My Gulaman Reminiscences: From the Cauldron to the Molders

By Jess Nazar Antony D. Gannaban|

I was five years old when I landed my first job as assistant cook to my mom. I was, however, only on call whenever she prepared “gulaman (agar-agar),” a jelly flan made from processed agar, milk, sweeteners, and flavoring ingredients. From then on, I have become ever eager to assist my mom—an enthusiasm that springs from my belief (and observation) that whenever my mom prepares gulaman, it is her way of saying that something celebratory is in the offing or at least, something dear to her heart calls for a celebration. For example, when my siblings and I graduated from elementary and high school, my mom prepared molders of gulaman flans, instead of spending on sumptuous lechon feasts. To me, that was her way of telling us that such a celebration was very special to her. Thus, even until these days, whenever my mom prepares such a mouth-watering dessert, I still gamely lend her a hand.

Looking back, the process of preparing gulaman tested the mettle of my young, impatient self. I believe that such early culinary experience must have taught me what psychologists now call “grit.” There were times when I felt it took ages to shred (or more precisely, tear to bits) the bars of unflavored gulaman. My mom would always remind me that if I do not tear the bars to fine pieces, it would also take long for the agar-agar to melt inside the water-filled cauldron. I knew of course that it was impossible for the shredded gulaman bars to melt on their own, so continuous stirring was necessary; and if it would take long for the bars to melt, then I would also spend ages stirring. Wise as I was then, I always resisted the urge to slovenly shred the gulaman bars, else I prolong my agony. I was therefore unimaginably patient for a five-year old, or so as I can still remember. Good thing my older brother was around to annoy me. He always ended up getting a lecture from my mom on how to treat me nicely.

One of the perks of being my mom’s assistant cook, at least back then, was that it gave me the world-class privilege of being the first to taste the gastronomic invention that was my mom’s “gulaman dessert” recipe. From the cauldron to the molders, the heaven-sent aroma could not keep my taste buds from savoring a ladleful of simmering agar-filled liquid that in a few minutes will be glistening, delicious jelly flans. I would always hear my mom say in her loud voice, “Mauubos na ‘yang gulaman na ‘yan. Wala nang matitira para sa molders.” Good thing she took my attempt at such a terrific “taste test” kindly—and still invited me to more sessions of preparing gulaman—that even before I learned how to cook rice, I already knew when a gulaman could satisfy one’s palate.

One vivid memory that stands out of my reminiscing was how we—those of us who grew up to witness how my mom would wield her magic over her culinary creation—would fight over the delicious lumps of unmelted gulaman bars that formed right after the agar-filled mixture is strained into the molders. We would scrape the inside of the fine-mesh strainer for a taste of the chewy, tapioca-like lumps and laugh at each other’s greedy attempt to scoop the largest share, which almost always ended in someone getting her taste buds burned. The assistant cook, as always, had the last chuckle, because he took with him the biggest share. It makes me smile at how, even years later, I and my older sister—with our younger siblings sometimes joining the petty fray—still fight over the same thing: the lumps in the strainer. Man, they really taste good!

Thus, these days, whenever I go home for the holidays, I always look forward to experiencing the joy that can only be had from my early years of “romantic affair” with the ever delightful gulaman flans. Reliving such culinary experience, I think, involves resurrecting my memories of the good old days when my mom still labored at transforming the humble Filipino sweet course called gulaman into a godsend, perfect dessert. I wonder however if my pursuit at reviving the old will help the new blood in the family—they, who are exposed to modern gastronomic trends—realize the wonders of “experiencing” my mom’s gulaman recipe.

It sometimes occurs to me that it may take a stretch of one’s imagination and sensory gusto to fathom if the humble gulaman will ever earn a berth in the celebrated desserts known to modern palate; namely cakes, pies, and pastries among others. This might be the case for this new generation of foodies who revere with religious awe the desserts just mentioned. However, to anyone who has been immersed in the culinary culture that is the Philippines’, I believe that such degree and attitude of acceptance is no longer necessary. After all, the jelly flan dessert known to every Filipino as gulaman already enjoys a following that can only come from “experiencing” the dessert in its many forms: In the popular “Sago at Gulaman” thirst-quenchers peddled on the streets during the summer months; as the “Special Gulaman Flan” served at fancy restaurants; and as a delightful garnish for fruit salads and halo-halo. Simply put, gulaman has always been alive in our “dessert philosophy.” Unfortunately though, it has perhaps become so generic to what we now brand as “our sophisticated palate,” that most of us think of the humble gulaman as not, in any way, comparable to other gourmet sweet courses.

The truth, however, is that gulaman has always existed in our culinary paradigm, which, in itself, centers on transforming a humble ingredient into a remarkable and delightful dish. Indeed, it is a culinary treasure that is truly Filipino in creativity and plurality. It also suggests, and to an extent, reflects a culture of innovation that best manifests itself on how Filipinos reinvent and re-work a recipe, the essence of which is the celebration of an inexpensive ingredient. In other words, gulaman tells the story of a multicultural people who can create something new and remarkably appealing out of what is so ordinary—the way Filipinos manage to build something out of what is simple. Finally, on a personal note, the frugal ingredient recounts the story of a son who, as a child, made unforgettable memories helping his mom prepare the most delectable gulaman dessert in the world. These beautiful stories, I think, deserve to be told.