the same as last year, with the exception of this miniature walis-tambo look-alike, made with palay sheaves, the husked rice still attached.

We did get our hands on some custard at the end. And I mean, literally at the end. We started from Quentin Paredes Street, at the tail end of Ongpin Street by the Binondo Church, and walked the entire length of Ongpin all the way out to Plaza Sta. Cruz. Just inside the welcome arch from Sta. Cruz is a favorite restaurant of mine, where we had dinner, and across it is an EBT branch. It appeared to be not as visited as the other branches, for it had more hopia flavors, including the custards kept in the chillers. 

The custards come in classic and ube, the filling totally devoid of kamote but filled with light, eggy sweetness. 

They had the latest product, too, the Mochi Kreme. Mochi in strawberry, ube and queso flavors with sweetened cream deep in the heart of their kamote filling. They are kept frozen, and are recommended to be eaten frozen.  

We were full from surveying the menus of two restaurants in half a day, so it was after a while when we felt we could eat and fully savor the mochi. They were already warm to the touch, and the cream had melted, but they were still a joy to eat, the cream inside the filling unexpected but very welcome.

We were told by the EBT staff that we could refreeze the balls, so we ate just one of the two packs in the box the mochis are sold in, and put the other pack in the freezer when we got home. The next day, we took it out, and understood why they are frozen. 

The glutinous rice went from ordinary sticky to chewy, makunat, fighting with each bite. It struggled, but gave way to stickiness still, and then on to the softness of the kamote filling. The silky frozen cream is a reward for all the patience and perseverance. Three grades of tactility, all in one small bite. 

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lugaw at the Office

It's been frosty at the office, not because of intrigues, but because the cold Siberian winds have weakened the sun's power at this time of the year, greatly enhancing the cooling intensity of our building's air-conditioners. There have been thick, grey clouds, too, blanketing skies for as far as we could see, that proceeded to drizzle last night.

That put us right in the mood for lugaw, delivered right to our offices smoking hot. Lugaw in the common language is the local equivalent of congee - soupy rice that is a canvas ready for swaths and slashes of contrasting and complementary flavors. There is fried minced garlic for the savory, finely sliced spring onion for spice, and sliced kalamansi for a citrusy dimension.

In our suki's vocabulary lugaw has two definitions - goto (tripe) or isaw (intestines and various offals).  Both versions possessing bite, adding chewy texture to the softness of the rice porridge, but the isaw proving to be the more flavorful. Chicken arroz caldo is by special order, and requires advanced booking.

It is quite difficult eating chicken arroz caldo at the office, with small containers and plastic spoons and forks that are bound to break at the slightest try of slicing meaty chicken parts. But we order chicken lugaw more often since the average age is high, and uric acid and hypertension are big concerns. We order the chicken  meat shredded, and it comes topped on the lugaw

To ramp things up a bit for us young ones, we order a bilao of tokwa't baboy - fried squares of tofu and pork belly. This comes with a 1-liter bottle of dipping sauce - a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce and minced onions. They are traditionally eaten together, but I make my lugaw lumpy and more substantial by mixing in the tokwa't baboy into my bowl. I then pour some dipping sauce over, and this produces a vinegary, sweet-salty porridge with chewy morsels. 

Also delivers ginataang bilo-bilo!

Aling Baby's Lugawan

But I have a new favorite. It offers a choice of chicken wings or adobong atay at balun-balunan as topping to the lugaw, besides the default goto. Chicken wings are more skin and bones, but adobo on lugaw was an eye-popping revelation. But then it shouldn't have come as a surprise, since it is quite difficult to eat adobo without rice, and this is is just a soupy version.  

As it goes, all lugaw orders from any lugawan comes with garlic, spring onions and kalamansi. This lugaw goes further in the congee route by providing chili oil. Which heats up things a bit more. Tokwa't baboy can also be ordered separately, plus boiled eggs are available, priced per piece.

Since Lent is fast approaching, I'll be okay with eating lugaw at the office regularly, even if the cold disappears. But then it won't be penitence with these.

JEJ Lugawan

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

Hometown Fiesta 2013

After many, many long years,  I was back in my hometown in time to witness this year’s fiesta celebrations. I haven’t experienced the town fiesta ever since I went to college, mainly because it was on fixed dates and was never moved to weekends.  This year it fell on a Tuesday, but I was home because I had to accompany a balikbayan relative who attended her high school class’ 50th year reunion.

