By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Happily, Iloilo City now has the added distinction of being the first in the Philippines to be included in the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) list of Creative Cities For Gastronomy. This is quite a feat, though not really surprising. Here, even the lowliest peon you pass as you walk by a construction site during the lunch break, politely urges you: “Kain po tayo” as he grabs a bite from his little plastic bag of rice, tagabak nga ugá (tuyô) and kamatis. At least that was the way it was when a kilo of this backyard vegetable didn’t cost from 20%-35% of a minimum wage earner’s daily pay. Those were the days. . . Since mid-2022, pang-gisa has become a luxury for the masses.
As expected, the better known Ilonggo dishes like pancit molo and valenciana have evolved from our Chinese and Spanish roots. Unfortunately, many are now adulterated with sugar, as the Pinoy palate of the last three or so generations, treats sugar as a ubiquitous condiment. IMO, the most heretical, promiscuous and execrable uses of sugar in Ilonggo cuisine have been in kinilaw, and baked talaba. An undeservedly popular, tourist trap restaurant puts powdered milk in the latter, as a cheap substitute for butter and cream. Imagine talaba or any shellfish for that matter, as not even tahong (mussels) has been spared, slathered in mushy, mashed up polvoron and topped with grated cheese food, or better yet, don’t, unless you fancy Pinoy fusion at its arguable worst. Incidentally, this same restaurant adds what suspiciously appear to be left-over bits of pork barbecue to their valenciana—you know, those grisly, fatty end bits, left uneaten on the bamboo skewers. Never again.
Batchoy at its best should have a slow-cooked broth swimming with offal and meat, then topped with chicharon, golden brown bits of garlic and slivers of spring onions. What gives the broth its rich umami taste are precisely the variety meats—the meat liver, knuckles and the intestines of both pork and beef. Innards do take a longer time to cook, and sadly, in many establishments batchoy has become a victim of fast food culture. I made the mistake of going before the noontime lunch crowd to a batchoyan in the La Paz market, only to learn that the intestines had not been added just yet, because according to the cook, these take longer to tenderize. Fast food style batchoy without all the fixings, tastes like thin, anaemic, instant mami noodles from a cellophane pack, not the fresh miki al dente. Definitely no umami but just plain meh. Actually the only batchoyan I have found so far, that does consistently include liver and intestines, is not in La Paz, but in Jaro. This cutting corners by leaving out the laman loob is also evident in dinuguan, and not just in Iloilo. It’s a nationally deplorable epidemic.
A society’s skill in transforming organ meats, offal and other animal by-products, by rescuing these from the dung heap or kanin baboy slop pail, in order to create imaginative gustatory treats, indicates its ingenuity and creativity. Thus a recipe for Inadobo nga Biga-biga kag Parong sang Manok (Native Chicken innards, unlaid eggs and combs braised in Vinegar) and Inadobo nga Biga-biga (Vinegar-braised Pig Rectum) are included in Iloilo’s top chef Rafael “Tibóng” J. Jardeleza, Jr.’s very accessible and doable recipe book Flavors of Iloilo which has just won the 2023 National Book Award for the Best Book On Food. Published in 2022 by the Iloilo City Government and edited by the redoubtable Michaela Fenix, it is scrumptiously designed by Ige Ramos, and features dishes which are most iconic of the Ilonggo table.
There are the mundane daily dishes such as Laswa (Backyard Vegetable Garden Stew), Tortang Lobo-lobo (Dulong or Silver Fish Omelette) and Inadobong Takway (Gabi or Taro Tendrils Braised in Coconut Vinegar). Note that Chef Tibóng favors the subtler organic native tuba vinegar sold in recycled softdrink litro bottles, and found only in the palengke (wet market), over the FDA-approved chemical-laden, sharply acidic, factory mass-produced, vinegar in the grocery store. Buying this is a great way to support our coconut farmers who are among the most impoverished agricultural workers.
Flavors of Iloilo offers the best of both worlds with Iloilo’s buena familia foodies sharing their recipes for the bonggadacious fare served up on special occasions such as Bacalao ala Treñas (as in the Iloilo City Mayor Jerry P. Treñas) and the Jardeleza family’s own Cocido (Three Kinds of Boiled Meat with Fideo). Kansi (beef stew soured with batwan or Garcinia binucao) is not in this recipe book, because Chef Tibóng says it is pretty much all over the Western Visayas, not just in Iloilo. True, the best kansi I have had was in a fusion shepherd’s pie in Bacolod City, Negros Occ.
When I asked my new cook who hails from our Gustilo-Griño hometown of Leganes to prepare kansi for our guests, she stared at me blankly. Then I realized that the consumption of beef, chicken and pork is still rare even among the semi-rural, working poor—and not just in Iloilo. “Namantikaan ang nguso” (greasy lips) is a Tagalog expression of contempt for one who uses ill-gotten gains to indulge in such unaccustomed fare as pork. The lack of quality protein in the poor’s diets is surely a factor in the dismal state of illiteracy and general ignorance among Filipino students as our PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings have proven for years. The only beef our cook’s children ate of late, was in yumburgers during her payday’s.
Curious, I asked her and the other three kasambahay who came from even more interior towns, what they customarily had for their Noche Buena. That festive occasion was not part of their family tradition, but on Christmas Day itself, as well as on their birthdays, their kinfolk might gather together to munch on Pinoy Tasty Bread, washed down with iced softdrinks from the neighbourhood sari-sari store.
My cook has a certificate of completion for a free culinary livelihood course, sponsored by a religious order of nuns which she attended during evening classes in Iloilo City proper. They had not done any actual cooking but had listened to lectures (no visual aids or printouts) and diligently taken notes. Since attendance entailed commuting, she might actually have been better off watching how to YouTube videos on how to cook. She informed me that, nonetheless, she had learned how to make a spaghetti Bolognese sauce, flavoured with a small can of condensada and offered to cook this for my family’s noche Buena. Not to our taste, thank you, but for her four children who will be here in my house during their Christmas break, there will be fried chicken, escabecheng lapu-lapu, jamon, buko fruit salad and sweet Pinoy spaghetti as well, served with their customary Tasty Bread and iced tea. Merry Christmas and God bless us all everyone.
Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (Iloilo Represents Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction–but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.