Filipino Terms and Unfamiliar Items
Amplaya (Bitter Melon)
Ampalaya is the Tagalog word for bitter melon, which is Momordica charantia, in the family of Cucurbitaceae (Cucumber or Gourd Family), scientifically speaking in the Botanical world if you have to know. Another name it is known in the Philippines is amargoso.
One has to acquire the taste for the bitter melon for it is truly bitter and the unsuspecting may spit it out if one is not expecting the unusual flavor of a beautiful, green vegetable such as this. But it is good and tasty once you get used to it and it is supposed to be good for the health, loaded with vitamins and medicinal properties good for making the blood pressure in check.
Annato, Achuete or Achiote
Many Filipino dishes are orangey or reddish in color because of the addition of Annato or Achuete seed coat extract. They are red seeds of the dried fruit or seedpods of the tropical tree of the same name.
A spoonful of the seeds are soaked in a small amount of warm water for a few minutes then pinched and rubbed together to release the color in the water. The seeds are discarded and the red-orange liquid is used in cooking.
It does not give any flavor to the dish but only color. It makes the dish yellow orange in color which is a characteristic of certain dishes.
They are available at the store as packaged seeds, powdered extract, or liquid extract. Some Mexican dishes also use this coloring agent and Achiote or Annato trees grow in Mexico also.
For simplicity and less effort I use the brand Sazón Goya Achiote Con Cilantro or Con Azafran, which I think is Safflower (substitute for saffron) based. They are found where the soup bouillons are. I like using them because they are readily available at any grocery store and they make dishes a lot more flavorful.
(Pronounced bah-go-ong) or sometimes contracted as bagóng (bah-góng, accent at the last syllable). Bagoong is a paste of fermented and salted tiny baby shrimp (krill), or tiny fish. There is also a bagoong made of tiny baby oysters or clams but they are more popular and native to the south, in the Visayan region. They are named different, and I think it is called “si-si”. All of them are excessively salty because they were fermented and preserved in salt.
Almost all Filipino people love this fishy, salty paste. It is used as a dip or is mixed with certain dishes that would not be complete and satisfactory without it. Some natives of different regions have made their own native dishes cooked with it. The stronger the smell the better. These dishes have been popularized and embraced by other regions and became national Filipino native foods.
We also use bagoong to smear or spread on fruits or we scoop a bit of it with the slices of sour fruits before each bite, like dipping tortilla chips in salsa, especially green mangoes that would otherwise be so sour to eat without salt. But salt is not enough. A little more flavor from the stinky stuff is much better.
It is also spread on top of a slice of semi-ripe papaya one buys from a street vendor. Some people or families eat it plainly with rice for a meal. So, it is also considered or called a poverty food.
I don’t know if they still have those street vendors who used to trade just outside the neighborhood’s third-rate movie houses. One of these movie houses just so happened to be across the street from our house when I was a kid. They sold all sorts of fruits that had been peeled and sliced; some are soaked in large jars of water, ready to eat.
Bangus (pronounced bahng – oos) or Bangos (pronounced bahng – us), Milkfish as called in the West is the most common and plentiful fish sold at the markets in the Philippines. It is the National Fish of the Philippines. Every native of the Philippines and anybody who has spent time in the Philippines has eaten this fish cooked or prepared one way or another.
This fish is very versatile that it can be cooked several ways and any dish it is prepared is very good. Some of the most popular dishes cooked with this fish are: Paksiw na Bangus, Sinigang na Bangus, Adobong Bangus, Inihaw na Bangus, Fried Bangus, Tochong Bangus, Bistik na Bangus, Tinapang Bangus, Relyenong Bangus, Daing na Bangus, etc. There are probably a lot more that I don’t even know and have not eaten. There may be some that are popular and common in other provinces and regions that are not popular in the Manila area I came from. Because of the versatility of this fish and the unique flavor and texture that is not equaled by any fish, it can be cooked with any seasonings or flavorings. It is also a popular fish in other countries in the Far East such as Indonesia all the way up to China.
Bangus or milkfish is farmed in ponds. The fry are caught or netted from the sea where the adults spawn. The fry, kept in large clay urns, are sold to the fish farms. They are then transferred to the brackish ponds where they will live until they are big enough to harvest.
