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tec sanchez-tolosa
tec sanchez-tolosa SHOULD I even be talking and thinking about food at this time? It is forty minutes short of midnight on a Friday evening—a Friday during Lent at that. Please don't think it's some sort of rebound from fasting and abstinence because, truth be told, I am a total failure when it comes to those things. And this I say with bowed head and ears all ready for the chastisement they would hear—but that may be good material for yet another story.

It was a question I posed to my children during one of our customary prolonged huddles at the dinner table. I forgot what our ulam was, but dessert was balut. You see, dessert to us is anything that you have after the main course, and it can range from cake to ice cream to ligang mani right down to balut na mangaragul sisi. We were bingeing, as always (ali pa pu cuaresma kanita ) and the time it takes for us to finish our food and fellowship is enough for a skilled surgeon to finish a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Baka pin mekayatlu ne, eke pa meyari.

I have three children who engage a good discussion when they encounter it. What actually prompted me to ask was the fact that my youngest finished her sising balut con mucho gusto, and then begged for the sisi of those who did not want them. I am awed at how could she could like it so much, while her ate, my second, could hardly look at one—much less put it in her mouth. (Me? I love sisi too.) I directed the question to my eldest, he being the one most likely to jump into treatise—and I asked, what makes something maniaman, anyway? Is it instinct? Preconditioning? Culture? Does society shape our concept of delicious food? Again, as with many other things, is it a toss between nature and nurture?

"Mom naman," TJ quickly answered me, "si Sam at Xy anak mo pareho, they grew up in the same household, heard the same bilin day in and day out, and yet developed reactions to sising balut which are polar opposites of each other."

"So, what is it then?" I goaded him on.

"Both," he told me. After a lively repartee, we agreed that a combination of individual tastes of food and adequate interpretation of neurosensory input, influenced by the cultural context and psychological mindset, laid the framework for what is known as maniaman ; first, to entire populations, and second, to specific individuals. For instance, wide samples would say that fried chicken is good. Ing piritung manuk maniaman ya—angyang Amerikano o Pilipino o Aleman ya ing mamangan. Pero ing sushi, sabian deng maniaman deng mapilan, pero ede apangan ding keraklan.

Dyed-in-the-wool Kapampangan that I was, I started thinking—and simultaneously salivating—about adobong kamaru, balo-balo, tagilo, betute and suklating batirul.

I could almost hear my non-Kapampangan friends' chorus: Eeeewwww . . . at the sound of the word kamaru, and the succeeding description. Honestly, I have yet to see one of them with the guts (no pun intended) to take a few pieces of these mole crickets of the genus Neocurtyla and chew on them like they were French fries.

Some people find the exotic mouth-watering, partly because of the novelty, in eating something that is customarily not eaten. Maniaman ing bawal. Of course I do not discount the possibility that these little-experimented delicacies have inherent essences that are biologically appealing to the taste buds—like a beautifully orchestrated symphony of the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter (not to mention the more-recently-recognized umami). The consumption of bugs, worms, excreta (well, at least, coffee beans in it), and body parts that are normally deemed dirty, non-edible or outrightly outrageous offers shock value that enhances the gustatory satisfaction intrinsic to the flavors of the food.

I was little surprised to find out that eating insects is a habit not unique to the Kapampangans. Zambales has its abal-abal, similar to Cagayan's insect delicacy. Termite mounds house these creatures, which are harvested and sautéed in garlic, onion, tomatoes and bagoong, or simply fried, prior to eating.

Worms are another thing altogether. I don't care about the size or the length: as long as it is wet, slimy, squiggly and alive, it counts as a worm to me. By my definition, this category includes maggots, larvae, and longer worms. (Snakes? Aliwa no man deta—reng camamalu ampong kuyug, level up na la. )

Casu marzu, I must say, sounds like one heck of a nice name for, well, maggot cheese. In Sardinia, Italy, Pecorino cheese (hard cheese made from ewe milk) is left outside, partially uncovered, to allow the female Piophila casei fly to lay its eggs on it. The cheese fly eggs soon develop into larvae, whose digestive activities ferment the cheese, which then becomes soft and "liquidy" as the maggots' acids break down the fats. The funny thing is, this cheese has to be eaten while the maggots are alive; cheese wherein the maggots are dead is considered to be unsafe for consumption. Also, diners have to be particularly careful while taking their bread on which the cheese is spread. The worms are known to have the ability to "jump" or launch themselves into the air. Tatakas la, brads, uling mabantut keng penibatan da. Kailangan patanan me ing sandwich mu kabang makipagkwentu ka; pota melibang ka, memagluksu no kareng mata mu. Or worse, keng arung mu. Hatsing!

Man, and I thought cheese with those non-moving, blue thingies (Penicillium mold, actually) was baaaaddd.

Our local counterparts down south would put Sardinia's larvae eaters to shame, because they gulp down worms six to eight inches long. Mabie, ha! The woodworms found in driftwood in the provinces of Agusan, Surigao and Davao provinces are rinsed, then eaten—not only raw, but alive. No vinegar, no salt; nope, not kilain. No Kikkoman, no wasabi. Eat that, sashimi! Just true blue bulati, kukuldas keng karelang gulung-gulungan. Whew! I need a drink.

