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Etag, and Other Preserved Things

By Bea Mandapat|

1967. Lula Emeliana carries her grandson, Atan (author’s father) who is barely a year old in the photo.

She raised 13+5 in a house with steeldrum walls.

In 1918, Emeliana Sales Galpo, just 15, just married, followed her husband Donato from her hometown in Ambasing, Sagada to Itogon, Benguet in pursuit of work in the mines. When Lolo Donato was offered work as an electrician at Camp John Hay, they moved once more and settled in Liwanag, Loakan right by the airport.

The couple had acquired several emptied water drums which they cut into half cylinders then rolled flat to make rectangular panels. They used these as walls. The sturdy steel upheld the roof and made a house they called their own. “Even when you have grandchildren, this house will still stand,” she’d say, resolved. It sheltered the family during the regular monsoons and drew them close throughout the coldest November-February nights. The nails would give up before the walls gave out.

Lula Emeliana birthed 13 children. She adopted five. “The five were children of other relatives who passed away,” Lola Nora—12th of 13, my paternal grandmother—would recall. “We had to adopt the other children or else they would go hungry and die.” Die. She said it so matter-of-factly.

To keep 18 children and a husband fed on top of work as a laborer would be an impossible feat for most. To Lula Emeliana, it was but routine. Over the years the young girl uprooted from Ambasing turned into a steely strongwoman. Decisive. Pragmatic. She would sauté small chunks of salt-cured pork at the bottom of her deep cauldron. Then she would bury these in a mountain of local vegetables—repolyo, Baguio beans, carrots, chayote. Whatever her laboring yielded that season. Whatever was available and cheap.

The pork would make the vegetables less bland. As the cooked veggies would appease the children’s growling stomachs, the pork morsels would be set aside to flavor the next meal.

And the next. And the one after that. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch—used and reused until all flavor and color had drained out of the meat entirely. Only then could it be deemed maximized and okay to eat.

Such was life in the steeldrum house.
***

It’s 2008 and I stand on my tiptoes peering into my Papa’s pang-bisita cauldron. It had lost its luster from frequent use and was deep enough to fit a small child. It reminded me of our drum outside that caught water when it rained.

We would be hosting guests from Manila for dinner. He had decided that pinolpogan (similar to tinola but using seared native chicken instead of the white fluffy hens) would be an adequate welcome. He had thoroughly scouted the nearby talipapa early that morning before the other marketgoers beat him to the best. The ingredients were triumphantly laid out on our wooden countertop—native chicken, onions, ginger, salt, whole black pepper, chayote, lemongrass, and the secret ingredient.

Etag.

I pick up a small piece of smoked brown pork in between two fingers and curiously sniff the bacon-like meat. It was soy-brown instead of pink, cut thick instead of thin, and had little hairs sticking out. Pig hairs. I shove it at my sister’s nose and she pushes my hand away, disgusted. She doesn’t eat pork.
I secretly take a bite and am met by overwhelming saltiness and regret. It wasn’t meant to be eaten that way.

Meanwhile, the combination of onions and ginger start to brown at the bottom of papa’s deep cauldron signalling that it was time to add the etag. I do the honors and add the pork chunks before he places the rest of the ingredients, except the chayote which was only added when the guests arrived, lest they get soft and mushy.

He adds water, covers the pot and steps away. Papa would tell me to not lift the lid so I don’t disturb the process. “It will take time,” he’d say. But when his back was turned I would quietly disobey. Just to check.

“Ganito pala sa Baguiooo!” Our lowland friends would pour into in our La Trinidad home just as papa is making the final timpla. The fog admirers would crowd a table set for dinner.

The reactions that followed were always amusing: tired sleepy eyes and shivering limbs would jolt awake after taking two spoonfuls of broth. The first would be met with curiosity.

The second, with sheer delight. By the third spoonful, a “Kahit sabaw lang okay na ako,” would be declared at least twice.

It was no exaggeration because his pinulpugan was unlike anything else. The etag, I was certain, was what made the difference. The week’s worth of smoking had seeped into the meaty broth. The roasted, earthy flavors mingled with the fragrance of lemongrass, and freshness of (never overcooked) chayote. The oils from the hearty flesh of native chickens created a swirling thin film on the soup’s surface. It was even more delicious when it rained.

