Monday, December 31, 2007
Sunday, December 30, 2007
My Filipino sensory memories are centered around food. Filipinos love to eat and eat as much as possible. To leave food out of any kind of occasion, large or small, is unthinkable. We are all foodies, and we are obsessed.
Let me explain about meriyenda, from the Spanish merienda, "la comida que se toma antes de la cena."
Filipinos can eat up to four or five meals a day. Breakfast (almusal), morning merienda (kind of like the hobbits' second breakfast), lunch (tanghalian), merienda, and dinner (hapunan).
Merienda is no mere afternoon tea or pre-dinner snack. Merienda - the word itself is delicious to say - is a meal that celebrates the pleasure of eating, a time when the rest of life stops and the savoring of yummy treats takes priority - including treats that one might have enjoyed at breakfast earlier in the day. Merienda can be as simple as a piece of buttered pan de sal with hot chocolate (made from dark cocoa tablets from Spain, of course), or it can be a huge buffet of appetizers, main courses (like kaldereta, or goat stew), snacks, and sweets, blurring the lines between merienda and early dinner, in fact morphing into "merienda-cena."
Let me start there, with pan de sal. Historically I think pan de sal was a lean bread, like the French baguette, with the simplest of ingredients - flour, water, yeast, and salt. Over time it became richer, with the addition of sugar and eggs. The current version is the most delicious bread I know - soft and doughy on the inside, my favorite part, with lots of little places for melted butter to seep into, and crusty on the outside with a tasty dusting of dry breadcrumbs that is its signature feature. The dough is rolled into a log, then cut, coated with dry breadcrumbs, and baked, so the final shape of each roll of pan de sal is round or slightly elliptical.
Then there's the queen of breakfast breads in the Philippines: the ensaymada. We took what Spain originated and made it 100 times better. Ensaymada is a bright yellow or golden brioche type of bread, soft and airy, topped with a melt-in-your-mouth mixture of finely grated cheese, sugar, and butter. This is the kind of thing whose last bite instills a little melancholy, because you know you can only savor the tastes and textures a moment longer, then the magic is over. My Tita (aunt) M, who is of Pampanga stock - and this is a Pampanga delicacy - makes THE BEST ensaymadas IN THE WORLD. Lots of people make this wondrous bread from scratch, and we've tried their versions, and they're good, even superbly yummy, but still no match for Tita M's, and once you've tried hers, you can't eat any other version and enjoy it as much. Hers are simply a culinary treasure. The 5 dozen she sent to our house on Christmas Eve are GONE. When my 7-year-old son got on the phone to ask her for more, and she asked how many she should make, he answered, "Hmm...maybe, a hundred?" She laughed her head off but said ok.
I could go on about other foods I miss when we're back in the States. Champorado, a chocolate rice porridge. Our version of chorizo, the sweet, garlicky longganisa, served with rice and eggs (above, middle). Green mangoes and bagoong, of course (above, top), and ripe mangoes which I've already waxed rhapsodic about before. Rice-flour sweets such as sticky, brown-sugar infused bibingka (above, left), the coconut-covered palitaw, and the tricolor sapin-sapin (above, right). Cylindrical wafers called barquillos. Savory treats like pancit palabok (above, middle), a noodle dish served on a large bilao, or woven basket tray, and salsa monja, an olive-and-shallot relish unknown outside the Philippines, it seems, but apparently served by Spanish nuns to Spanish friars back in the day, as a condiment to flavor their food. Yum! We also inherited merienda items from China: siomai (shrimp dumplings), siopao (steamed pork buns, below), and hopia (bean paste filled pastries, also below).
Saturday, December 29, 2007
And finally...a family nostalgia trip:
*Photo of camera equipment is from www.lacocinadetitamoning.com
Friday, December 28, 2007
"Exactly!" I said enthusiastically.
"It'll be packed with people."
By evening I was starting to get a little concerned that an expedition to the seedy Manila neighborhood during its busiest time of week would be sheer madness. The fact that it took us 2 hours and 45 minutes to drive home in bumper-to-bumper traffic from my aunt's farm yesterday, only 30 miles out of the city, also got me discouraged. But when I got up this morning I was still game to go, so off to Quiapo I went, with the woman who had watched over me during my childhood (my former yaya) and her sister, Nita.