Coffee will do, but please do not give me kopi luwak. Why people would spend good bucks to drink coffee made from coffee beans that civets have excreted unchanged from their digestive tracts is beyond me. Emu sasabian kanaku na inos da no man, binilad da la, tinusta da lang masalese— I am not taking anything that has passed through another living thing's alimentary tract. I'll take my three-in-one favorite brand anytime. Never mind that in Tagaytay we have our own version, kape alamid, harvested pretty much the same way. It's probably less expensive than the internationally known kopi luwak which was made even more popular by Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List. I know that my pocket might be able to handle it, but I am certain my nerves won't.

Which brings me to the issue of balut. Various sites on the internet have labeled balut as probably the single most terrifying food on this planet, and they cannot seem to comprehend how Filipinos in general can eat it as nonchalantly as, for instance, shrugging your shoulders. It's been called cruel, inhumane, animal-unfriendly, uling kanung itang baby bibi linutu taya at e taya peburen meragul ban lang mikit ima na. I think it was on cracked.com where I read that, on TJ's recommendation. I guess that is stretching it too much—because if that is the case, what about those pigs and cows and chickens that we took away from their pens and coops while their helpless, choiceless siblings and children looked on? Roll in music, and flashback to Babe standing in the middle of the barn in the dark of the night saying, "Bye, Mom"—thinking that his mother was going to pig heaven.

Recycle, recycle, recycle. We Filipinos take this to heart, I must say, when it comes to food. Animal body parts that normally are discarded, we are able to harvest, clean and prepare as delectable and tasty fare, albeit out of the ordinary, as far as other cultures are concerned. Think "Adidas," "Betamax," "IUD," "Soup #5," and that thing we feed to little children who are gaguti or are not able to speak properly. My grandaunt even fed me adobong utak babi when I was in elementary because she believed it would give me high grades during my exams. Maniaman ya. Malinamnam. The consistency is that of Japanese soy milk. I never believed my grandaunt's claim, but I remember topping most of my exams. Hmmm . . . .

So there. There are exotic dishes/food, and there are ordinary stuff we can perk up by doing little twists on them. Like bulanglang babi. I always thought bulanglang was only meant to be done on fish—bangus, specifically—until some years back when somebody served me bulanglang babi na atin gandus. It was novel, but very, very good.

I'm a 'fraidy cat when it comes to experimenting with food that borders on the "dark side," like live octopus complete with tentacles or ant eggs. But I have no problem with stepping out of the box with the "safe" ingredients that I know—like whipping up bistig manuk, or sarsyadung ema. Or adobo cooked with olive oil, Japanese soy sauce and unpeeled Idaho potatoes. Alaskan salmon a misigang keng sampaluk, dininan asparagus ampong broccoli. You never know how it would come out—but you might be pleasantly surprised to find na maniaman ya— just like when someone gets his first bite of sashimi or beef carpaccio.

The list is long, those foods we Kapampangans call appetizing and delectable. We don't scrimp on our ingredients, we cook with much aplomb, and we are proud of our output. We wear it like a badge of honor. And here I interject one more thought: that a certain type of food is deemed fulfilling when its consumption is attended by a myriad of pleasant, soothing memories—the concept of comfort food. It is a pleasure that goes beyond paksing balanak o likawuk, pritung biya-biya, milmal a sampaluk; above burung talangka, arobung itik, tamalis at gatas damulag. Ing lelut manuk ampong sorbetis tutu lang malasa, dapot lalung gagato ing niaman da potang makipangan ka keng puni neng maleldo. Ing pistu kareng pangadi, at ing ligang baka neng Pasku.

Our cultural comfort foods bring us back to a time when life was simple, good and kind—when life seemed to be in black and white and offered no trimmings, trappings or distractions: maglimbun neng maledo, maniulu neng Daun, makipag-aginaldu neng Pasku. Neng masakit ka, banten na kang Ima mu, at pulisan na kang bimpo miki-marimlang danum. I Daddy mu dinan neng Vick's ing arung mu ban maniaman ka pangisnawa. Sali da kang Sunkist ampong brownies, those little delights that gave a fancy upside to being sick. We knew much less than what we know now (for instance, we didn't know that Vick's could actually dry up the nasal passages and make you feel worse later.) We didn't have phones or cable or internet, no fancy toys and expensive gadgets. And yet, there was so much more that we had and held dear to our hearts. It was a time when all we needed to do in order to feel good was to come home and sit down at the dinner table.

Perhaps THAT was the most maniaman of all.

[About the author. Tec Sanchez-Tolosa, MD is a full-blooded Kapampangan and a mother of three. A member of Pinoypoets since 2006, she is the author of the Kapampangan poetry collection "Ing Bie Kung Delanan, Ing Bie Kung Balikan (2006)." Some of her poems have been published in emanilapoetry and the online poetry journal Makata. While enrolled in her M.A. Creative Writing program, she was included in the anthology Sleepless in Manila. Tec is also a seasoned medical writer, with printed works in health publications and major dailies. She worked briefly with the ABS-CBN Foundation as a scriptwriter/researcher in the early stages of Sine'skwela. Raised in Manila and educated in St. Theresa's College during her formative years, she is a product of the University of the Philippines-Diliman, where she graduated with a B.S. in Biology. She later became a Doctor of Medicine and trained in diseases of the skin, hair and nails. She is now a Philippine Dermatological Society (PDS) Board-certified Dermatology specialist with an active practice in San Fernando, Pampanga and Quezon City.]

-Posted: 3:11 PM 3/30/11 | More of this author on eK!