As an eight year old girl in Poblacion, Bontoc, Mountain Province, Philippines, I was already interested in cooking. It’s 1953 and my father’s brother, Eliseo Belen, his wife, Flora, and their family are still residing in Bontoc Poblacion. Their house is just two doors away from ours. I remember going to Auntie Flor’s house and watching my cousins, Marion and Jane, bake a cake. Marion is 16 years old and Jane is 14. (As a sign of respect, I add Manang before their name when I call them.)
On the table are a cookbook and all ingredients---flour, margarine, eggs, white sugar and milk. Before anything else, Manang Marion and Manang Jane pre-heat the portable oven. They spread a thin layer of margarine on a 9-inch baking pan and sprinkle a small amount of flour, making sure the flour is spread all over the pan. Flour, the main ingredient, is sifted, measured and set aside. Sugar is also measured and set aside. In a mixing bowl, they beat the margarine with a wooden ladle until soft.
Manang Jane says, “You have to beat in one direction only.”
White sugar is added and mixed until creamy. Eggs are added too, one at a time. They put in the flour and mix, put in milk and mix---this sequence goes on for three or four times until the last ingredient added is flour.
At this stage, Manang Marion says, “To be sure the ingredients are well mixed, you beat for 150 times.”
They bake the cake in a portable oven for around 40 minutes. To test if the cake is done, they stick a toothpick in the middle and see if it comes out clean. It’s now a matter of waiting for the cake to cool.
My cousins invite me to join them for their afternoon snacks. The cake is soft and crumbly. “Masarap,” (Delicious) is what I could only say.
Before leaving, I copy the recipe. I can’t wait to bake.
At home, I experiment and bake a cake. I use our wooden ladle to mix the ingredients, beating in one direction and for 150 times. After placing the batter in a baking pan, I put it in the portable oven, similar to what Auntie Flor has.
I remember our portable oven. It’s 12 inches high, 10.5 inches wide and 10.5 inches deep. The lower portion is open and there’s a bent metal plate. The oven has two stands to place the baking pans. With a glass on its front, one could see the cake rise. And with a Fahrenheit temperature gage behind the glass, one can adjust the stove’s flame. The portable oven is placed on top of a stove fueled with kerosene.
Back to the cake being baked, I insert a toothpick and it comes out clean. It’s time to get the baking pan out of the oven. When the cake is ready to be served, I call my parents and sisters, Maureen and Fe, to the dining table. It’s my first time to bake a cake and I hope they like it.
Fast forward to 2014---when I shared this story with my sisters, Maureen said, “We always looked forward to your baking whether these are cakes or even pancakes.”
Fe said that she was still using our portable oven in 2006.
During my elementary school days at Bontoc Central School, I learn to make polvoron (powdery sweet flour) from my aunt, Josephine (Epin) K. Santella. She’s teaching at Bila Elementary School in Bila, Bauko, Mountain Province and on some weekends, she and her family would visit us in Bontoc.
Auntie Epin likes to make polvoron. Without measuring the flour, she puts in an amount in a carajay (wok made of iron) and toasts it until slightly brown. While still hot, she removes the flour from the carajay and adds margarine, making sure the flour and margarine stick together but still powdery. She estimates the amount of sugar in the flour and margarine mixture. After tasting, she decides it’s good.
The measurements are all estimates but the polvoron comes out with the right flavor. We had no molds then so, when the polvoron is ready, we just get four or five tablespoons and place it in a cup. For a child like me, it’s always a treat to eat polvoron---slightly browned powdered flour mixed with margarine and sugar.
When I was in high school, I learned to cook leche flan (caramel custard) from Lilian Trinidad. She’s one year my senior at the then Mountain Provincial High School (MPHS) now Mountain Province General Comprehensive High School (MPGCHS). Our mothers are nurses at the Bontoc Hospital; our fathers are members of the tennis club in Bontoc Poblacion.
Sometimes, I visit Lilian at their house. Once when I’m at their place, she is making leche flan. After preparing the ingredients, she mixes white sugar and water, boils the mixture until it caramelizes and puts the caramel in the bottom of a llanera (leche flan pan.) She also mixes the egg yolks, milk, white sugar and grated lemon rind with an egg beater. (This time, there’s no need to beat in one direction and for 150 times. Just make sure the ingredients are mixed well.) Afterwards, the mixture is placed in the llanera and steamed for an hour. As in baking a cake, the leche flan is cooked if the toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. When Lilian inverts the llanera on a plate, the caramel flows over the custard. I could feel my mouth water.
Members of her family and I eat our share of the leche flan, relishing the softness of the custard and caramel as topping.
I’m already in high school when I learned to cook palitaw (small, sweet, flat rice cake.) I must have gotten the recipe from school or a cookbook.
After toasting the sesame seeds, I crush them in an almiris (mortar and pestle) and set aside. Afterwards, I grate an aged coconut and put it on a plate. I could have also grated the coconut first and toasted the sesame seeds later but I prefer to do the latter.
I use powdered glutinous rice. Where did it come from? We only have glutinous rice grains at home. Perhaps, we requested someone to pound the glutinous rice and make it into powder.
To make palitaw, place an amount of powdered glutinous rice in a bowl and add water until it becomes sticky. Make balls of about two centimeters in diameter and flatten these. In a pot of boiling water, drop the flattened glutinous rice and wait until they float. Taking out the palitaw one by one, let the water drip and cover both sides with grated coconut. Finally, sprinkle crushed sesame seeds and sugar.
