Re-learning to be a Filipino with pan de sal
December 20, 2009, 11:06 pm
Filed under: essay, food, interview | Tags: , , ,

Filipino pan de sal

Coming from a doctor’s appointment at that medical building on Broadway and Oak in Vancouver, pained in parts that have been poked, anxious to find comfort in any guise, a poster of giant pieces of pan de sal on the glass wall of a café across the lobby you’re shuffling to get out of, falls like a proverbial manna from heaven! It draws your body upright and your uncertain steps turn into a light gait as you walk into Elliz Café, but wondering whether or not it’s the pan de sal for which you’ve been craving.

Hmmm, the aroma wraps you like the warmth of a kusina where on mornings your grandmother or mom sets almusal with pan de sal on a bandejado—not newly-baked by either of them but in the neighborhood bakery, which a boy on a bicycle who had honked a horn delivered in a brown paper bag, still warm, sweetish and salty. Instantly transported, you gloss over the cafe’s glass-walls, sleek-lines yet homey feel with its earth tones and finish, and approach the counter shooting this question at the lady in the  -cash register-hardly having had time to weigh its appropriateness– “I’m expecting to have Filipino pan de sal, am I not?”

Mary Loa lights up with instant kinship and says, “Of course.” The conversation does not end there, siempre.

You have finished two pieces of pan de sal by now, dipping them on the mushroom soup your choice instead of the wonton soup—on request of Filipino customers, the café serves two kinds of soup, one a Filipino recipe—which you learn from Mary have been cooked, baked and more precisely “created” by 27-year old Joy Loa, Mary’s daughter who is baker, chef, and manager of the café.

Joy Loa of Elliz Cafe, Vancouver

The lunch crowd thinned, a sun swarming on the tables, yours lit as much as your spirit sated from the very first bite, Joy joins you as you had requested for a conversation, which focuses on the pan de sal.

“You can’t imagine how hard I worked to get the right consistency that gives the texture, aroma, and taste, you like all others who take a bite like and have been coming for more. Six months or so, that’s how long!” Joy almost rises off her chair for emphasis and her voice hits higher decibels, carrying with it her triumph on what to most Filipinos is staple bread.

At the café, regular clientele include not only Filipinos but Hispanics, who recognize it of course, yet love it better than theirs or so they confess. There’s the bollilos among Mexicans, and pan de agua among the Portuguese—who by the way introduced it to the Filipinos, according to historical notes. And why not? Fernando Magallanes, who discovered the Philippines in his explorations, is Portuguese. Canadians and other Caucasians as well, most of them doctors, their assistants and patients in the clinics within the building have since taken on the Filipino habit of asking for it to dip in their soup. A Japanese gentleman has not failed to come for more after his first bite.

Why should its crustiness yet soft insides, its saltiness yet sweetish hint be such a mystery? “I don’t know. It must be the weather, the water, the kind of flour available,” she says hinting at a less than scientific process she went through.

Her mom had sent her back to the Philippines when she finished a degree in nutrition at University of British Columbia (UBC), “to re-learn Filipino cooking.” The family had migrated 17 years ago when Joy was in the grades. Her parents had applied as investors, pulling out their business in Greenhills, San Juan, a posh suburb of Manila, and landing in Winnipeg. Joy remembers lots of trees and snow that first year. Her memories of adjusting were fun and easy except for C+ grades in Physical Education subjects. “Suddenly, I was running laps, playing soccer and basketball. We were doing gymnastics and volleyball in Manila, nothing that athletic at all,” she recalls.

Going back to the Philippines was for Joy reliving her childhood when as a 7-year old she went to the now-famed Heny Sison Culinary School. That early she learned how to bake cupcakes and muffins—today she creates muffins out of what’s fresh in the fruit market or what’s in the fridge. During that learning vacation, Joy set her hands on unraveling the secrets not only of the pan de sal but also of the chewy-but-mouth-melting ensaymada, flaky but not bread-y empanada with just the right fresh cooked taste of its filling, and the many breads Filipinos grow up with like pan de coco.