The small mouth of this fish do not have teeth; therefore they eat algae or plankton. It is similar in looks and habits as the mullets but they are not related. The scientific name of this fish is Chanos chanos, and if you want to learn more about it you can look it up.
The milkfish has many branched pin bones other than the main bones that make it hard to eat it without getting a bone stuck in your throat if you are not experienced in eating this fish. These fine bones are embedded in the flesh similar to carp. You have to be extra careful and diligent in examining the piece of the fish you are about to put in your mouth.
Somebody came up with the great idea of deboning this fish and started selling them as “boneless milkfish”. No, they are not GMO and they are not hybrids. The fish is split open and the bones are manually picked and pulled one by one with surgical forceps or tweezers.
Boneless milkfish are now processed, packaged and sold frozen at the Asian markets here. Of course they are more expensive because of the labor involved. I don’t particularly care for them because of the time it takes in handling and de-boning the fish at the processing facilities that they cannot possibly be as fresh as the unprocessed fish.
Also, the most sought after part of the bangus is the belly. The family would fight over the belly so these days, milkfish belly can be bought without the body or the tail. Now everybody can eat just the belly without wasting any of the body meat especially the tail that everybody left for the maids to eat. Of course they are premium priced.
Bilao (bih-la-oh) is a wide, shallow, woven tray made from bamboo skins and come in different sizes.
Calamansi or Calamondin
Calamondin or calamansi is a small citrus fruit that is very tart, even when ripe and used as the equivalent of lemon in the Philippines. Lemons are not native to the Philippines and are not grown there as far as I know. They are imported.
Calamansi is becoming a popular nursery plant in the U.S., at least in Texas, where I am. I found a small plant with a few fruits sold at a Florist in Chicago in 1970 so they’ve been around but they were sold as houseplants. It was very costly at the Florist’s that would not be worth the few fruits on the plant but I bought it anyway just because I wanted the fruits and thinking that I could keep it alive and maybe if I kept it in a sunny window would give me more fruits for later. But it died after only a few months. I forgot it outside and froze.
Because of the cute, little oranges that stay on the tree they became good houseplants used as decorations or conversation pieces. And because they are sour, people here do not know if they are even edible. But it has made a comeback here and I’ve seen them in California and here in Texas and I’m sure they are also in other states. They are now grown here, not for commercial produce but as a nursery product. As far as I know, the calamondin fruits are not sold anywhere here as a produce…. Yet.
I have several trees now and am enjoying the flavor of this little tart fruit’s juice whenever I need it that I missed for so long. There is no comparison in taste, even with limes or lemons that I have used as substitutes for many years, and they cannot equal the unique taste of the calamansi. Of course, my husband would never use it with patis because it grosses him out but he likes it with soy sauce. He loves it when I squeeze a couple or three in ice water with sugar and make him a calamansi-ade.
They are similar in growth and size of fruits as kumquats, except kumquats are sweet and the rinds are edible.
Chicharon or Chicharrones
Chicharon (Filipino) or chicharrones (Mexican/Spanish) is also known as cracklings in Southern States in the U.S.A. Chicharrones are pork skin or pork rind cut into pieces, boiled in salted water, dried and deep-fried until they puff up or “bloom” into light and airy crunchy snacks. Delicious.
One can find packaged Pork Skin or Pork Rinds in the snacks (Potato Chips) section of grocery stores or convenience stores or gas stations. They even come in different flavors like barbeque flavor, lime flavor and vinegar-jalapenos, etc.
Cracklings or cracklin’s are in smaller packages and are usually found near the meat section of the grocery store. Cracklings or Cracklin’s have some meat and/or fat attached to the rind. This is what I use in the recipe for Pancit Malabon, but it has to be only salted and not flavored. You have to read the package before buying.
Filipinos customarily dip the chicharon in vinegar with crushed garlic and crushed hot pepper. They are usually eaten as snacks like eating potato chips. Most Filipino men in the Philippines like to eat chicharon while drinking beer or gin as they sit around with their drinking buddies.
It is not usually eaten in meals but as a snack or merienda. It is good to eat them with cold rice and vinegar/garlic dip.
