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My Mother’s Bayong of Memories

By Elsa Rubias|

You know how someone always says to you, “It tastes just like chicken!” when you are confronted with a dish you know not where it crawled or swam from, much less its name. I myself would never eat anything remotely exotic unless I’m assured that one, it’s actually edible, and two, I have to have seen it before it’s cooked. Just to be sure that it is what it’s supposed to be.

But when I was still in the elementary grades, I didn’t really care where my food came from. I was more curious what my food looked like before it was cooked. I would wait impatiently till my mother came back from the market and I’d poke around in her market bayong. I still recall the ones she used made of greenish woven buri leaves that turned brown and brittle in time. These were later replaced by thick multi-colored woven plastic bayong, predominantly emerald green in color. My mother liked the plastic ones better because they were washable and their handles were sturdier. The frayed buri bayong was retired for the use of our single native hen. It would snuggle inside the bayong to serve as its coop and nest for the rest of the bayong’s useful life.

My mother always carried at least two bayong to the market, back when it was de rigueur unlike today when people use it to make an eco-environmental statement or are to forced to because plastic bags don’t come free anymore. One bayong was for the fruits and assorted vegetables. It was always brimming with bunches of leeks, pechay tagalog, kangkong, camote tops, sili, ampalaya, or alugbati leaves. Leeks were for soup with white fish only. Pechay tagalog went into beef or pork broth with potatoes, saba bananas, and cabbage. Kangkong for the pork or shrimp sinigang, camote tops for the fish soup soured with tomatoes, kamias, and coconut vinegar, sili leaves for the chicken tinola, and alugbati or ampalaya tops were essential for the monggo soup with thin slices of ampalaya. Looking back, I don’t recall my mother ever making a dish of sautéed greens with say, oyster sauce and ground pork, like I do now. Talbos went into soup and that’s that.

The other bayong held the meats and the seafood. I wasn’t really much fond of the pinkish pork cuts with their thick skins and some tough pig’s hair sticking out, or the dark beef marbled with yellow fat, but I found the plucked chickens with their dry skin and bony backs much more intriguing, with the innards jammed into its cavity by my mother’s chicken suki. Sometimes, there would be tiny raw chicken eggs bundled together like grapes in a bunch. They would be different sizes, from marble-sized to bigger ones the size of lanzones. They’d turn egg-yolk yellow once cooked, hard-boiled eggs without the white part and the shells, and everyone would want to get to them first. And always there would be gelatin-like red chicken blood. Uncooked rice grains had been sprinkled on top of it and it would simmer with the tinola broth. It would turn brown with white rice sprinkled on top, looking like milk chocolate with rice crispies. I remember it was also one the first things that disappeared fast once the tinola was set on the table. It was very tasty and so easy to eat, no need to pick meat from the bones. The last chicken parts that no one wanted to eat were the chicken feet with wrinkly rough skin and its toes sticking out of the bowl. To this day I still don’t like to eat chicken feet, even if they’ve been marinated in soy sauce and looking perfectly delicious.

Chicken feet aside, the sight of raw food never grossed me out. Maybe because my mother was never one to be squeamish and that trait rubbed off on me. I’d marvel at the live crabs, snails or susó, the tahong and halaan, or the occasional oysters she’d make into an oily and gummy fried oyster cake topped with young onion leaves. I often ate snails cooked in gata when I was much younger simply because my mother loved that dish and she’d cooked ginataang susó whenever she’d bring home live ones from the market. First she’d let the snails sit for sometime in a shallow basin with lightly salted water to let them spit out whatever detritus they need to expel. She did this too with anything that had shell on it, except with crabs and shrimps. Sometimes I’d watch the basin and catch a few escaping and climbing over the side of the basin. I always avoided going near the tahong and halaan in their briny bath because they’d shoot out the water into the air. The shells would get scrubbed before finally getting into the deep frying pan with the sizzling garlic, onion, and most essential of all spices for this dish, lots of mature ginger. Coconut cream and a couple of finger chilies would follow and everything would simmer gently. My mother wasn’t so fond of spicy dishes but she’d put in a finger chili or two just to give a hint of heat and essentially to kill off lansa. I’d know the dish is done by the way it smells, fragrant and sweet-smelling. If you’ve never had some, I’ll tell you that snails never tasted like chicken, never will, but they sure are tasty, enjoyable, and a mess to eat with all the slurping and picking one needs to do to get the snail meat. You have to believe me when I say it’s one dish that’s never fun to eat when you’re alone. I don’t know why but some food tastes better when it’s eaten with company and this is definitely one of them. Maybe because making slurping sounds and pursing your lips at the same time adds auditory and visual impressions that’s best shared with someone else, notwithstanding that it’s really not a pretty sight. My plate would end up with a little mountain of snail shells at the end of the meal, proof that I enjoyed eating the snails very much.

