A dish from the other realm

There was a local tale some old folks at home used to scare me with when I was still a kid, when we were still living in an old Bicol railroad town named Lupi. The story was about those people who had gone into the forest not very far from our place and never made their way back home. They said, these people, reaching the heart of the forest, entered another realm, another world that was very different from ours. That world belongs to those beings we feared: engkanto, taong-lipód*, kapre, and other creatures that were terribly territorial that men were so cautious never to break into their abode. When any of these beings knew that a poor folk had entered his domain, he would transform into a beautiful, seemingly kindhearted woman and offer a dish which when the intruder accepted and ate, at once he or she will forever be a slave of that creature. And so the old folks had always warned me—with eyes alarmingly wide and in a voice that was almost inaudible—never to accept and eat any food that someone I did not know might offer me in my mischievous wanderings around our village, especially if it was a lady, and most especially if the food being offered was…steamed black rice.

As a child, however, I always had that inherent hint that tales like this one were made-up stories by adults to keep us from going around. Still, I thought those old folks had managed successfully in scaring the little boy in me. I was always a curious kid, but never itinerant. Very seldom I would roam around our town, especially near the forest. In all these circumstances, I had always wondered if there was really steamed black rice.

Until just a couple of months ago, when Mama hired Ate Ningning, our new housekeeper. Quite nostalgic for my old hometown, it was to my delight to know that she came from Lupi. She was an excellent cook that from then on Mama had entrusted her all our meals. When I went home for All Souls Day, we had pansit Bato** for breakfast, grilled tilapia and ginisang marigóso, and arnibal na saging for lunch, hulúg-hulóg*** for afternoon snacks, and ígado (pig’s liver sautéed in sliced red chili), ginutaan na balátong (string beans cooked in coconut milk), gulay na natóng (taro leaves cooked in coconut milk), and suman for dinner. The day’s menu would tell how an exceptional cook Ate Ningning was. Early in the morning next day, I woke up to the mixed aromas of boiling coconut milk and brown sugar being caramelized. The scent of boiling coco milk percolated into my nostrils like a magical rousing perfume while the odor of melting sugar was enough to conjure a happy morning. I went to the kitchen and saw Ate Ningning fanning the stove. I asked her what she was cooking. She answered binu’tong.

I have not tasted binu’tong for more than a couple of years and this made me stay in the kitchen just to wait for it to cook. When Ate Ningning lifted the lid of the kaldero, the sight of those fist-size pouches made of banana leaves just made me hungrier. I snatched a fork and hooked one of those pouches and put it on a plate. I rushed to the dining table and untied the string that sealed the pouch. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the inside of the pouch as I slowly opened it. When I had fully opened the pouch and revealed the content, there it was, coated with curded coco milk stained with the green of the banana wrapper…the black rice.

All my memories of the old tale came back in a flash.

It happened that Ate Ningning came in bringing me the sauce for the binu’tong, which I had forgotten in my eagerness to have a bite of a delicacy I have not tasted since two years ago. Seeing her, I instantly had the childish speculation that she could have been actually an asuwang. Not to mention her thin physique, her curly hair, and tanned skin. I started recalling the old beliefs, thinking that she might be a witch interested in my sister who was then in her later months of pregnancy. If only she was not very kind to us, always wearing that provincial smile, and if it was not only because of the irresistible scent that the binu’tong was giving off, I could have chosen not to eat what she had prepared for us.

And I had the first bite of bizarre black binu’tong, glazed with its sauce of melted caramelized sugar. First to touch the tongue was the sweet caramel, coating taste buds, preparing them for the coming curded coco milk that slips like jelly on the lips. The oil from the coco milk makes the tongue—and the teeth too—prepared for the sticky tangy rice—black rice. After one pouch, I had two more, which could have explained everything, including my shirt size.

Then I understood where the matter of enslavement came from, why my old folks warned me then of the woman luring people with black steamed rice. It was with the taste. And it was with the glee I felt after eating Ate Ningning’s binu’tong. I knew I would ask for more. More delicacies out of that black rice, which later I have learned to be a rare variety of the staple grain. Rarity also comes with price. Black rice is thrice more expensive than the ordinary glutinous rice. That is why more often, black rice is mixed with the ordinary rice just for ornamental purposes. Ate Ningning’s binu’tong was made entirely with black rice—translucent and exotic. One look at it and you know you are going to take a bite or two or more. And you are Ate Ningning’s slave forever.

I have learned that in Bicol, black rice is called malagadán. Gadán means dead and mala is a prefix which signifies “likeness to”. Black rice appears to be lifeless, and we associate many dark things to the gothic and the forbidden. Dark forests, dark alleys, black cats, black garments, black marks. What the old folks failed to tell me was that in black there might also be a happy life. I think those people who never returned from the forest were not really made into slaves who labored hardly for their masters. I think they found the best dishes there, eaten with steamed black rice, and they themselves chose not to return. I would have done the same if I were one of them. Indeed, black delicacies will surely leave you a slave forever, like my sister who loves black forest cakes, and I, who loves Ate Ningning’s black binu’tong.

* Bikol for “unseen human”
** A dish of noodles locally manufactured in Bato, Camarines Sur
*** A delicacy made of balls of ground glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, ginger, and sugar


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