There are varieties of chicharon in the Philippines and one of them is called chicharon “bulaklak” (flower). And rightly so, it is made of the small intestines of the pork and deep-fried as described above. Actually, it includes the mesentery, the membrane that attaches the intestines, stomach and other organs to the wall of the abdomen. It sounds gross but they taste very good but really bad for your health as they will plug up your arteries if you eat too much of them. It is very tasty when freshly fried that you would not even notice that some warm grease or oil is dripping from the side of your lips as you bite into the soft but delicately crisp savory fried intestine.
Chicharon bulaklak are best eaten while warm and freshly fried. They are sold by street vendors and are street food.
Ginisa or Ginisang or Gisado (Guisado)
Ginisang is a contraction word for “ginisa na ___(subject), which means sautéed Filipino style with the three basic ingredients such as garlic, onions and tomatoes, sometimes with the addition of ginger root or the omission of tomatoes.
Most vegetable dishes that are cooked as ginisa have rendered pork pieces. The fat rendered from the pork is used for sautéing. Most also have shrimp juice extracted from the heads and shells of the small shrimp and the shelled shrimp are included in the dish.
However, meat dishes do not have the rendered pork pieces or shrimp. Most of meat ginisa have a lot of tomatoes and after it is cooked then you call the dish “gisado or guisado”.
This is the basis and the starting process to cook most Filipino dishes. So, if one has mastered the art of sautéing these ingredients, he/she can practically cook most any Filipino dishes.
The procedure is always the same. The crushed or minced garlic is sautéed in the pre-heated oil on med. heat first, stirring constantly until it is golden and the typical fragrance of fried garlic is released, followed by the onions. They are stirred together until the onions are semi-transparent before the tomatoes are dropped in. All are stirred together while crushing and pressing the chopped tomatoes until they are soft. To prevent any of them from burning while the tomatoes are cooking, a few spoons of water or liquid is added to continue sautéing. But only after the tomatoes are added in.
Kangkong or Water Spinach or Swamp Cabbage
Pronounced “kahng-kohng”, NOT King Kong. This vegetable is the main and most used greens in dishes such as Sinigang, Pakbet, Adobong Kangkong” and many more. It is the most abundant vegetables used in the whole Philippines and most Asian countries.
Kangkong is seasonal in this part of the world, the U.S., and you can’t buy them at the regular grocery stores so it is very special to me since it is my favorite greens for Sinigang and the only food that is green that my parents could make me eat when I was a kid. It is another taste of home.
Sinigang is not the only dish you can use kangkong in. There are a few that I know of and have cooked before.
The scientific name of Kangkong is Ipomea aquatica in the family of Convulvulaceae or Morning glories. Note that the flowers are the same as any morning glory. They can grow in water and also in soil. Perhaps they are different varieties but they can be prolific when they are not contained or harvested as here in the States. They have become noxious in Florida because they clog up the water ways. But people here do not eat this vegetable like Asians do. They are not even found in regular grocery store.
However, they can promote them like Tilapia that were once pests in the fresh waters when they were first introduced to eat hydrilla in the lakes but multiplied too fast and too many that native fishes could not compete. They were once regarded as trash fish and nobody but the Asians would eat them. Then they introduced them as food here and are now very popular. Their marketing strategy was a real success because they sold them and still selling them at a high price. They are introduced also in restaurants at higher priced menu item.
Labuyo peppers are like the Mexican Bird’s Eye peppers that are very spicy hot. They are native to the Philippines. I asked my sister to bring some seeds so I could grow the plant. It grows large like a bush.
Labuyo leaves are larger than the Mexican Bird’s Eye peppers or the Thai peppers so they are ideal to use as greens in certain Filipino dishes. The peppers are pickled or bottled with vinegar for dipping and can be bought at the Asian markets.
They die back in the winter and they grow back in Spring and so far they grew back a couple of times but it did not grow back after a hard freeze one year. I have not been successful in re-growing them from the saved seeds. Perhaps the seeds do not have a long viability.
I have substituted Bell pepper leaves that are large in the dishes (I did not get poisoned). They are the same in flavor as the Labuyo leaves. It was not such a loss, after all.
