Rice n’ Fish

By Aileen C. Ibañez|

“…All the disciples had with them were seven loaves and a few small fish. But after Jesus broke the bread and said a prayer of thanksgiving, everyone was able to eat and was satisfied. The disciples gathered seven baskets full of leftovers… ” Mama Julita said.

“How did Jesus do that, Mama?” I wondered.

Mama Julita is a master storyteller and excellent teacher. Jesus’ miracle stories were my favorites in her repertoire of bed time stories. The story of the multiplication of bread puzzled me. As a young girl, I thought that as long as there is rice and fish on the table, life is all right.

Whenever Mama Julita narrated her heart-wrenching real-life stories back in Batan, Aklan, I wish Jesus were there to multiply bread for her. Life was tough in Aklan during the 1940’s. She was a widow who single handedly supported her two children. Those were years of struggling to make ends meet with a teacher’s meager income.

Their kaldero (pot) was oftentimes empty as their bellies were hungry. She used to run to her relatives for a kilo of rice which she promised to pay for come salary day. Mama Julita was a staunch advocate of creativity in the kitchen—the “creative recycling” philosophy is how I call it. A wise cook, according to her, can prepare a scrumptious dish with just food leftovers from the fridge. “If you know the face of poverty, you would never waste even a grain of rice,” she would lecture her “apos” (grandchildren).

“Marami kang magagawa sa bigas,” she told me. Rice was their lifesaver because it is versatile. As long as they had rice, they have hope. If they were lucky, their ulam (viand) was courtesy of a neighbor’s chicken that came wandering in their yard. Even their dog, Bantay seemed to understand their poverty. One afternoon, Bantay brought home fish it caught from a nearby river. Whenever rice was running out, lugaw (porridge) with a pinch of salt could tide them through the night.

A kilo of rice went a long way. The am from boiling rice was their milk substitute.

They ate tutong or dukut (toasted rice at the bottom of the pot) moistened with little water and sweetened with sugar. If Mama Julita had money to spare, she treated her children to homemade ampaw (puffed rice). Aklan is known for its delicious ampaw. It is a popular pasalubong from those who visited their place. However, Mama’s version of ampaw was sun-dried leftover rice fried in melted brown sugar. They were so poor that saving rice was also stretching every peso in her purse.

Mama’s Ampaw

  • leftover rice, washed and sun-dried
  • vegetable oil
  • brown sugar/muscovado sugar

Heat vegetable oil in a wok or sauce pan. Add brown sugar and stir. When the mixture starts to boil, add in rice until coated completely with the liquid mixture. Allow the rice puffs to cool down then mold into balls.

Sometimes, when “ayungin” (silver perch) was available, Mama would cook my aunt’s favorite “paksiw na isda.” Their meal was rice mixed with brown sugar and “paksiw na ayungin.” Until today, my father still sprinkles brown sugar all over his rice whenever he eats “paksiw” in memory of his old Aklan days.

My father often looks back at his childhood days when he used to foray the “bakawan” (mangroves) for “tamilok” (shipworms). The “tamilok” was a local delicacy enjoyed by those who can brave swallowing raw worms with a swig of beer. The “kinilaw na tamilok” is a popular “pulutan.” He would look for small crabs, fish, and shrimps he could take home to make “kinilaw.” He loves the freshness of this native ceviche. Aside from the cheap ingredients, easy and fast cooking of food is free—straight from Mother Nature’s bountiful pockets.

Father’s Kinilaw na Tanigue

  • ½ kilo of tanigue, cubed into bite-sized pieces
  • vinegar
  • vetsin, salt, pepper, soy sauce
  • 1 red chili (chopped)
  • 1 small piece ginger, peeled and finely minced or grated
  • 1 medium onion, sliced thinly

Place and mix all ingredients in a bowl. Add salt, pepper and vetsin as needed. Refrigerate.

I love the variations my parents put into their “kinilaw.” They use shredded green mangoes and coconut milk. For “kinilaw na talaba,” we squeeze in “calamansi.” Whenever seafood is scarce, we enjoy “kilawing puso ng saging” (banana blossoms) instead.

The “kinilaw” is one of my father’s kitchen specialties perfected from his childhood expeditions. My mother, an Ilongga, also shares the same penchant for “liquid fire” cooking with the use of vinegar and other souring agents. We enjoy a variety of fish, shellfish for our “kinilaw” depending on what is available in the market, or found in the “bilao” of our resident fish vendor, Manang Aileen. Our early market days pay off with fresh “talaba” (oysters), “dilis” (anchovy), “bangus” (milkfish), “tanigue” (Spanish Mackerel), and shrimps in our baskets.

Today, life for us has improved immensely. Thanks to Mama Julita’s frugal ways. However, my parents continue to observe her “creative recycling” principles in the kitchen. Our sinangag (garlic fried rice), for example, is more than just a breakfast mainstay, but an effective saving strategy. During tight times, my mother serves the simple sinangag of leftover rice fried with lots of garlic. It goes with tuyo (salted dried fish) and tomatoes. My mother’s sinangag travels an extra mile from our breakfast table to our lunchboxes. Leftover rice serves as kilab-ban for us kilab-ban is the Ilocano term for leftover rice eaten for afternoon merienda.

My Fried Rice Surprise

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup leftover ham, bacon or sausage, cubed
  • garlic, minced
  • onion, minced
  • ½ cup carrots, cubed
  • salt and pepper
  • egg omelet cut into strips
  • (other vegetables like peas and cabbage can also be added)
  • 3 cups rice

Heat butter in a pan/wok. Fry ham, bacon, or sausage. Add onion, garlic. Add carrots, rice, pepper, and salt to taste. Top with egg omelet strips.

Today, we can afford to buy fish for “sinigang na ulo ng isda” which is more expensive compared to the usual “paksiw na ayungin.”

Sinigang na Ulo ng Isda

  • ½ kilo “ulo ng isda,” maya-maya (snapper), talakitok (trevally) or lapu-lapu (grouper)
  • 1 pack “sinigang sa sampaloc” mix
  • 1 “labanos” (radish), sliced (optional)
  • 2 “siling haba”
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • “patis” (fish sauce)
  • vetsin and salt
  • 2 tomatoes, diced

Boil water in a pot. Place fish. Add the vegetables. Simmer. Add “patis,” vetsin, and salt to taste. Add “sinigang” mix.

Now that I have a family of my own, I see the wisdom in Mama Julita’s “creative recycling” principle. There are several magical ways to prepare an appetizing meal with just simple ingredients, or just adding something to make food look deliciously interesting and different from last night’s meal. I am a hundred times luckier. I have a variety of alternatives to choose from unlike my father who had to go out looking for food. My fried rice comes with delicious leftovers “resurrected” from the fridge. It is a game of mix-and-match where combining and reusing ingredients is a strategy to lend rice a new flavor. It is fun experimenting and tossing meat, fish, chicken, vegetables, rice, and spices into the pan.

Rice n’ fish is written all over my family’s story. My father’s humble beginnings with Mama Julita and my aunt back in Aklan are treasured tales of God’s miracles in every day. Indeed, God multiplies His blessings for those who make the most of what they have.

It was all Mama Julita, my father, and my aunt had in their time. But their resilience, faith, and determination spelled the difference.