Spicy, Milky Chicken Dish of Bohol
In our life journey, there are experiences that lie embedded as memories in our personal and social consciousness. These are sometimes brought back to life when triggered by a story, a picture, a melody, an object, a scent, a landscape, or a taste of a culinary delight.
One story told by my aunt Marcelina, eldest sister of my father Procopio Resabal Sr. or Dodong as he was fondly called, the youngest and only son of four children of paternal grandparents Gervasio (Lolo Basio) and Rosa Resabal (Lola Usay), still fascinates me to this day. It happened during the period of Japanese occupation of Bohol in 1943.
At that time, Toril village became an evacuation area for people coming from the Poblacion of Maribojoc town. One day, leaders of the village received word from a courier on horseback that members of the Japanese Imperial Army were on their way to the place to pursue what they believed to be underground resistance guerillas operating in or near the area.
Since the villagers did not have arms, fighting the Japanese frontally was out of the question. They heard of atrocities committed by the occupying army in some parts of Bohol where they employed the “juez de cuchillo” or martial law. Somehow they decided to employ a strategy using “hospitality, food, and entertainment.”
They asked all the young women to put charcoal on their faces, arms, and other body parts and flee and hide and leave the older folks to hold a kumbira or feast for the Japanese forces. But before they did so, they must each catch a chicken to be cooked and served for the occupying Japanese army, to delay their pursuit of the Boholano resistance guerillas. An aunt shared that they had to catch many chickens and grate a lot of coconuts in a frenzy that morning.
The strategy must have worked because no firefights took place, the Japanese got their fill of a spicy chicken dish, and were entertained by a kumparsa or rondalla of the elderly folks. Most of all, the resistance guerillas that included my father and many young men in the village, eluded the pursuing Japanese army.
My aunts swore that the spicy chicken with coconut milk dish called “halang-halang manok tinunuan,” or spicy, milky chicken, served as the “main weapon” while the “cool acting and music” of the old folks contributed to the success of the strategy.
Such account of the war era experience in my father’s village, and the role of the spicy native chicken dish in what I now call “the brilliant creative strategy of distraction,” convinced me even at a young age that this dish and raising native chicken can be a meaningful “weapon” in times of war and peace.
When I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I always looked forward to summer that brought stories like the above and other island adventures. It was the time of year that our parents, who came from Bohol, hied us off to the island, particularly in Toril, my father’s birthplace, an interior, upland village that can be accessed then through a bumpy ride, to spend some time with our paternal grandparents and our three aunts, and join the activities of the folks on Holy Week, Flores de Mayo, and fiestas.
Even as we were still in the Sweet Lines boat from Iligan City (where the family was based then) to Tagbilaran, we could already imagine the rolling hills of Toril, originally a pasture land for horses, cows and carabaos, the diving and swimming in the Napo river, the butong or young coconut drink mix called “linamaw,” and of course the chicken dish that will be served by our lola and titas.
In the village, we stayed in my grandparents’ two-storey art deco-inspired house that featured capiz windows, a wooden black and white-floored sala, a dining area surrounded by calados, two banggeras, and a ground floor stockroom filled with farm products, like rice in big baojots (handwoven rice containers), ubi, corn, camote, including rice and corn grinders, cacao grinder and the lusong (for rice pounding), other farm implements, and at one time, even an old gramophone.
Hedges of kalipay plant surrounded the house where chickens roamed freely while two sets of two or three women pounded palay rhythmically in two wooden lusong with an awho or wooden pestle in each right hand under the house.
The day at the ancestral house started with our grandparents praying the rosary at 3:30 am in front of old carved wooden images of the holy couple St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin in their room near the kitchen. The prayer was recited in a fast, continuous, unbroken pace.
Then Papa Dodong would wake us up at 4:00 am to make us listen to the bird siloy (black shama),which seemingly held a concert on top of a molave tree at this time of day just beside the house. Since it was still dark, we usually rolled back to sleep on the romblon mats, but when the siloy bird’s singing breaks out through the silent dawn, we were compelled to listen in awe to the small bird’s mesmerizing musical repertoire.