On many occasions, I serve palitaw as an afternoon snack when my mother comes home and brings along her colleagues. Of course, before I serve the palitaw to my mother and her co-nurses, my sisters and I have already eaten some. It’s a small piece and with two bites, it’s gone. The softness of glutinous rice, grittiness of sesame seeds, nuttiness of coconut and sweetness of sugar come together in my mouth. I like to eat some more.
Secondary School Home Economics
During our high school senior year, our Home Economics (H. E.) teacher is Ms. Priscilla Apolinar. Among many things she teaches us, I remember her lecture on how to know if the fish is fresh.
She says, “Look at the eyes. They must be clear and bright.”
I also remember what she says about slicing meat, “It must be sliced across the grain so it’s easy to chew.”
Only the girls in our class have H. E. (the boys have Practical Arts.) Aside from sewing lessons, we would have cooking sessions. And since our class ends at noontime, we usually eat what we cooked.
During our high school graduation exercises, I’m given an award, “Home Economics Student of the Year.” Pleasantly surprised but smiling and feeling proud, I go up the stage. My mother follows and pins the ribbon on me. Remembering Miss Apolinar and what I learned from her, I think of taking up H. E. as a major when I enroll in a course in Bachelor of Secondary Education.
Nowadays, when I buy fish, I always look at the eyes and make sure they’re clear and bright. I could still hear Miss Apolinar’s piece of advice.
I thought I knew how to prepare pinakbet Ilocano (vegetable stew, Ilocano style) until Auntie Flor visits our family in Bontoc when I’m in high school and taste what I cooked. After the meal, she calls me aside and gives a tip.
“The secret is in the tomatoes,” she says. “There must be lots of them.”
In cooking pinakbet, her first instruction is to put slices of pork, preferably from a pig’s belly, in a saucepan. Over the meat, add slices of tomatoes, crushed ginger and bagoong na isda (concentrated juice of fermented anchovies.) On top of this mixture, put the eggplant and ampalaya (bitter melon) sliced in bite-size pieces. Finally, add whole pieces of okra with the upper tips cut off. Cook the mixture over low fire. When the okra is almost done, shake the pot, with the cover on, towards you. Make sure the ingredients at the bottom of the pot are on top. Cook for another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are done.
Auntie Flor says, “Never mix the ingredients in the pot with a ladle or else the ampalaya becomes bitter.”
Fast forward six decades and I still prepare pinakbet. However, it’s not only cooking but also knowing more about the ingredients. Ampalaya is bitter and eating it is an acquired taste. It’s the bitter principle that makes ampalaya useful to the body. Bitter foods help to detoxify the liver. It’s claimed that ampalaya could lower the blood sugar. This is probably the reason that tea is being made from the plant’s leaves (generic name: Momordica charantia) and is now widely sold in the Philippines.
Okra is another ingredient and being slimy, it acts as a natural laxative. I notice that after an evening meal with pinakbet, moving the bowel the next morning comes easy.
When I cook the dish, I use around 250 grams of liempo (pork belly.) If there’s too much fat near the skin, I slice it off but leave a small amount to add a meaty flavor to the dish. Like Auntie Flor says, “the secret is in the tomatoes” so I use four large tomatoes. (When eaten alone, some tomato varieties are sour. In pinakbet though, the bagoong neutralizes the sourness of the tomatoes.) For the other ingredients, I use two inches of ginger, four tablespoons of bagoong na isda, two eggplants, two ampalaya and 20 small okra.
I prepare the dish monthly or twice a month, especially when fresh ingredients are available in the open market or Asian stores. Except for tomatoes and pork that are local and cheap, the other ingredients are expensive. The eggplant that’s similar to what is being sold in the Philippines comes from Turkey, ampalaya comes from Brazil and okra from Suriname. My supply of ginger and bagoong originate from Thailand. I would like to use bagoong from the Philippines. However, what’s sold in Asian stores contains citric acid and it makes the dish sour.
The eight-year girl is now a woman in her ‘70s, and still cooks and enjoys it, too. Sometimes, I bake cakes. Seldom do I make polvoron, palitaw or leche flan. I try to avoid foods with too much sugar. It’s related to getting sick with “Diabetes mellitus type 2.” Pinakbet is what I like to prepare. Although many of its ingredients are expensive, it’s a delicacy and brings back memories when our family lived in the Philippine Cordillera.YB
About the Author
Yvonne Kay-an Belen is a Bontok Igorot, who spent her childhood in Poblacion, Bontoc, Mountain Province, Philippines. Her father, Honesto Cariño Belen, was born in Bontoc, and is of Ilocano and Tagalog ancestry. Yvonne’s paternal grandparents are among the many Ilocano and Tagalog migrants, who lived in Bontoc when it was the capital of the old Mountain Province. Her grandparents brought along their food world and the migrants’ recipes remained in town. This is the “foodscape” that their family found themselves in, when they moved from Manila to Bontoc. The recipes in her story are taken from the time their family lived in Poblacion, Bontoc from 1952 through 1970.
Yvonne is a physician and teacher. Aside from her interest in cooking, she also likes to write. She contributed an article, “Flavors from my Bontoc Igorot Roots” in a book,A Taste of Home edited by Edgar Maranan and Len Maranan-Goldstein. As one of the editors of the Igorot Global Organization book,Igorot by Heart, she also edited the past seven Proceedings of the Igorot Cordillera BIMAAK Europe (ICBE) Consultations.
Her family immigrated to the Netherlands in 1985. She has three children and three grandchildren, and lives with her husband in Amersfoort, The Netherlands.
(Note: Yvonne would like to thank her sisters, Maureen and Fe, for their contributions to the article.)