My mother always, always bought fish that came from the ocean—dilis, sapsap, tamban, galunggong, dalagang bukid, hasa-hasa, alumahan, matang baka, tulingan, espada, maya-maya, tambakol, lapu-lapu for my father who loved it in clear broth with ginger and young onion leaves, and some I can’t recall the names anymore. Fish in our home would be turned into many delicious dishes—made into soup, steamed, or grilled over live charcoal if the fish is really fresh, perhaps fried, made into sarciado or escabeche, or stuffed, if it’s bangus. She grew up not eating dalag or hito, and it was the same for us her children. Bangus was the closest to a fresh-water fish that we ate and it was only because bangus really came from the sea.

But my mother’s all-time favorite seafood was shrimp—sugpo, suahe, or tiny ones for torta and bagoong alamang she’d make herself. She’d carefully mix salt and the alamang by hand, cover the container, and let it ferment in a cool dry spot off the side of the kitchen, occasionally checking on it if it’s coming along fine. After a certain number of days, she’d rinse off the saltiness from the bagoong, drain it well and sauté it in a lot of oil. Her guisadong bagoong alamang was so good she made a business out of it. It was oily, garlicky, salty, and sweet, and made with 100 percent shrimps and sea salt. She never tolerated sapal in her bagoong. I must have imbibed that trait because even with just one look or taste, I’d know if a bagoong has sapal in it.

Her most delicious dishes always had shrimps in them, pancit bihon and chopsuey being two of them. You’d know the difference right away if pancit or chopsuey was cooked without real shrimps. The taste just isn’t the same. Sinigang na sugpo was also another favorite family dish, made with real sampaloc fruit that my mother boiled, mashed, and strained into the broth. Though later with the arrival of sinigang cubes, she had to concede to convenience and used them instead. Shrimps were added to lightly fried tokwa cubes in soy sauce, kinchay, and chopped pechay, shrimps simmered in bamboo shoots and saluyot, shrimps sautéed in a light sauce of ginger and soy, sweetened with a hint of sugar, shrimps swam in garlic and butter, shrimps and fish balls mixed in a thick eggy lomi, shrimps chopped into ground pork to make lumpiang shanghai, shrimps and cubed pork in a simple togue guisado, halabos na hipon with 7-Up, and just plain steamed fresh shrimps paired with a dipping sauce of vinegar and chopped siling labuyo. The last shrimp dish always was the simplest to make and tasted the sweetest for me.

The list goes on, memories follow and linger over each dish brought to life by the mere act of recalling them. Somehow, my mother is in the kitchen again busy cooking and overseeing her kitchen helper. She’s walking to and fro across the tightly spaced kitchen floor, reaching for this pot and that ladle all the while laughing and sharing some light talk with her friend, Aling Tessie, a market vendor who always drops by our kitchen to drink a single warm bottle of beer to cap her working day at eleven in the morning. Then the reverie is broken and I know that that scene I see in my mind is never going to happen again because my mother, and her friend, has moved on from this earthly life.

My mother was born and grew up in a coastal area of Aklan. Their family home looked across a wide and gently receding bay. It would take less than a five-minute easy saunter and you’d be sinking your feet in the soft light grey sand of the beach. Swaying coconut trees line the border between soil and sand. Little transparent crabs would scamper away to burrow into their tiny sand holes. That bay was always placid even in the stormiest of days. It was also generous with its blessings. Each clear morning brought home the fisherman with his catch of the previous night. Some lucky days he’ll have a four-foot long fat shiny tuna on his shoulders that quickly sells in the town market. Early mornings during summer vacation, I’d look out the window and I’d see the barrio folk in ankle deep water walking back and forth across the sand. All heads would be bowed, hands behind their backs as if in deep quiet reverie. Actually, they’re looking for small cream-shelled clams in the shallow waters called punaw in the dialect. Nearby would be their milk cans to put in their finds.

My mother’s family always enjoyed the bounty from the sea and even though she had already started a family in Manila, she never really left the seaside of her youth. In a sense, her memories have become my memories, too. That feeling of easy days spent in my mother’s hometown lasted way beyond vacation time, quickly recalled by the seafood she bought and cooked. My memories of moments playing by the sand and sea stretch and reach out to this day. I can summon them anytime I want to, but as often happens, they’d come unbidden, triggered by the sight or smell of the present that switch me back to the past. Happy memories will always be in the food my mother made for us from those bayong she brought home from the market.