My father just beamed with a smile on the side, like telling us, “I told you so.” After the siloy birds’ singing came the calls of the “antolihaw” or orioles as the yellow and black birds start feeding. The tukmo and alimokon’s hooting could be heard later in the day.
Then came breakfast that included sikwate espeso (chocolate A) served in small gold-colored cups, inun-unan or paksiw tulingan or bolinao, fried talong with egg, tinabal (wet salted fish), and red aromatic rice.
I loved watching Lola Usay using the baterol on an earthen pot before pouring the still frothing sikwate into the tiny cups. I was, in fact, so fascinated by the baterol that at one time, I tried to do it while the chocolate was still boiling in the pot only to spill the sikwate on the abuhan (the hearth made of soil).
Drinking sikwate in the morning is believed by our clan to jumpstart us or give energy for the day’s activities. “This makes me strong the whole day,” my Lolo Basio once declared. He was a viajero as a young man, and peddled “manggad” or merchandise in Leyte and nearby provinces and managed to build his wealth from buying farm lands and providing capital to merchant ventures in Mindanao.
When my Lola Usay passed away in 1986 at the age of 96, a flashback of memories came in a rush as I recalled watching her gather ripe cacao, grate coconut, grind roasted cacao beans, get humay (palay) from a huge baojot for pounding, and cooking halang-halang manok tinunuan mixed with vegetables and spices from her garden.
The halang-halang manok dish reminds me how we worked together to come up with something that tickled our palates’ senses. After undergoing a long process of preparation, we savored the chili spice-tinged chicken meat dish with coconut milk soup that has the aroma of sangig (Bohol basil) around one long molave table as sweat appeared on our foreheads.
It connected us, not just with the clan, but with the village folks as well, who have virtually adopted halang-halang manok tinunuan as their signature dish, not only for its delicious mix of spicy and coconut milky taste, but also because of the significant role it played in the history of the people when their survival was at stake.
The dish links me with my Lola Usay and our aunts who inspired us to appreciate Bohol heritage traditions, and other disappearing cultural practices, including cuisine, and work to make the village folk, the young in particular, aware of their cultural and culinary heritage.
It was when I decided to return to Bohol and stay at my paternal grandparents’ house, that was bequeathed to my father being the youngest and only son, that I learned the details in preparing the dish.
Some of my cousins know the recipe, and skipping an important ingredient would be noticed. One time halang-halang manok was served during a reunion, but one in the clan noted something lacking. It turned out that the one who prepared the dish did not include the “malikid” (Bohol basil) because she thought some guests from the city may not like it, she explained.
Another cousin told her that the “malikid” or local basil was what gave the halang-halang manok dish its distinct taste and aroma. “Ibalik na!” (Put that back), he ordered. A visit to my father’s village will definitely not be complete without tasting halang-halang manok the way my aunts cooked it.
At the height of the war-induced evacuation of Maribojoc Poblacion residents to Toril, there was a shortage of the usual food items people bought or brought from the town center, that the residents had to rely on what they had. So they told evacuees and visitors apologetically in Boholano, “Sorry but we have to make do with chicken as viand since we have not gone down to town to buy salmon or sardines.”
This may seem like a joke spread by viajeros from Bohol, but in the interior village of my lolo and lola, almost all the households took care of free roaming native chicken mainly for household consumption, while some used to sell or barter them with other goods, like rice, blankets, and mosquito nets.
Some of the men raised cocks for cockfighting during fiestas and other tupadas. Aunt Marcelina told us that my father in his teens started to take care of his own rooster for cockfighting. But when he became so enamored with cockfighting that he missed calls for family lunch or dinner, Lola Usay without a word took the rooster and hit my father’s back with it, leaving the animal half dead. That stopped him from being a gambling cockfighter, she said.
Raising chickens gave the village folks an assurance that when some walk-in visitors come unexpectedly, in war and peace, or when worse comes to worse for the family, they can still manage to have a chicken dish cooked in a variety of ways, like adobo or with coconut milk soup, to eat with rice or ubi and camote.