Lugaw or Arroz Caldo
Lugaw or sometimes spelled lugao is a general term when rice is cooked in plenty of liquid as a soup until the rice is very soft and split, almost falling apart unlike the regular steamed rice. The liquid is almost thick from the cooked rice but yet soupy. How thick or thin the soup becomes is your preference.
It may be more recognized if called congee, porridge or gruel. It could be made with plain rice and salt or cooked with meat or seafood.
The different kinds of Lugaw that I am familiar with are:
- Pospas or Lugaw with chicken (I call it Chicken and Rice Soup)
- Lugaw with Mussels or any clams, thus called Lugaw na tahong. Tahong (pronounced tah-hong) are mussels
- Lugaw with Tripe, which is called Goto (pronounced goh-toh) as shown
- Lugaw with dried shrimp or “hibe” (pronounced hee-beh)
This is a favorite merienda, which means it is normally eaten as a mid-afternoon snack. It seems Filipinos really love to eat because we eat all the time, between meals and between snacks.
Lugaw, cooked with any meat, i.e., chicken or tripe (as shown above), dried shrimp (hibe), etc., is usually paired with Tokwa or Tokwa’t baboy. It is a popular street food. It is sometimes called Arroz Caldo (rice soup) in the Philippines and by Hispanics.
Mano is a Spanish word for hand and pó (with a glottal stop) is a word of respect to elders.
It is a traditional Filipino sign of respect to greet elders. A younger relative would ask for the right hand of the elder saying “mano pó” as he or she walks in as if to say “Hello or Good Evening”. He takes the elder’s hand, bows or bends and touches the back of the elder’s hand to his forehead to be blessed.
It is also done to greet parents and/or grandparents or anybody in the house who is an elder relative. This is a nation wide tradition even if some families kiss the cheeks like our own family. However, we, as kids still had to learn and do the “mano pó” gesture when meeting other elders.
Miswa or Misua
Miswa is a fine or thin variety of salted noodles made from wheat flour. They originated from China and are adopted in some dishes in the Philippines such as Miswa sa Patola or Bola-bola (meatballs). The name is not an original Filipino word but probably a Chinese word that sounded like it.
The Japanese may also use a lot of them because these fine noodles in the picture (left) were made in Japan.
MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)
You may notice the addition of MSG in many recipes I wrote in this book. That is because most Filipino dishes and most Asian dishes use it. So I decided to include a little explanation or a write up of MSG I found on Wikipedia.
Whether you believe it or not or use it or not is entirely up to you. But personally, I don’t find it bad. I have not heard of anybody died or got sick because of it. However, use it sparingly. Less is more and taste does not improve by increasing the amount. That is the secret.
For more information, read about MSG:
What is MSG?
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is naturally present in our bodies, and in many plant foods and food additives.
Glutamate was extracted from seaweed broth over 100 years ago by a Japanese scientist as flavor enhancer but today, instead of extracting and crystallizing MSG from seaweed broth, MSG is produced by the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. This fermentation process is similar to that used to make yogurt, vinegar and wine.
Even a dash makes a big difference in flavor. I always put a little MSG in almost all of my dishes but I never put more than ½ tsp. even in a large batch of a dish and it makes it very flavorful. I found that I didn’t have to put too much table salt (sodium chloride) in my dishes to get a good flavor.
MSG, monosodium glutamate or sodium glutamate has been used safely for more than 100 years to season food. During this period, extensive studies were conducted to elucidate the role, benefits and safety of MSG. At this point, international and national bodies for the safety of food additives consider MSG safe for human consumption as a flavor enhancer. It was classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and by the European Union as a food additive.
MSG can be used to reduce salt intake (sodium from sodium chloride or table salt, or sea salt), which predisposes to hypertension, heart diseases and stroke. The taste of low-salt foods improves with MSG even with a 30% salt reduction. The sodium content (in mass percent) of MSG is roughly 3 times lower (12%) than in sodium chloride (plain table salt or sea salt) (39%).
Other salts of glutamate have been used such as potassium as potassium glutamate in low-salt soups, but with a lower palatability than sodium as in sodium glutamate.
As a flavor enhancer it is only pleasant when used in the right amount. An excess of MSG is unpleasant.
Reference: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium _glutamate
Pancit was derived from a Chinese word that sounded like “pancit” that means noodles. Noodle dishes were popularized by the very early Chinese immigrants to the Philippines and were subsequently adopted by the Filipinos.
