Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sentiméntal (Something on Christmas)





Perseverance is endemic to us Pinoys, perhaps even contagious. No matter how our Spaniard colonial rulers called us indolente, I will still stick to this observation—or experience. I’ve got support, however, by way of Rizal’s logic: there is no way Filipinos can walk or work quicker than Japs do, it is too hot in here and swift activities will just leave us dehydrated, tired, and terribly weak. The thing is we do not do things in haste. But we rather chose to be a persevering race, we opted for the turtle’s tiyaga over the monkey’s speed. And I think our taste buds are a sure means to validate this notion. We’ve got lots of dishes that need hours to cook, some even days, let alone the tedious hunt for ingredients. Classic in this category are the kakanins which are usually done overnight, especially those which are wrapped and sealed in either banana or coconut leaves. And there’s simply dinuguan which requires an early trip to the market—a trip to the butcher is always far better—for a tabo of prized, warm, fresh pig’s blood. Then there’s Spanish-sounding picadillo, which, in my place in Bicol, is called sinanglay—a dish of tilapia stuffed with minced spices, wrapped in pechay leaves, cooked until the creamy coconut milk becomes more translucent and its aroma enough for one to demand for more rice. Cooking takes only a few minutes, the preparation takes an hour or two. Preparing tilapia for picadillo is one work of art itself that Papa had taken one of Mama’s sewing shears to be used exclusively for removing the fins. I’ve never learned “definning” tilapia though. And if picadillo is meant to be served on time at lunch, better start prepping the fish at nine.

But for me the real measure of Pinoy perseverance seen in culinary proficiency is the halayang ube. I think it is also the ultimate test of our agencies of dedication, determination, patience, and hard work. My reason for this is the fact that while the entire country listens to the very first Christmas carols on the first of September, my mother is also already on her quest for ube, whether at the roof deck of the Naga City Public Market or in some remote agricultural village in Camarines Sur. These efforts are just to ensure that there will be enough supply for her Yuletide present of halayang ube.

Ube supply suddenly drops when months start to end with “ber”. This is so because aside from the fact that halaya had become an important part of the Filipino Christmas tradition, some ice cream companies too tend to double their production even in cold December. Thus, it becomes inevitable for everybody in our place, including my mother, to hoard ube. Uncooked ube tubers, like cassava and camote, have a unusually long storage life. Some of the tubers might even develop buds, though it can really be gothic if the tubers grow creepers inside your kitchen cabinet. Nevertheless, from September to late mid-December, these hoarded tubers are subject to nothing but careful storage. All we have to do is to wait.

Then on a morning when Christmas carols already dominates the airwaves, hard labor for the halayang ube begins. The very first step is a process which everybody seems to avoid doing, lest fingernails get stained and palms get bruised. Automatically, this part is always given to the bunso in the family, the one who can never say no to an errand, one who can not complain. For washing the ube is indeed a tedious job. That means soaking the tubers in a basin of water to soften the soil stuck on the outer coverings. This time of the year, after serving their last duty of de-soiling the ube, laundry brushes are ceremoniously replaced with new ones. After washing, The ube are then cut into cubes just the size a bit larger that a clenched fist. For a half-sack of ube, this process may eat up an entire hour. Then, granted that the talyasi or the kawa is already clean, boiling comes next.

Boiling may take an hour or more, depending on the volume of ube. And it would also take another hour for cooling the ube before we would finally mash them. The mashing task is usually given to the ate or kuya in the family, the one old enough to withstand the pains—both literal and figurative—and struggles of mashing ube with the use of pangkayod. Crushing ube requires time and diligence as the halaya in the end must be consistent in texture, otherwise, the astute human gastronomic agencies, sieving small pieces of uncrushed ube, though fairly good-tasting, may judge it half-heartedly done.

At four in the afternoon, the kawa used for boiling ube must already be clean again. By this time, bunso is at play, ate or kuya is chatting with his or her friends, for the adults now take charge. And when everything’s set, ingredients are all in, cooking commences.

Into the kawa, the ube is transferred, then an ample amount of pure coconut milk is gently poured into the mash together with evaporated milk, sugar, and margarine. As to the exact quantity of each of these ingredients, I do knot know. My mother would always say, “You would know.” All I know is what each ingredient does to the delicacy. Coconut milk makes the mixture creamy. It creates that starchy texture you feel when a piece of halaya touches your tongue. Evaporated milk enriches sweetness while margarine adds that very faint peculiar taste that borders between salty and sweet. It is also the margarine, with the coconut oil, that allows halaya to harden when refrigerated.

The adults take care of the cooking. Far more than strength, endurance is needed on this part of the process: from the very first time the mixture is heated until the end, it needs to be constantly stirred. Gently, constantly, and in uniform direction, the mixture has to be stirred to evenly distribute ingredients and to avoid curding. For a kawa-ful of ube mixture, a sandok may do, but a large wooden spoon is more than perfect.

I can only remember how, despite muscle pain, with the gentle stirring, the sweet aroma of halaya starts to rise from the kawa when the margarine begins to melt and the mash starts to bind the coconut milk, condensed milk, and sugar together. I can only imagine the boiling that takes place under the surface of the mixture, how the coconut milk mixes with the other milk and together make their way to the heart of the mashed ube, tendering it until it becomes creamy and opaque. Then, the scent of the nearly cooked halaya begins to permeate the entire household. One by one, bunso, ate, kuya, and their friends, everyone comes to take a peek at what’s cooking on the stove. And a strange joy will fill the air, with the coming of halaya, everyone knows it’s almost Christmas day.

When the halaya is already done, it is usually left for an hour to cool down. Then the still-cream mixture is transferred to smaller jars, to prepare them for refrigerating, and eventually for distribution as Christmas presents.

After years of celebrating Christmas with halaya on the Noche Buena banquet, it is already a tradition we live by at home. I’ve risen from the being the bunso to the kuya to the adult that I am. This also made me so sensitive—to some extent shrewd—in knowing which halaya is, or might be, better than the other. I’ve always doubted the translucent ones, left out the too purplish in color (Mama never uses food color), avoided the oily—in fact, I tend to ignore almost any other halayas aside from our own. Perhaps, it is because I very well know how painstakingly our own i is made, how everyone at home takes part in its formation. Other halayas might be made out of these things too, but the homemade one really makes the difference.

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