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Sayote and Anything

By Ruby T. Cariño|

What feeds the Baguio boy’s soul when it comes to his food and how it is cooked? The food which feeds the Baguio boy’s soul is regional. No doubt about this. No matter where he is, he longs for his Baguio food. No matter that he is in Saudi working his way to send money home. No matter that he speaks the language of the computer, with Facebook and Twitter. All the more he remembers sayote and how his Nanang cooked it. He remembers it crisply cooked and dipped in crushed chili, and eaten with mountain red rice. He remembers it as delicious and matchless in taste.

He thinks of home, Baguio, and remembers. He remembers dried meat, eel, watercress, taro stalks, tadpoles, and frogs. He remembers how he and his friends would go to the fields to catch them.

In times long past, Baguio had very little access to ingredients necessary for dishes of the lowland and fusion genre. Therefore, cooking was simple and austere. The culinary boundaries were dictated by the high mountains and the Baguio guys then were sans interest in lowland cuisine.

Two words can describe traditional highland Baguio cooking: BOILED and GRILLED. Mostly simple cooking and rustic tastes colored the dishes enjoyed by the Baguio-ites of yore. To this very day, many Baguio boys like simple cooking. The reason for this is quite elemental. They claim that they don’t taste the meat if it is too covered with spice and seasonings. However, influences imposed by history, new flavors, and the availability of such have widened the culinary landscape of the Baguio boy.

While the Baguio boys love meat, many vegetables unavailable in the lowlands were scrumptiously available to these boys who have called Baguio home for decades, even centuries. It was this wide variety of vegetables which till now makes Baguio meals interesting and filled with variety.

Coffee trees have also been grown in the Benguet area for centuries, and many places in the old Kawagway area, which includes current day Baguio, still have old, old coffee trees. In the day to day life, kape was the drink du jour. Coffee was served in a pewter cup and brown sugar was stirred in. The coffee trees around the Baguio Cathedral have been there for almost a hundred years, and are deliberately pruned to keep low for easy harvest of the beans.

Plantains were plentiful in the immediate outskirts of the very cold areas, such as Sablan, till now home of the bananas of Benguet. Sayote is the daughter of Benguet. It is the only truly organic vegetable which I know of in Benguet. Just stick it in the ground during rainy weather and you have a vine. Sayote grows only in the highlands and doesn’t thrive in the lowlands.

There was also u-ung (but sadly can be found only in the heavily wooded areas these days), needle mushrooms, previously found all over the Baguio area. All the children would run out to the fields immediately after a storm to pick these needle mushrooms. These mushrooms would just burst out immediately after a storm in places where there were heavy trees. We could just pick them and drop them into a soup of sorts. Heavenly.

Taro stalks were plentiful, especially after the harvest of the taro root. These are called pissin in Nabaloi, the original native language of Baguio. Some other minor vegetables also grown locally have since been experimented with in the lowlands, such as cauliflower, broccoli, and others.

Since meat from various animals has always been present in Baguio, the Baguio boy usually had such on his table, and this was usually cooked or eaten with vegetables. The more popular favorite root crops of camote and taro were chopped and dried, pounded into flour, to be cooked with dried meat, especially during the rainy and monsoon months when times were hard. The European potato hadn’t entered as a Benguet crop until the American presence.

And there was and is ahm for children. To this day, the Baguio mother boils rice and gives the rice water to her child with vegetables and shredded meat. Nowadays, the Baguio mom bows to sauté and does so with garlic, onions, and flavoring.

On the whole, the diet of the highland was and still consists of the meat and vegetables which were plentiful in the high Benguet country. Thus, the Baguio-ite’s food, shaped by the natural foods of the region, is a basic combination of meat with vegetables and rice or root crops. Baguio’s population being naturally small before the 20th century, and having never faced agricultural shortage, eating meat and red rice and camote with coffee became part of Baguio culture.

Baguio cooking was once simple, austere, and filling. With that, the sky above, and Kabunian in his heavens, what more could be asked for?

My Favorite Recipes

In the mainstream of Baguio foods is a favorite dish with Baguio natives, but migrants into Baguio have since chosen to call this dish also theirs. Although this is an economy run (read cash short) dish, my family still cooks it regularly because it just tastes so good and is sooooo Baguio. This dish is called “Sayote with Anything.” Mostly, it is sayote with sardines or corned beef, although it is really and has been for decades, sayote with anything.

