‘Hitong Imelda’ vs ‘hitong Candaba’
By: Ambeth R. Ocampo

There is a growing appreciation these days for traditional food and cooking. Palates grown stale and lazy because of “fast food” now look forward to “slow food.” In time, I hope, Filipinos will rediscover their roots from the food they eat.

For me, growing up Kapampangan meant Sunday reunions for a family that had never heard of birth control. My paternal grandparents produced 10 live children, and perhaps one or two who didn’t survive to adulthood. Eight of the 10 married and spawned 76 children, providing me many playmates and a loving extended family essential to my self-esteem. The eldest in the family had four successive daughters whose names began with C, D, E, and F because my uncle reserved A and B for sons that never materialized. My father took the cue and had three children whose names all began with A. Then my aunt, who was the 10th child, married a man who was also a 10th child; they made the quota of 10 children whose names all began with G. Family lore says they stopped at 10 because they ran out of names, leaving only “Gago” (Buffoon) on the list.

Many of my 75 cousins married and had their own children and children’s children; they, too, came to the Sunday lunches with yayas and drivers, making me marvel, in retrospect, at the logistics of feeding about 200 people every week. Food in my grandparents’ home was simple Filipino fare that developed my taste buds and taught me early on what was good from bad. I remember how I refused sinigang that was made from a sachet or bouillon cubes, and how I could tell the difference until eating in Fast Food Manila dulled my taste buds. Even abroad, without sampaloc, I was taught how to cook sinigang from scratch using lemons and tomatoes as souring agents to simulate the taste of a home-cooked, one-dish meal.

When ordering leche flan off a restaurant menu I still ask if it is made the traditional way with eggs or if it is made with a sachet of Alsa Flan from France and a liter of milk. Nothing can approximate a leche flan in a llanera made from: duck egg yolk, carabao milk, sasa (nipa) sugar or panocha flavored with vanilla extract and grated dayap or lemon rind. With an instant mixture it is possible to concoct a leche flan substitute that tastes like, but can never match, the richness made possible by real eggs. Some traditional recipes call for at least 36 egg yolks in one leche flan! If you truly want a sugar-and-cholesterol fix, the one-bite mini leche flan better known as tocino del cielo should have at least one egg in each gulp.

Slow cooking over a wood fire is now almost obsolete because in these economically challenged times we think twice about hours of simmering nilaga or sinigang on our gas or electric machines. Nobody cooks with clay pots anymore and if you see a palayok on a table today, it is merely ornamental. Why go through the trouble of roasting beef or chicken bones to give them smoked flavor in the stock pot when beef or chicken broth can be bought off grocery shelves in cans or tetra pak? Why bother with slow cooking when a bouillon cube (plus the addictive MSG in it) can approximate real broth?

Some substitutes are unavoidable because the real ingredients are disappearing. Certain vegetables like tangle and zapote are not known to the present generation. Alubebe is a small fish used to make bagoong. Old folks would wax poetic over the succulence of hitong Candaba that is not really catfish from Candaba but hito regardless of origin, as long as it is not the “hitong Imelda,” the hybrid readily available today that is smaller and has tough meat compared with traditional fish.

Talangka used to be abundant in August, but pesticides and other reasons have made it scarce. The fat is squeezed out of these crablets, sauteed with garlic and flavored with dayap. One sack of talangka will give you a small “Nescafé Diamond” glass of crab fat paste fit for freshly cooked rice or pasta. The taba ng talangka on store shelves today are mostly extender and good coloring.

Preserved meats like tocino (sweet cured pork), tapa (dried cured beef) or longganisa (ground pork sausages in intestine) will not keep very long without refrigeration because of the change in preparation. Tocino took at least a day to prepare in the old days because it had to be dried and given its coloring with the bark of a certain tree called ange, which is bought from the Chinese. Today the red color is artificial coloring and salitre.

Tocino and tapa are no longer dried because when they are made in the morning they can be sold a few minutes later. Besides, who needs preserved meat when preservation comes easily with a refrigerator or freezer? The aesthetic and taste are simulated but the original reason for curing meat—preservation—is lost.

Texture obviously changes. Tocino is often pan-fried but in Pampango homes tocino is very sticky and very red because it is cooked in its own lard, caramelized in its own sugar. One can go on and on about food and how its preparation and taste have changed over time. We all carry the tastes of childhood food on our palate and associate these with memories that provide our personal history. Taking a second look at the food we eat and asking ourselves why we eat the way we do are an exploration into history, culture and what makes us Pinoy.