Speaking of coconut, Joy expresses her anguish, hanging her head a bit, saying, “If I could get fresh coconut cream, I could make rice cakes like biko, which is my favorite, bibingka, and yes, puto bumbong”. You agree with her as images of mornings after misa de aguinaldo, you could not resist puto bumbong that pops with a slight bang when cooked on a tubular pot with two tubes set to steam on a clay stove, so its name—this purple rice roll lathered with margarine and topped with freshly grated coconut meat cooked right at the church patio.

But Joy has not let a few frustrations faze her. Take what she considers her ensaymada challenge. “Mahirap gawin! Mahanginan lang, babagsak na ang dough. (It’s hard to make it. A whiff of air could deflate the dough.),” she reveals. Even while she recognized it as basically a “brioche” in school, making it as the Filipino ensaymada she realized was hardly in the books. It took her months to get it right.

At Christmas after she finally had pieces for tasting, she got swamped with orders—“one of them asked for 25 dozens! I must have been baking and topping these with cheese for at least three days and nights.” You do add that a Christmas table spread is hardly complete without ensaymada.

You have since taken your second bite of the sampling Mary had coaxed you to try. Indeed, it must be the ultimate yet from the many variations you had eaten—from simple town bakery sugared versions to the latest mouth-melting bite-size kind made by a chain bakeshop in Manila.

And there’s still half of the cassava cake you have hankered to taste, about which a family of Hispanic women seated at the table behind you have been hmmmm-ing about. It’s one of the items Joy has recently added when customers allergic to wheat asked for an alternative.

counter at Elliz Cafe

The sun has slipped lower from its zenith and the afternoon has signaled a new crowd which Joy expects. One of them has come in, a Filipino regular who drops by for two sometimes three dozen pieces of pan de sal to bring home. Today, she settles as well for only three of the ensaymada left on the shelf.

Joy takes me behind the counter where on a table she has spread 24 dozens of newly baked pan de sal. But it’s almost closing time, you comment. “Mauubos ‘yan. (That will all be gone.) Joy tells you.

Take-home for pasalubong, yet another enduring habit of Filipinos has worked for Joy and Elliz Cafe. “Because they also ask for it, someday soon, I’ll be serving pancit,” she says. You add, not serve but also wrap for pasalubong. With that, you walk to the counter and pay for half a dozen pan de sal to take home. But you had vowed to come back for a dozen ensaymada to share with friends on Christmas day.

Copyright © 2009 by Alegria Imperial as published in Silangan, Philippine New and Views, Vancouver, BC

Their Unfinished War

On Dec. 8, 1941, a war that has long been brewing on both sides of the hemisphere sundered the world apart. Cities have been ruined, some of them like Warsaw turned into ashes, cultures and histories lost forever like Intramuros, the old Manila. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the United States was drawn actively into a war already raging in Europe and Asia, and with it albeit reluctantly and innocently, the Philippines. Life for most families in the Philippines changed forever—like my family, my mother’s family—as neighbors and friends, too, switched loyalties.

My grandfather Ceferino R. Acosta, was arrested by the Japanese in a hidden barrio in Bacarra, where he evacuated his family from Laoag; he was then a US army lieutenant (reserve).  Forced to reveal the guerilla roster led by then Roque Ablan, Sr. of which my grandfather refused, he was incarcerated and later executed. The circumstances of his death were not confirmed as was Ablan’s whereabouts after he disappeared. No corpus of my grandfather was ever found.

The youngest of his 9 children had hardly turned a year old. One of his sons saw him shaved on a last visit to his prison cell at the provincial capitol in Laoag—he and his grandmother, my grandfather’s mother, had walked all the way from Bacarra. This son had witnessed how the prison guard turned over my grandfather’s sleeping mat, blanket, and the book he was reading, Thomas a Kempis” “Imitation of Christ”. Another son, the eldest of four boys, had claimed to have seen him wave from a truck where prisoners were packed for transfer.

Both sons although they hardly talked about it could hardly amount to anything and seemed to have been lost forever. For the first time before he died, the elder son one day took out a story written in a national magazine, which he had kept without ever mentioning it, and told his daughter that she must let her son, read it someday.