The explanation as to how a bowl of rich layers could come from such unassuming ingredients eluded me.

Such were the mysteries that happened inside steeldrum cauldrons in the middle of June.

“Next time, Papa, let’s make our own etag.” We were clearing the table after satisfied guests had gone outside to inhale more fog. I knew this much: the list of ingredients was only two items long:

1. pork belly (with fat)

2. much salt

This makes Papa laugh. It would take too much time.
***

Lola Nora said that traditionally, a native pig is used. It is killed by the neck with a sharp knife, and then roasted to remove the hairs. It is sliced, “but never washed so the flavor does not get lost.” The etag is prepared thus:

Step 1: Rub slabs of pork generously with salt.

Step 2: Hang the etag above the fire (close enough for it to be smoked but not too close that it roasts). Occasionally rotate so that each side gets equal treatment and does not feel cheated.

* The meat will develop a deeper color the longer the preservation process takes place. Pieces with darker smoke stains are often deemed the most valuable at the city market.

Step 3 (optional, and on months with frequent sun): Bring meat out outside and leave to dry under the sun for a few hours a day.

* This helps prevent a thin layer of mold from forming on the slabs.

* When the sky starts to rumble, bring inside at once.

It is believed that this way of food preservation was practiced as early as the Pre-Colonial period. Hunters would offer wild boar sacrifices to their god, Kabunyan. The meat would be distributed to members of the community. Salting and smoking allowed the meat to be kept for years and years. It lessened spoilage, and ensured that there would be provisions during the scarce months. The immense saltiness would allow it to be eaten sparingly: with much rice or to flavor potfuls to go around.
***

Wood from alnos trees releases the best aroma when smoking pork. Lula Emeliana used what was available outside—fallen pine branches. These kept the hearth crackling in one corner of their house until a small stove took its place. Over time, life became a little less difficult for Lula Emeliana and Lolo Donato. By the early 1980’s most of the 13+5 had migrated abroad or found work elsewhere. One by one they moved out of the steeldrum house until only Lola Nora, 12th or 13, remained. Without all the mouths to feed, Lula Emeliana no longer needed to use and reuse her pork. She made etag.

She spoiled her grandchildren. Lula made a heavy breakfast—thick brown pancakes, slivers of etag and a plate heaping with rice. “You cannot leave until you finish it all,” she would tell the young Atan, Tim, and Aron. She had piercing blue-gray eyes and when the apos got rowdy, one mulagat (sharp look) would make them sit up straight and finish their food.

On special occasions she would cook pinikpikan. It would usually have chayote freshly picked from the vines that, over the years, had snaked around the property. The ginger was crushed and added whole. The broth would have a milky pallor and looking back, Papa surmised this could have come from the maggots that grew in the ridges of slabs that lacked salting.

Unbothered he would say, “It added to the flavor.” Lola Nora would agree with her son.

“Also added protein,” and they would both laugh. Everyone else would laugh along but silently wonder if they were serious.
***

It’s January 2020. The long-haul Christmas festivities finally dwindle to a halt. It would be back to school, back to work for everyone in four days. There is always a certain air the night before an early morning flight at Terminal 2. The balikbayan boxes that came with Spam, lotions, Costco granola bars, and US air are ready to be refilled with died mangoes, bottled ube jam and snowballs from Good Shepherd, and jumbo packs of Boy Bawang.

Evenly cut portions of smoke-stained pork in vacuum-sealed packets are the first to go into the box. Over the years, manufacturers have found ways to commercialize the process, shortening the smoking time with technology, lengthening shelf life with more than salt. It was more convenient. Safer. Without the risk of maggot and mold.

Some may say it wasn’t like the real thing but to mouths longing for a taste of the familiar, it would be as close as it gets. Good enough. A piece of the mountains packaged in thick plastic and sealed for freshness. Stored away in cupboards among foreign goods. Home would come to the homesick when they needed it the most. The smell of it would permeate the apartment flat and stick to white walls and curtains for days. The neighbors would likely complain because of the strong odor. But it would be enough. Perhaps to conjure a memory of crisp nights in a yard behind a steeldrum house, or the sound of dinnertime laughter around a wooden table where new friends became old ones. Or maybe even the lasting image of piercing blue-gray eyes telling you to finish your food.