Survivors of World War II who experienced the Japanese occupation in the village, have attested that their free range chickens somehow saved them from food scarcity at that time. My lola and lolo, aunts and cousins were no exceptions.
One of the first things my Lola Usay did at the break of dawn, like most of the women in the village, was to make a chicken call on the front yard: ‘Kurooook, kurok, kuroook, kruk kruk, kruk,” which makes the chickens run in a frenzy towards her direction as she threw corn pellets she herself ground with a stone grinder that has survived to this day.
In her simple kimona and saya, she then proceeded with a basket and a bolo to her baul or upland garden where she gathered some vegetables like string-beans, bago, kamunggay, tangad or lemongrass, tomatoes, ginger, onions, green papaya, etc.
Preparing to cook the spicy dish appeared simple, but upon review of the journey from the ground to the dining table, there lies a system that Lola Usay and my aunts just made look easy. For example, you have to catch a suitable chicken, one that is not a hen with chicks, mature enough that it will not take too long to cook to make the meat tender.
One of the things I learned as a child is that there are so many ways to catch a chicken. Running after them is not the wisest way to do it. Some catch it while they are trying to sleep on a tree branch. In the case of my Lola Usay, she tied the side of a bokag, a big handwoven open basket made from rattan, with enough opening with a small abaca rope that she pulled from the second floor bamboo floor of the kitchen.
Inside the bokag, she placed corn pellets as bait. Once the right chicken goes inside the bokag, she released the rope thereby trapping the chicken.
My lola usually placed the chickens she caught in a tangkal, a kind of chicken apartment with bamboo divisions, and kept them there for 1 to 2 days for “laming” or quarantine without food to “cleanse” it. The idea is that the chicken had been freely roaming around and eating not just corn pellets, but other “unclean matters” too, so they need to be flushed out through imposed “fasting” before the chicken is slaughtered, cooked, and finally served on the table.
With the ingredients readily available in the village, the one dish our grandparents cooked in common with the village folks requires the following ingredients (good for 8 to 10): 2 native chicken (medium sized), 2 grated coconut, unripe green papaya, garlic, ginger, onion (bombay), lemongrass (tanglad), sangig (Bohol basil), chili (atsara), spicy/hot chili, and rock salt.
Lola Usay usually asked one of my cousins to take the bunot or husk off the shell of two large coconuts. But one time, when I was in my teens, she looked towards my direction, smiled and asked me to do it. I was so clumsy, I could hardly make a dent on the coconut husk. A more competent cousin took over to finish the job for me.
Under the watchful eyes of my lola, I had my training in grating coconut meat using a kudkuran, a horse-shaped contraption made of wood that one “saddles” to operate. It took some time for me to learn to guide the coco shell up and down and around the zigzag iron head of the “horse” to produce evenly grated coconut meat. I was often tempted to pick and “taste” the sweet, moist, newly-grated meat that I had to be reminded that if I kept tasting, there would be nothing left to use for the dish.
One and a half coconut was used for the halang-halang’s coconut milk ingredient, the remaining one half was used for my grandmother’s “bubho” or shampoo for the hair and “lotion” for the body. It made her long hair really shiny and black. She used the “sapal” (pressed grated coconut meat) to scrub her body, and washed it off with rainwater “harvested” from the roof and stored in galvanized iron tanks beside the house.
Based on my lola, aunts, and cousins’ practice, cooking the halang-halang manok tinunuan involves the following processes:
1. Slice the chicken meat and bones in small sized chunks, and set them aside.
2. Peel and slice the green papaya in medium thickness.
3. Grate the coconut and squeeze the grated coco. Set aside first-squeezed coconut milk, then squeeze the grated coconut meat for the second time. (The second-squeezed coconut milk will be used to boil the chicken meat.)
4. Saute the chicken meat with garlic and onion, then use the second-squeezed coconut milk to boil the sautéed chicken meat.