Quiapo is a city district that not only lies geographically at the heart of Manila but also might be considered the spiritual beating heart of the city. On Fridays in particular, “Quiapo day,” it teems with crowds of devotees who flock to Quiapo church, some on their knees, to attend masses that go on all morning. Outside the church are hordes of vendors plying colorful candles, flower garlands, and religious prayer books as well as an odd assortment of goods such as rat poison, dog leashes, bundles of wheat to ward off bad spirits, and palm leaf fans to combat the heat.
There is a long history of folk belief, “alternative medicine,” and superstitious ritual here, most of it entirely oral, with no source material for folklorists or historians who might have an interest in the cultural anthropology of the Philippines. The juxtaposition of established religion and folk tradition is apparent in the transactions with the amulet sellers and fortune-tellers in the square. Right across from the church door, in fact, sits a row of soothsayers who, though ordinarily forbidden by Catholicism, are tolerated here, at a crossroads where religion and magic travel hand-in-hand.
Just inside the entrance to Quiapo church sit a number of older women, the mandarasal, who offer to say prayers for people in exchange for a monetary donation. While this might seem utterly distasteful to many, it seems that some of these women regard their service as just that: a service to those who feel they don't know how to pray for themselves or feel they lack the fervor they would like to have as they say their prayers. Ted Lerner in a 2003 article for Asia Times quoted church administrator Gigi Camballa,
"We never get complaints from parishioners. The complaints come from religious people who think they know better. Sometimes nuns complain about the practice. But I tell them, 'Don't we all receive donations? They have to eat, they have to feed their families. It's their livelihood." But Camballa understands the feeling of outsiders. When she and her colleagues first took over running the church in 1999, they tried to drive the prayer ladies out of the sanctuary and into the busy square outside. "Our first impression was that this was 'pay for pray'," she said. "But they said, 'It's not payment. It's a donation for our food.' So we were forced to observe them. We discovered that they are helping people. There's value in that. People see the donation part and they think negatively. But they haven't taken the time to understand."
The central object of devotion at Quiapo church is a 400-year-old statue of Jesus carrying his cross. This is Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, the Black Nazarene. Carved by an Aztec woodworker in Mexico, it was procured by a priest and brought over to Manila on a Spanish galleon with the Augustinian Recollects in 1606. The ship went up in flames around it on arrival, but people kept the charred statue and put it in the Recollects’ church. It was moved to Quiapo in 1787. Quiapo church, the foundation of which was laid in 1582, went up in flames too, once in 1791 and again in 1929, but the Black Nazarene survived. The icon also survived two severe earthquakes, in 1645 and 1863, as well as the bombing of Manila in 1945. These survival stories increase the relic’s mystique and appeal among devotees, who today stood in a line which snaked around the block just to touch the statue.
Touching this image of Christ is believed to confer possible healing of diseases and sufferings, and perhaps other miracles. Belief in the power of this physical contact, this laying on of the faithful’s hands, is so strong that some believers rub the statue with cloths in the hope of carrying some of its power home. During the great fiesta of the Black Nazarene, on January 9, the statue is carried through the streets in procession and hundreds of thousands of people try to get close enough to toss their handkerchiefs or towels to the image-bearers (see video below - though I'd like to remind people that not all Catholics have the same understanding or express their faith in the same way; for many, devotional traditions such as these are quite alien). Many who walk in procession with the Nazarene do so barefoot, braving the hot asphalt, as an expression of humility.
For some terrific pictures of Quiapo, see here (laz'andre's pics on flickr) and here (pinoytravelblog).
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
And speaking of white...while we were at the grocery this afternoon buying the ice cream, I had to take a picture of these signs for aisle 9, just in case people who read my post mentioning skin-whitening products thought I might have been exaggerating:
Monday, December 24, 2007
It's about one thing and one thing only: hope. Not the shallow hope of someone wishing for a particular Christmas present or a happy outcome. Not hope as defined by Michael Gerson in The Washington Post: "seeing present challenges in a positive light, living in the expectancy that the future will turn out well." This is mere optimism. What I mean by hope, rather, is the hope incarnate in a baby's birth or in the light of a guiding star, a light that doesn't waver even in the world's darkest corners: it is a kind of faith and rejoicing in the ultimate preciousness of our lives, a way of living in the world. It is a deep, inexpressible hope that comes from trusting that in our connections, in the presence of the sacred among us, in our very own worth as the stuff of this precious universe, we are never alone, and we have the power to transform sorrow into joy, darkness into light, destruction into new life.