To make this dish, you must have:

  • 1 tin of corned beef or any kind of sardines, Spanish style or plain
  • Four or five sayotes, not the mature ones. Choose fist-sized fruits. Julienne the sayote.
  • Four cloves of garlic, minced well
  • Thumb sized piece of ginger
  • One tablespoon of cooking oil
  • Small packet of flavoring
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the garlic in the cooking oil and simmer the sardines with the ginger in the sauteed garlic. Simmer the sardines until dry, remove the ginger piece. Now put in the julienned strips of sayote. Cook until crisp, do not overcook. Pour in the flavoring. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with rice. The best.

Anybody from Baguio will recognize that dish. A friend of ours even cooks this with two scrambled eggs when she doesn’t have money for a tin of sardines, beef, or whatnot.

In spite of the new ways to cook, the old vegetables of Benguet still enjoy great popularity with the Baguio boy. Vegetables like sayote, sayote shoots, mushrooms, taro stems, sweet potato shoots, watercress, and today, cabbage, wombok, carrots, and potatoes are top favorites. Several of the latter veggies mentioned are usually cooked into the ubiquitous chopsuey.

Included among my favorite regional recipes is my very own take on strawberry jam. Baguio would not be Baguio without strawberry jam. Get the mystique out of strawberry jam with this easy recipe. This jam is made with agar agar, for your own convenience, and will take only a total of 45 minutes, to include prep time. Cooking time is 10 minutes, max.

To make my low sugar, 10-minute strawberry jam, you will need:

  • Two and a quarter kilos of strawberries, the quarter to make up for the hulling and removal of the stems.
  • 150 grams of sugar for each kilo of berries—you may use white or light brown, and can use more or less depending on how sweet you like your jam.
  • 1½ tablespoon of agar agar flakes. If you use agar powder, use only one rounded teaspoon
  • Two tablespoons of lemon or calamansi juice
  1. Prepare the strawberries by removing hull and soaking in water for ten minutes. Wash and rinse well to remove dirt particles. Again weigh your berries, and try to make the berries two kilos.
  2. Place berries in a stainless steel pot. Do try to use stainless steel, so the chemical reaction of aluminum will not discolor the jam. Mash berries coarsely.
  3. Pour in the sugar, mix the sugar well into the berries, and allow the mash to sit for 30 minutes so that the sugar will penetrate the fruit and it will not float when you boil it.
  4. Bring the mix to a boil after 30 minutes of sitting.
  5. Stir and skim off the foam from the top and boil for seven minutes on medium heat.
  6. In the meantime, stir the agar flakes with the citrus juice, till flakes dissolve.
  7. During the last three minutes of cooking the mash, stir in the dissolved agar flakes
  8. Stir and boil for the next three minutes. Time yourself, try not to boil too long. For the entire cooking period, ten minutes is sufficient.
  9. Remove the pot from the stove, your jam is ready. If you want to can the jam professionally, you may do so. In the fridge, the jam will keep indefinitely. If you store in plastic containers, you may freeze the jam. The jam will keep for even a year as long as you store it in sterilized bottles.

This is an excellent jam, not too tart nor too sweet, not too thick nor thin. The above recipe uses agar agar, of which the Philippine province of Cebu is the world’s highest producer.

In the more traditional method of making strawberry jam, usually the agar is left out and the jam is boiled for 30 minutes until thickened. Boil until thickened to your taste. That is the only difference. The prep period is the same. But the sugar is kept to 150 grams for every kilo of berries. Please keep the proportions and do not forget the citrus juice.

Et viola! You have world class strawberry jam.

What is more American and European than strawberry jam? Still and yet, what is Baguio cooking this day and age without strawberry jam? More than one hundred years from the entry of the Americans and Europeans into Kafagway, Baguio has become a huge melting pot for food (pun intended), and then some.

Were there potatoes in Kafagway? No. There were camotes and taro. Was there cabbage in Kafagway? No, there was watercress. Yet potatoes and cabbage are the vegetables now cooked in the same pot as Benguet meat, and called nilaga. Were there strawberries in Kafagway? No. There were guavas. Yet these are each made into jam and sold from high end to low end shops in the city of Baguio, made by both Ibaloys and migrants. Was there ube in Kafagway? No. There was gabi. So many kinds of food now cooked side by side. Fusion to the max.

It is now the 21st century, and nowadays, the present day Baguio boy buys packaged corned beef to mix with vegetables, for a quick meal on the run. The lowland vegetables are now grown in the lower areas of Benguet, but are still called lowland veggies.

Today, Benguet, especially the City of Baguio, has become the home of fusion. You will find Baguio and Benguet a gourmet’s paradise. There are restaurants and restaurants. You can go out to eat morning, noon, and night and not go to the same place for two years, and by then, there will be more new places to eat at.

But no matter where the Baguio boy goes, or what manner of fusion trends in his hometown, the taste of home will always be stirred with the thought of his strawberry jam and the catch all sayote-with-anything made the way his Nanang cooked it.