Chasing the Sun, Kamamangi, and Other Stories
This is a story about my mom who told stories about food and growing up in Aklan province. Everyone who knows my mom will always say that she loves to share stories, somehow she made it appear that growing up in her town of Kalibo, life was good, easy, and peaceful. Maybe we who listened to her just got caught up in her sharings and because we grew up as city folk, that way of life that was so different from ours seemed to be a nicer, happier existence.
Mom was the youngest in her brood so she fondly remembers being at home while the rest of her siblings were at school. She didn’t mind as she was often playing about with her kapitbahays who were out of school like her. Lolo would always send her off to the market nearing lunchtime to pick up his orders of protein, vegetables, and seafood to be cooked for lunch and dinner. As she would be in the market making the rounds of stalls, she always loved to tell the story of poking the poor solitary pawikans who were caught and tied up and were up for sale. She said their eyes would be so sad as she passed by so she couldn’t help but poke them so that they would retreat into their shells. At that time, if the turtles were caught they could be sold and traded. Mom says, turtles could be eaten and she recalls many a time her neighbors would give her ginataang turtles for lunch. When someone came over with her mangkok or bowl with plate covering, you had to transfer the food offering and wash the dish and give it right back to the waiting person. Sometimes after drying the dishes, you filled it up with a gift offering to say thank you.
Mom had her own favorite quotations to accompany her stories. Whenever she would talk about the food they ate growing up, she would say, “We were not that rich but we ate better than my rich relatives.” Somehow she would brag that, even her aunt who was the wife of the congressman would drop by their house and eat over whenever they wanted to as the cooking in the Reyes household tasted better and was more sumptuous and filling.
Lolo Ayong being an old wise man in their town would always be sought to for advice and was looked up to. So most often they had visitors who needed to discuss things with lolo. If they dropped by at mealtime, no one was made to wait if the family was eating but in fact would be invited to join the family as they ate. There was always a place for visitors at the dining table. This is a trait that mom has shown my entire life. No one left her house hungry and if it was lunchtime and there were workers or passersby that had business with someone, people were always invited to eat. Something would be offered if they declined to partake of a meal. A tray of juice or cold water with some biscuits or a kakanin would be sent out so that the guest had something to munch on. My mom and even my aunt who lived with us would always encourage the guest to eat more or just to try a little if they really did not want to eat.
There was also the Reyes family trait of always having enough food if you have people over. Mom always cautioned about not inviting if you will just leave your guests wanting or they still pass by somewhere to grab food after being at your place. She really frowned on weddings that had bitin or just enough food. As Lolo Ayong would say, “You are not taking care of your guests if you leave them wanting and you worry too much about costs. Don’t bother having a party at all.” Somehow the Reyes family members seem to adhere to this as most often, my cousins who grew up in other provinces are wont to really go all out when they have fiestas or parties. It is not that they want leftovers or they do not know how to budget food… it is just because growing up you know this is the family culture, everyone exhibits it. My cousins love to cook and have people over. I sometimes chide them for being overextending as they will feed you the best, freshest, and richest seafood around, even if mom would comment, “How many guests are coming… the whole baranggay?” She would say that with a twinkle in her eye as she knows, Lolo Ayong’s influence is evident.
I am not my mother’s daughter physically as I look like barako dad but mom is the girl version of Lolo Ayong. So she must have imbibed a lot of his traits and outlook.
When mom talked about Kalibo food she ate growing up, aside from the wonderful crispy oh-so-yum lechon, she never talked about rich, tomato-sauce based dishes or stews. She would talk about the tuway that was abundant, it was a clam that Lolo either grilled or would put into the soup with ginger and corn and sili leaves and other things Lolo found in his backyard or was given as gifts by neighbors. She would say that this dish was so fragrant, it might be light to eat but it was also filling enough to last till merienda time. I grew up learning the Aklanon words for certain dishes as she would identify dishes by her native tongue even in Manila. Apan apan was adobong kangkong. There was tuway and there was also steamed kagu-ko which for the life of me I always assume would be the same clams but she insists they are not. Mom introduced us to eating lato or sea grapes as even in Manila she could find it available in Farmer’s Market. She would complain though that for some reason the clams of her childhood were bigger than the ones in Manila. Even if she bought halaan or tahong or something else… not only were they not tasting as good , but they do not smell clean or fresh as they did when she was growing up. Sizewise she said they have shrunk and also their meat is not as big or as flavorful. I enjoyed eating lato growing up as I liked popping the little balls with my fingers so by the time I ate them, they would just be simply stalks. Mom referred to them as eaba-eaba in her own tongue.
