Thursday, December 23, 2004

'Noche buena' in the 1920s

'Noche buena' in the 1920s

Updated 11:27pm (Mla time) Dec 21, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the December 22, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

A FEW weeks back, readers (especially expat Filipinos for whom Christmas can be most lonely) wrote and e-mailed to thank me for the mouth-watering remembrance of duman and the Christmas table in my favorite aunt's house in San Fernando groaning with all the gastronomic Kapampangan delights that make the food in this region rivaled but unsurpassed. My conscious appreciation for the food of my paternal relatives resulted from my association with the late E. Aguilar Cruz (whose portrait now hangs beside that of his wife on the ground floor of the original Café Adriatico in Malate). Long before Doreen Fernandez became the doyenne of food writing in the Philippines, it was "Abe" Cruz who was often interviewed on things gastronomic. He shared his own memories of noche buena in the 1920s with Ching Alano as follows:

"The noche buena...was a comparatively light meal...For a slightly above average family, standard noche buena fare was a heartwarming affair with fideos [translated by the interviewer as "vermicelli" though it actually is the thick and round macaroni-type noodles found in soup], or in its absence there usually was nilagang manok. The main dish was rellenong manok...They called it the main dish because it was at the center of the table, because it was stuffed. It was rare that they had stuffed turkey because, in the first place, it was hard to find turkey [from my own experience I would presume that turkey was not the fowl of choice because it was bland, somewhat like having a supersize piece of white meat when most Filipinos will throw cholesterol caution out the window and opt for dark meat] and it was hard to bake. So they settled for rellenong manok.

"To tell you frankly, I don't remember our taking fish [during noche buena]. In those days bread was a real treat which usually came before the rice...besides the rice menu there was a tinapay menu. The popular bread then was the Pan Americano... [Other things on the Christmas table were:] jamon de funda from Australia, a must for native bourgeois Christmas, and so-called because it was wrapped in cloth that made it look like a pillow case, queso de bola or edam cheese, chestnuts, apples, and you see it was more modest than what we see in magazines and on TV today."

Cruz's list of dessert started with his all-time favorite kalamay ube, followed by the usual: malagkit, suman and leche flan, not necessarily in that order.

When I interviewed him, nursery rhymes from his childhood came flooding back from memory. Aside from food, it was from Cruz that I rediscovered the language of my father, which I was discouraged from using by my Tagalog mother who feared it would give me the infamous Kafamfangan accent as well as future pronunciation problems with my f's, p's and e's.

While talking of food as my heritage, Cruz started to recite: "Isa adwa bibingka/ atlu kapat patupat/ lima anam suman/ pitu walu bobotu/ siyam apulo ginilo." You don't have to be Kapampangan to guess that this is a counting rhyme that ends with various types of food: bibingka is the rice-cake served with grated coconut meat (niyog) or some syrup or sugar; suman is the delicacy made from glutinous or sticky rice wrapped in different types of leaves (usually coconut) rolled or folded to form various shapes and sizes; patupat is a suman variety served with sugar or latik, that is a sweet preparation made of cooked and sweetened coconut milk; boboto is better known in other areas as tamales; and ginilo is coconut milk served cold with gulaman, the closest one can get to the refreshing Spanish drink horchata.

All the foods above remembered by Abe Cruz are just about the same things I remember from my childhood and which will be remembered by my nephews and nieces who go to lunch in San Fernando, Pampanga, once a month (when I was growing up this was every Sunday plus long vacations in the summer) and pine for the simple uncomplicated food that only my aunt's cook seems capable of dishing out. Unlike older, more affluent families who had special cooks hired for special meals or dishes, the only thing that seemed out of the ordinary for me was the buco sherbet that was not bought off a supermarket shelf but scooped out of a large wooden garapinera filled with salt and ice. I never got around to studying the contraption because I was distracted by this sweet crystallized and fine buco juice frozen to perfection.

Interviews with those who had a "dulce cook" or someone who specialized in sweets are something worth exploring again. I heard of a certain "Apung Pedro" of Bacolor whose piece de résistance in an assortment of sweets was a concoction made from eggs which he steamed and shaped in a round llanera. When it was cooked and solid, he placed it on a tray and sliced it to form a flower, which was said to look like a dahlia with each petal garnished with cherries and poured over with a secret recipe syrup. When this beautiful edible flower had absorbed the sauce, it was ready to eat. Unfortunately, my informant had no name for it and only remembered that it was good.

Some day I may yet embark on a new line of research, do my mother's dream book on Filipino kakanin from north to south, and thus preserve part of our gastronomic heritage.


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