5. Mix the green papaya with the boiling second-squeezed coco milk with chicken meat until soft/tender. Add a bit of salt.
6. Put the ginger and lemongrass (tied in a bun), hot chili pepper, and malikid (basil).
7. Add ground rock salt.
8. Mix the first-squeezed coconut milk when ingredients have all been placed. (Note: Take out a bit of the boiled second-squeezed coco milk before adding the first-squeezed coco milk, if there is too much soup or maintain it, depending on the number of people).
9. Allow to heat a bit, but not to boil (to avoid the soup from getting too oily).
10. Serve while still hot.
The coconut climbers and copra makers usually sweat a lot as they partook lunch of the halang-halang dish with red aromatic rice. The side dish included sinugbang (broiled) talong with its skin stripped or nangka made into a kind of salad—also with fresh coconut milk, tomatoes, ginger and mixed with sukang tuba.
The halang-halang manok is served for lunch only not for dinner because the coconut milk is difficult for the stomach to process at night, the folks say.
For someone in the family who is celebrating his or her birth anniversary in the village, the chicken dish was usually cooked for the occasion, in a way, spicing up the celebrator’s day.
The halang-halang manok, in many ways, spiced up life in our family, clan, and the village during days when fresh fish and other meat specialties are not available to serve on the table.
In a time of war, the spiced chicken dish with coconut milk proved to be an effective culinary recipe that distracted patrolling Japanese forces, enough for resistance guerillas to escape to freedom, and eventually with the village folks, to survive that harrowing period in our history.
My father, who at the outbreak of the war was studying to be a civil engineer at the Mapua Institute of Technology (MIT) in Manila, eventually met my mother Victoria, or Toying to the folks, a public school teacher, who evacuated with her family to Toril, during the course of the war. Both studied at the Bohol High School, but hardly knew each other, until war brought them together. They got married right after the war in 1945. My father went back to Manila with my mother to complete his civil engineering course at the National University since MIT was ruined during the war. They eventually produced 10 offspring. My father managed many road projects all over the country.
When a 7.2 intensity earthquake struck Bohol on October 15, 2013, the exact 153rd founding anniversary of Maribojoc as a regular pueblo (October 15, 1860), almost 70 to 80% of the houses in the town, and its villages, including Toril, were damaged. The art deco-inspired chapel in the village dedicated to the Virgen de los Remedios built in 1927 collapsed, as well as the 17th century Sta. Cruz Church in the Poblacion.
My grandparents’ ancestral house in Toril made of wood, however, remained standing, with minor damage. The 5 to 6 inches house posts made of molave withstood the violent shaking that toppled a number of heritage structures in the province.
As I reflected on what to do to help the village rise from the rubble of the tremor, I felt that whatever disaster recovery program to be launched would have to be based on cultural and natural heritage, including traditional practices, expressions in songs, crafts, designs, folk art, and heritage cuisine.
The Bol-anon Village Cultural Trails (www.bol-anonvillageculturaltrails.com), a disaster recovery program that employed the cultural trails approach in community-based tourism, was then developed in Toril in 2014. Through the enterprise program, local and foreign guests can experience cultural expressions, practices, folk arts and crafts, and local cuisine.
One such experience involved guests cooking a heritage dish, the halang-halang manok tinunuan, just like the folks did during the Second World War. At one time, one group of Japanese tourism students and professors from Wakayama University was taught by the village women how to process and cook the dish—beginning with catching the chicken, opening the coconut, grating the coco meat, and slicing the ingredients for the spicy chicken dish.
When an old banjo player in the village saw the Japanese guests running after the chickens, he shouted in Boholano, “Hapa kay naay mga Hapon,” (Drop and lie flat on the ground, the Japanese are here), reminiscent of the war era. Upon hearing this, the village folks broke out in laughter, while the Japanese guests wondered why.
Indeed, in war and peace, and even in times of disaster, the halang-halang manok tinunuan continues to add spice to life and help the clan and the folks rise again from historical and natural challenges in my father’s village.