There are probably a hundred different varieties of pancits all over the regions of the Philippines that are equally good. It is a comfort food that is commonly sold at any corner food establishment that is called “Panciteria”, similar to “Carinderia” in Spanish (Another “Hispanicanized Chinese” word invented by the Filipinos).
However, Filipinos followed the Chinese tradition of symbolizing long noodles for long life so noodles are usually served at birthdays.
Pancit is eaten as a mid-afternoon snack instead of as a meal or used as a side dish at lunch in the Philippines.
You may read Patis many times in this recipe book and wonder what it is. It is commonly called in the U.S., Fish Sauce.
Patis (pah-tís) in Tagalog Manila or (pah-téhs) by some. It is an amber colored salty liquid made from fermented small fishes. They used to ferment them in earthen urns with a lot of salt as in bagoong, left in the sun for days to achieve its caramel or amber color. I can’t say how it is made now with modern equipment and with more scientific and sophisticated laboratory researched manufacturing method. Nevertheless, the good patis is fermented, unlike some commercially made ones that are only extracts of fishes and salt and sugar added.
Patis is not only used exclusively in the Philippines but also used by almost all other countries in the Far East. It is used in the Philippines and in other countries as a dip for any meat, even for fish and seafood. Some mix it with the juice of calmondin or calamansi. Some other ethnic dips made with patis are with crushed garlic and/or chopped green onions, and some with ginger root. Some dilute it at the table and some take it straight. It is also used in cooking as part of the ingredients as a seasoning.
Vietnamese spring rolls are dipped in diluted patis with vinegar, crushed chilies, sugar and garlic.
This Papaya tree produced fruits last year for the first time since I planted it and I waited patiently for them to ripen but they didn’t get ripe before the first winter freeze came. I missed harvesting them even when still green and they got ruined by the freeze and became unuseable. Luckily it recovered the next Spring and produced multiple branches. Each branch is loaded with small papaya fruits. I assume this is the small papaya variety from Mexico because they never got bigger than 6” but I am still waiting for them to ripen. This time I would not hesitate to pick them before the cold weather comes. It is still August and still very hot so I think I still have plenty of time left.
There are several dishes I can use the green papaya in. One of the popular dishes is called “Tinola” or “Tinolang Manok” where it is used as the main vegetable ingredient with boiled chicken. The other vegetable ingredient in this dish is the Labuyo pepper leaves that I am also growing this year. The seeds came from the Philippines.
I have plenty of papaya that I will try to make a Filipino relish called “Achara”.
Well, some papayas ripened before the onset of the cold weather which was what I hoped. Yummy!
Patola is also known as Luffa. They can be eaten when still young before they become stringy. When the fruit or the squash matures it becomes very stringy and hard. If left to dry and cleaned of the skin and seeds, the network of fibers just under the skin is further cleaned and dried and are sold or used as Lufffa or Loofah that can be used as a sponge for bath or dishes.
Patola is a type of squash or gourd that is common in the Philippines and is one of my favorites. But the only dish I know that it is used in is Miswa sa Patola and when we cooked it when I was a kid it would make me eat a lot.
This vegetable is not always available and is seldom sold even in large grocery stores in the U.S. at the Asian section in the produce. However, they are sold at the Asian stores but it would be taking a trip to go to one. It may be called “Chinese Okra” here in the West. It is a gourd or squash in the cucumber family, “Cucurbitaceae”.
So, to satisfy my craving for this vegetable I tried to grow it in my garden. The first time I planted it, it set some fruits too late in the season that none ever made to useable size before they froze and the vine died. It froze early that year, before the end of November. I tried again another year and this time I think I can still harvest a few more before the cold weather gets here.
Pirito means fry (pan fry). Contracted slang as PRITO. Piritong Lumpia (ex.) is Fried Lumpia. Piritong is a contraction of Pinirito na (subject).
Therefore, anything that is fried is called “piniritong something” such as piniritong isda (fried fish) piniritong karne (fried beef), piniritong mani (fried peanuts), etc.
