I consider myself fortunate to have Visayan roots. My father’s mother is a Cebuana from Barili. His father is pure Negrense who spoke Hiligaynón, Bisayà, and Spanish. My mother is an Ilonga, and she prides herself for being one. Her mother was from San Carlos, Negros where she was raised. Her father, a Díaz, was a Dumangasanon original of Iloílo. She reminds us boys that her Ilongo parents had greatly influenced her cooking. If it is true that you are what you eat, then I’m not really Tagalog but Ilongo.
The food served here brought back great childhood memories to my mother. Ilongo cuisine, she said, is known for its “mildness”, something that distinguishes itself from the rest and what some confuse with as bland cooking. This can be observed in the Ilongo’s dish called laswâ — the taste and method of cooking is far from the rest of the local mixed vegetable dishes like, say, the Ilocanos, who prefer the bitterness and saltiness of their dinengdéng and pacbét. Even pacsíw, a meal which I learned to enjoy strongly soured, has a milder taste in Iloílo.
The late writer Doreen Gamboa, who hails from Silay, Negros, wrote: “For them (Ilongos), no large dominant flavor, but layers and nuances, prized over the predominance of flavor”. The people prefer the mild cuisine, but definitely sweet for the cookies and pastries especially since Iloílo was once a sugar land. A visit at a Biscocho haus will tell you this.
In the fish farm, live bañgús (milkfish) are caught and made into sinugbá. Cooking is done in a fogón and without any artificial seasoning. This traditional process gives the food a very distinctive flavor. The family together with the farm helpers rest and eat in a big open house built on top of a pond.Its made of bamboo and nipa but its foundation is concrete. A tasty tinola, a broth consisting of fish tail and head was served boiling hot. The other catch that day consisted of large lucón (shrimp), awà (bañgús look alike made into pacsíw) and small dark tilapias. The cabulig (helper) told me that there other fish that can be found in the pond: bulan-bulan, bulgan, alikumo (hairy crabs), calampay (smoother crabs) and bunog (seawater mudfish).
Our mornings were greeted with deliciously steamed root crops: camote (colored ube or cassava), ibus (local suman) and puto tactác. A rare root crop called tam-ís was also served. My mother recalled that this wild crop grows along the Dumangas river. Finding it has become rare as times goes by. My mom and tía also spoke about a long forgotten root crop called the limá-limá. This particular root crop is not commercially cultivated but grows in the wild. Hardened cocoa’s were also boiled and poured straight into tea cups. It was strong and aromatic. These cocoas are bought in a dried leaf wrap called it tableya. Strange is their preference for brown sugar but here I discover that this variety is better for the hot beverages.
Merienda were delightfully – heavy (mabigat sa tiyan!). Guinát-án is served in thick gatâ, smelling wonderfully because of the fragrant pandán leaves – tied in a knot and soaked in the boiling gatâ. One of the cabulig referred to it as biló-biló, which surprised me because it’s a term I heard Bulaqueños use. It turns out that her husband is Bulaqueño. The following day, the merienda was more familiar: sweet spaghetti with slices of hotdogs. It was cooked in a huge caserola and was emptied in minutes.
October is reaping time, and there were several young men helping out with the hard farm work. They showed me the process of “trayser”; this separates the ipá from the grain. My relatives feed these workers three times a day and pay them before sending them home. I was informed that most of these people are distant relatives.
There seems to be no shortage in food. My relatives make use of all available lands wisely. They plant string beans, cangcóng, camoteng cahoy and alugbati for household use. Vegetables cultivated for selling are calabaza and mongo. Wild saluyot grows along the rice fields. The ingredients of an Ilongo staple, laswâ, is picked fresh. Rain is gathered and filtered for drinking and water. For washing, there’s the old reliable balón.
On our way back to Manila, we shortly dropped by a small stall along the highway in Santa Bárbara. We bought baye-baye, a delicacy similar to espasól minus the powder. The food reminded me, especially my mother, of a culture that helped shape the way we eat and live. Although we try to recreate the Ilongo way of cooking back home, there is the difference in ingredients. Batuán, for example (a crucial souring ingredient in Ilongo cooking) is almost impossible to find. But still we try, because it is our tradition kept alive in our cocinas.