Mom going to the market to prepare for the stuff she will bring back to Manila always makes for a good story. Even at this day and age, she would still go to the market and request to buy twenty pesos worth of bagoong, guinamos, dayok, sisi, etc. I told mom aren’t you ashamed of asking the tindera for those prices as what are they giving you is just a teaspoon size only? The plastic is costlier than what you are buying! She has never bought those packed in the lapad bottles as she says she can’t taste before she buys. Once she starts packing her tingi purchases together with the other pasalubong of smoked longanisa, crispy shrimps, we worry that she will run out of goodies as there are more expectant receivers than there is stash. My cousin will distract her and will tell mom that she will just finish up the packing so that mom can rest. That is the time manang secretly includes Tupperware packs of more bagoong supot stashes. She will bury them underneath the other dried fish wrapped in newspaper and barquiron goodies that people miss from back home. There will always be lots of space for the grassfed lechon cuts that would be bought on the day of the flight so the lechon skin would still be crisp. Kalibo lechon is stuffed with tanglad and sampaloc leaves and other herbs and salted just right that I grew up not really needing sarsa to go with it. Aside from the crispy skin, we would fight over the ribs as the tastiest bits of meat would be attached to it.
They say you can take the girl out of the province but you can never take the province out of her completely. One gift that I have gotten from the Aklanon folks is that I know how to preserve food by drying. I remember eating Lolo Ayong’s tapa with sinangag and guinamos that had a splash of calamansi juice and suka with sili on the side and it is my fondest breakfast meal memory. That meal can beat any tapsilog meal in a good restaurant any day.
Lolo made his own tapa and I remember distinctly how he does it. When he came home from the market, he washed the pork strips and patted them dry. He also did the same for the beef strips he had just brought home. His beef slices were red and had good marbling of fat in it. Lolo portioned off equal parts of sugar and salt into mounds, to which he added black pepper. He rubbed his spice mixture into the meat till it was well absorbed. He did this both to the pork and the beef, as he had measured enough to use on both. Then he would get a bilao or two depending on how many slices of meat he needed to dry out. He arranged them well in the bilao… each meat strip was separate from the other so it could dry nicely. It was my job to watch over the bilaos and prevent the stray cats from getting to them.
When the meat slices had nicely dried up, Lolo would pack them in his plastic container and store them away from sunlight. Come breakfast time, the cook would simply get enough slices to fry in lard and that would wake me up in the bahay bakasyunan.
In Manila, mom also dries her fish… she will have the vendor cut her fish up but when she gets home, she will wash it. Then she will apply a salt, garlic black pepper rub on her fish fillets and put them in the bilao. In Manila, it is not just my job to keep the fish safe from the cats that abound… but I had to chase the sun also as every few hours, the sun’s rays would no longer be strong enough to dry the fish. So I have to continually move the bilao or plate to catch the sunlight.
I do dry my own stuff too… aside from kamias which I have learned to sundry, I also use solar energy to dry up my chili peppers. So the sun drying technique is in my DNA. I spend most of my time these days chasing the sun.
For me, to properly share the food Nanay grew up with which she exposed us to eating, I would need another essay. I had told myself while watching mom go around the market in Tacloban that if I was going to write another food essay, I would talk about her and what I and the barako boys have learned from listening to her stories and also going around with her to local markets.
There are things I just know because mom grew up in a seafood town. She is my mom, and this is what she fondly eats. Mom always values flavor, that the simple food she ate should be malasa. She can survive on her dried fish with good suka to dip it in. She simply pairs it with plump juicy tomatoes and some wansoy as the accompaniment. As I have noticed, Aklanons enjoy their guinamos. The dark fish bagoong which I grew up knowing as balayang bagoong is a favorite dipping sauce in the province. I remember that I found it odd to see boiled firm saging na saba being dipped into balayan bagoong… I thought boiled saging goes with butter.
And why is my essay titled chasing the kamamangi? The kamamangi are little crablets similar to talangka who live at shore’s edge. During full moon, mom and her buddies always enjoyed strolling by the water’s edge and talking about life and wondering about their own futures. Part of feeling alive was to chase down the kamamangis. They had an extra whisker and low intelligence quotient according to mom’s stories… so as they were like ants going about in groups… you ran after them to disturb them and laugh as they scampered away. They were not edible but only good to be chased away.
I have this picture of my mom as a younger version of herself laughing in her distinctive style and chasing these creatures. How she enjoys doing it and just like everything she ate and she shared with us, it gets stored in our memory bank of how mom is and what she gifted us with. And most food memories we have are also memories that include love, comfort, and being really in it.