Only a few instances that foods are deep-fried in “gallons” of cooking oil at home because cooking oil is expensive. To conserve, frying is done mostly in a frying pan or skillet and the oil is conservatively used to just barely submerge about ½ of the thickness of the food being fried, almost like pan-frying. Deep-fried food is mostly done commercially as they can re-use the oil many times. Or it could be a special occasion that they fry large quantities or large items such as a fresh ham as in “lechong kawali”, crispy pata or a whole chicken.
I still have that mentality of conservation even if the cooking oil is very cheap here in the U.S. If I have to deep-fry something, I tend to choose a smaller pot or saucepan to fry in. An example of this is frying butterfly shrimp even if I have to do them in several batches. This way if I have to dump the used oil, I would not feel it was very wasteful.
Shrimp Juice (Katas ng Hipon)
Shrimp juice is used in many, many Filipino dishes. It is used as base for flavoring sautéed vegetables, in almost all types of pancits, and many more.
Fresh small shrimp are always on the market list. Shelling the small shrimp is always part of the procedure in everyday cooking. The shells and heads are saved for the juice. They are pounded in a stone mortar and pestle. The juice is extracted by squeezing the ground shells through a sieve. The shells are pounded again and the procedure is repeated a few more times adding a little water to aid in the extraction of more juice until the ground shells are but a colorless pulp.
When I buy fresh shrimp here I sometimes opt for the whole, head on shrimp. I de-head the shrimp and I juice them by my short-cut process. I bottle the juice for later use by freezing or canning.
I learned a short cut to this process and there is not much difference. Put all the would be discarded shells and heads in a pot and add a cup or so of water (depending on the amount of shells and heads) then simmer for a few minutes. Let cool then strain the stock in a freezer safe container and keep it frozen until ready to use. Add more as you cook more shrimp.
I found a better and simpler way to add shrimp flavor to any of my recipes by just using Shrimp bouillon cubes.
There are many varieties of sinigang, and Pork Sinigang is only one of them. But basically it is made with any kind of meat including fish boiled in a sour base broth extracted from green tamarind pods or kamias fruit or sometimes from guava fruits, cooked with a conglomoration of different vegetables, but mainly kangkong.
Young pods of tamarind fruits are used as the souring agent but are not available in the U.S. markets except for the ripe ones sold fresh at any better supermarket or ethnic supermarkets. But they may be available now in larger Asian markets.
The extraction of the sour juice is part of the cooking preparation of this dish. A few young green tamarind pods are boiled in small amount of water until soft. Then cooled and squeezed repeatedly until most are squeezed out then strained, and the pulp and seeds and the thick outer shell discarded.
The meat for this dish can be shrimp which is traditional, fish, especially milkfish, catfish, and any favorite fish, but usually those that are not large fishes. Beef is used too but I think not as commonly as pork. In the Philippines we use pork tails which are fatty. They are not sold here and I don’t know the reason. For pork, I use either part of the spareribs or loin with a little fat sometimes cut as country style ribs. Pork that is too lean is not a good choice for this dish. Cut up chicken is sometimes used also but I don’t think it is very common but I’ve cooked it. So basically, you can cook this dish with any meat you like or no meat at all for the vegetarians, which I served to one and was enjoyed. It is always eaten with rice and patis as dip with crushed pepper from the cooked dish.
Traditionally, the vegetable combination used in sinigang include all of these: Kangkong, which is the main vegetable, some cut up yard long beans, or any local green beans like Sigadillas (winged pod beans), slices of white radish and slices of eggplants, and of course, one or two long green peppers that is mandatory. The flavor of the cooked pepper adds to the flavor of the dish. Taro roots are optional and the yard long beans or sitaw can be substituted by green beans.
The favorite sinigang here and in the Philippines is the Milkfish (Bangus) sinigang. Almost everybody in my family in the Philippines loved the milkfish head and belly in sinigang na bangus (milkfish). But we normally cooked only one average size milkfish in sinigang or two if they were small since we only had a small family.
Of course, my parents or my father got the first choice unless he wanted to share it with me or my sister. Then I got married and soon left for the U.S. I came home to visit after my sister married and my brother-in-law also loved the milkfish belly. At that time he was the one who got the honor to have the very special milkfish belly. I was honored when he let me take it instead because I was a guest.