And so for the first time I experienced Balikbayan Night, which has been celebrated annually for as long as I can remember, but of course it had always been an inaccessible event. Not that I coveted to participate – there were at least three nights of baile during the fiesta, and they were attended by people generations removed from mine. And music was provided by live orchestras whose entire repertoires came from the eras of my grandparents and beyond.

Much to my surprise, food was served for all the returning natives and their company. I don’t know if this had been a long-time practice, and I wonder where the funds came from, since the balikbayans, for once, weren’t charged a registration fee.

The food was simple, and just enough to refresh after the exhibition of antics on the dance floor. While the drums and the trombones of the live orchestra boomed and echoed throughout the town auditorium,  uniformed servers circled tables with plates of fried, salted peanuts, flavored Calasiao puto which I found thoughtful, and sliced suman. The big news was, there was lechon.

But the even bigger news was, the lechon was amazingly, gorgingly good. A chopping table was staged at the back, from where issued plates heaped with squares of lean and tender meat topped with thin, crispy skin. Each piece was garlicky and succulent. The baile started at 8PM, so we had dinner at home and were still full by the time the refreshments were served. But we couldn't help but eat, and eat, the lechon, and eyed regretfully what we couldn’t finally take in, left coagulating in fat in the cool evening air.

Suddenly I found I harbored respect for the organizers of the event, overlooking the fact that they campaigned for the upcoming elections right then and there even though the campaign period was still months away. And I smirked at my relative who was called, along with all the balikbayans, to march all around the auditorium and come up to the stage to shake hands with the local officials.

At dawn the following day a mute procession of santos from the town’s barangay chapels wound its way around the streets of the poblacion. Flickering amber rays from a multitude of candles barely pierced that thick black darkness just before sunrise, flinging shadows like ebony puppets.

Just three hours later, in the full brightness of sunshine, came the town parade, tracing the same route.  It was a long one, with all the government officials and public school teachers, though all the ones I knew weren’t there anymore.  To my amusement, innumerable elementary and high school drum and lyre bands, marching on every two minutes or so along the parade, provided lively cacophony. They came in colorful satin costumes, dragging along drums and xylophones bigger than they were.

There were bigger ates and kuyas from the invited (hired, most probably) drum and bugle corps of several colleges in the province. After the parade I dragged my relative back to the auditorium to watch the exhibition pieces of these DBCs. I wanted to see particularly the exhibition by the band from the Virgen Milagrosa University in San Carlos City, which had won, in my teens, national championships for years in a row.

We could hear the music from the house, but I wanted to see, because the DBCs do not just play music - they perform to it, too. Unlike the live orchestra of the night before which had a gaggle of slinky-dressed girls barely into their teens cavorting in front of the musicians, the DBCs had the musicians themselves cavorting around the now covered auditorium.

VMU was as good as ever, playing “in” tunes, including the inescapable Gangnam,  as well as melodies my mother had sung to. The fast numbers were choreographed, with quite a few changes in formation.

Like my balikbayan, I’m glad I went. And now, having lived in several places, I realize the way we celebrate fiesta is quite distinct. I noted before that I was perplexed that in Cavite several fiestas were observed in a year, because in my hometown there is that one single, but over-the-top, observance. It was a discovery for me to know that my hometown fiesta – a commemoration of the town’s patron saint in thanksgiving and supplication, so is mainly a religious event – has been embraced by the local government and has made it also its own, staging around it secular events.

So the several nights of baile – socialization for the 73 barangay kapitans and their sanggunian, the balikbayan night, climaxing towards the town parade and the main baile that ends with a pageant of the town’s fairests. A fair with games and rides is set up on government land two months before the fiesta, and stays there for a month more afterwards. Without these the fiesta would be a very sedate affair, with only the silent dawn procession and a mass officiated by the archbishop of Lingayen, who then confirms the baptisms of the past year.

We are religious to some degree, but I don’t think we would have come home to pay homage to our patron saint, who is not that very well known. So it’s a good thing there is no separation of God and state in my hometown’s case. It has always been, and remains a good excuse to meet with long-seen relatives and friends and schoolmates, be entertained, and together eat long-missed food. 

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