I mentioned that the souring agents for this dish are not available here in the U.S. so the instant, powdered sinigang soup base mix is the thing to have, which can be found at some large supermarkets that carry International foods. It is always available at Asian markets and in different brands. I always have a supply in the pantry and I never let it get low.
Before the instant soup base in the package was available here, I still cooked sinigang frequently because it is my all time favorite. It is the first dish I learned to cook after I got married and when I came here it was the only dish I knew how to cook until I gained more experience. But I still like it and I like to have it often. None of the ingredients for the traditional sinigang was available in the Midwest where I lived so I learned to improvise and used other ingredients to get by. I had to use the traditional method of cooking it by adding chopped tomatoes and chopped onions while simmering the meat. For the souring agent I used bottled lemon juice. I had to put about ¼ cup or more of it.
Table Salt vs. Sea Salt
Called Asin (ah-seen) in Filipino
The salt dish shown above left is the original dish we used at our table when I was growing up. I brought it here after my parents passed away.
Whether it is the regular fine table salt or sea salt, both are sodium chloride (NaCl). Regular fine table salt in cylindrical carton containers that are not labeled sea salt are also all natural salt that are harvested in salt mines. The salt in mines also came from the sea that dried up and were deposited beneath the earth’s surface from millions of years ago.
Sea salt is also sodium chloride derived by evaporating the seawater from beds of bricks at the seashores, if done the natural way. Otherwise the seawater is probably evaporated by modern equipment in factories nowadays. Different countries have different methods of processing salt either from mining or from evaporation of seawater. Some countries boil seawater to evaporate the water to leave the crystalline salt.
When I was growing up in the Philippines salt harvesting or “making” salt could be seen along some beaches in the vicinities around Manila, especially in certain towns that embraced this as a home industry, particularly in the town of Parañaque, a town south of Manila.
The salt beds are made of a single layer of bricks, laid and positioned on the beaches so that when the tide comes in, it fills the bed with a few inches of water and when the tide goes out, it drains the water leaving a thin layer of seawater trapped in the bed.
The hot sun evaporates the water. The sun is hot especially in the dry season that it evaporates the thin layer of seawater to dryness during the day. In the afternoon the salt farmer sweeps the salt beds into mounds of small white salt crystal cubes left from evaporation.
The salt is scooped into clay urns or pots, ready to be sold or peddled. They are not processed further than evaporation and are not refined. The salt may still be wet when sold to customers. Without any chemical or physical process to desiccate the salt, it will remain hygroscopic or moist especially when it is humid.
This is a true, natural and organic food product that is processed by nature. People at the time were not picky and particular about the little specks of dirt seen with the salt because they were not refined further and was deemed natural and harmless. Besides, there’s nothing you can do about it but remove the specks of dirt with your fingers.
Sea salt crystals that are evaporated naturally are about 2 cubic mm. The only drawback with this kind of natural salt is it cannot be used in saltshakers because the crystals are large. Therefore salt is placed in a small salt dish at the table and you pinch a few grains to sprinkle on the food on your plate. However, nowadays you can use a salt grinder at the table.
Tahó to Tofu (Tokwa)
As Tofu is processed from soybeans, there is an incidental product called Tahó by the Chinese. As far as I can describe it, it is probably before the soybeans curdles and hardens to become Tofu. Tahó’s consistency is very soft, smooth and milky, almost like custard that moves and jiggles in the container.
Tahó was introduced by the Chinese way back when, before any records were written or kept, before the Spanish colonized the Philippines. But I remember as a kid growing up (not that I was born during the Spanish times) that we could buy a bowl of tahó from a Chinese vendor who walked in the neighborhoods shouting “TAHÓ!” He carried two wooden or tin kegs hung from both ends of a pole or yoke balanced on his shoulder.
Because he walked the same route everyday he would be at our street and near our house at about the same time in the afternoon each day and if I liked to have tahó I would wait to hear his call and I would call or flag him. Mama gives me 5 centavos for a bowl of tahó. I run to meet the Chinese man but Mama calls me back because I forget to get my bowl. She wants to make sure I don’t use the vendor’s bowls or spoons. I have to use my own.
He lays his kegs down and opens them. One contains the tahó and the other contains the syrup and a container of water to rinse and soak the used bowls to use again for the next customer. That’s the reason my mother does not want me to use the vendor’s utensils.
He opens the tahó keg and removes a cloth that covers and touches the tahó. I suppose the cloth was to prevent the silken tofu to jiggle around and break apart as he walks. That would be disastrous to his business. He skims the liquid or water that forms on the top and tosses it on the ground. When he is satisfied all the extra water is taken out, he uses the same very shallow and wide metal spoon or spatula with a short handle to scoop the tahó in very thin layers into my bowl until it is 5 cents or 10 cents worth. He opens the other keg and opens the container of warm brown sugar syrup and ladles some on the tahó in my bowl. He would add some tapioca or sago pearls if I asked for them. I run back to the house and enjoy my afternoon snack that is nutritiously good.
Tahó is usually eaten warm. The vendor’s keg was wrapped with thick layers of cloth for insulation.
From my understanding these vendors are still peddling tahó all over the neighborhoods in the Philippines to this day. Nothing much has changed except they are now the Filipinos that peddle the tahó for their Chinese employers. These Chinese peddlers who used to walk and shout “tahó!” in the streets are now the business owners and employ the Filipinos to peddle their tahó.
Tahó, like Halo-halo is sold now at the mall in Manila and the larger cities.
I may try the Silken Tofu to have this long, lost and forgotten snack again one day. It’s been a long time…
Talbos ng Kamote
Talbos means the young leaves or sprouts of a plant and kamote is sweet potato. Therefore, talbos ng kamote is sweet potato leaves.
It is very closely related to “Kangkong” (Swamp cabbage or Swamp spinach). They are both in the same family of Morning Glory (Convolvulaceae). However, kangkong does not produce tubers.
The only time I remember eating the leaves of sweet potato was when I was a very young kid after WWII and of course I didn’t like any green stuff for food. I ate it but didn’t care for it. I also remember my father had a little garden in the backyard where he grew this. It was not that the sweet potato was a favorite that they grew it but sweet potato leaves are loaded with vitamins and it is very easy to grow. It does not require a lot of care and is not fastidious as to the type of soil it grows in. You don’t even have to water it regularly. It multiplies very fast from the cuttings. It was something they could eat during the war when food was scarce. I remember as a toddler helping my father plant some of the vines he cut and then stuck back in the ground to propagate. Each one of those cuttings rooted and became another plant. My parents told me they had to guard their small sweet potato patch during the war because many starving people during that time would steal them and they would have none to eat.
But that was the only time I remember eating them. I had never seen the sweet potato greens served at our table anymore when I was grown.
Now that I’m much older and my diet and taste changed I crave for greens and vegetables. The flowerbed is along the walk to our kitchen door so I pass by this plant everyday. One afternoon I decided to pick the young leaves and the young shoots to try it because I read that it is very nutritious and loaded with vitamins, has some curing properties including checking blood sugar as in diabetes.
The “talbos ng kamote” is good used in a special variant of fish sinigang, especially the one that uses guava as the souring agent called “Sinigang sa Bayabas”.
Pronounced oo-lahm is a word that has no direct translation to English but somebody called it viands in English, perhaps by the early American educators, maybe because of the lack of a better word or comprehension for what it really is and became its official English translation. It has been taught to Filipino children in school and is still being used today. I have never heard this word used here by Americans and if they hear me say it, they don’t know what I am talking about.
My definition of ulam is “rice go-with dish”. Ulam is the dish eaten with rice in any meal. The ulam may be called a main dish because there may be other side dishes but rice is the main and principal food in the meal and the rest are ulam. And a dish cannot be called an “ulam” if it was not served or eaten with rice. Sometimes if there is no rice but there is bread instead, it may also be called ulam for the bread.
Filipinos never eat Filipino dishes alone without mixing it with rice whether on the plate or in the spoon before putting it in the mouth or in the mouth itself and relishing them together. It is why Filipino dishes are usually rich and well seasoned because the rice diffuses the flavor in the palate.
Rice is never just a “side dish” in a Filipino meal.
(Pronounced oo-wé) Literally, it means come home or go home but for this article it means an expected treat from the mother or a family member coming from the market or a store given to a child, commonly a piece of candy, sweets or a snack.