To this day, my aunt who was then only 14 years old, at 83 still bawls like a baby remembering that fateful morning when at breakfast, Japanese soldiers came for my grandfather’s arrest. “They kicked and turned the dulang over and our food scattered on the basar. Inay was breastfeeding and sensing fear, perhaps, my brother started crying.”

I grew up under a heavy pall of sadness around the family that dissipated as the children, my mother, my aunts and uncles, scrambled for survival even attaining peace, but the shadow of an absence that hovered around in their lives didn’t completely fade. From snatches of their stories, I composed this poem.

Their War: And the Tale Hangs There

(To my grandfather)

Still muddled in their minds, tangling their speech and regressing

their talk, dribbling even, like the digit-year olds they were

that morning Pearl Harbor blossomed into

some giant hydrangea,

which at first seemed a magical  moment—the blossom

that in pictures spurted silken petals

then kept transforming into a vaporous bulbous genie

and never kept still before it should curtsy and ask

for a child’s command—only one thing flashes

in cavities of  their minds yet un-befogged: An endless

unnamed incomprehensible void not grief—

for how could they vent sorrow on someone

of which the dark marrow of their bones

and all else they are made of but excluding perhaps

this scarred-over but unhealed wound

his departure, or better yet,

vanishing inflicted?


For a corpus never came up no matter the asking around.

They awoke one morning to an August sun as stark

as the motes in their eyes which fretful

dreamless sleep littered their taut young faces, wondering

why Tatang had not reappeared since the evening

before last, when men—so gruff their high commands grated

on the bamboo steps—dragged him by the cuff though

he stood with the noble lines he always had,

drawing his soldier’s body like a silver saber. That morning

they had counted on a feast of dinardaraan

and dudul with uncertain fingers

a day to celebrate a bony brother’s, the ninth

and youngest, second year of birth, a feast long missed

since they scrambled one midnight after

phantom boats swarmed the salty coast lines, spewing out

slit-eyed men who trampled into town

boots scissoring with the beat of their insidious hearts

that ruined placid  lives like theirs.

Like thieves they crept out

that night, edging polished walls and shelves

Tatang had stacked with canned ham, toys, books

and records for the Victrola that his job with

the American-run Norlutran  as reservist of a quiescent US Army

nourished in a stone house they thought

theirs but which that midnight like thwarted thieves

they abandoned, scurrying

with not a single plate or set of silver for feasting if 

they could find food or even any toy should the next town

they were to flee had grander rooms to lay

train tracks on to race.


And the nightmare that stunned them would not end, not even

on that birthday morning


they  had imagined Tatang would reappear

on the bamboo gate, his high dark forehead tilted

to the moon or the sun or whichever time he would choose

and call in that baritone of a voice the youngest son who

whimpered on waking that morning of his birthday

in a house not theirs, the house

they had fled to in the dark, ducking damp and sharp tips of 

banana trees that blossomed fat hearts said to drip dew

in the moonlight, dew that turns

into a stone talisman,  yet also said to breed

needle-armed insects, insects that buzzed

deep in the blossoming hearts, then bursting out swiped faces

bare, droning heartless insect dreams in hapless ears, feeding

the dark with foreboding, which the sister who strapped

the birthday boy to her hips early that birthday morning realized

had caused the whining.

But Tatang failed to reappear. The waiting

pushed them to retrace their steps over and over

on a patch of the riverbank they carried

as if it were a sandbox they could set anywhere the sun  grandly

threw its weight—on the river perhaps or

the porch of that house

they were never to enter again.

One evening among tales which men wearing

pain on floppy hats passed around, they, mere children

weighted down from waiting, gathered from snippets

this picture so muddled it regressed

their speech:


a man

was made

to kneel


was kneeling, facing that porch

the sun had splattered gold—and

on the banks cast indistinct shadows—

kneeling and stripped of everything else,

shaven head bowed, kissing the sand and stones

on the banks of the capricious river they,

his children, romped around

on blinding sunsets waiting for his baritone call

—he has arrived!—but


the tale hangs there. Even after the skies Far East blossomed with yet another giant hydrangea, the tale hangs unfinished. Even much later—

again piecing together, groping

for words, catching words from each other

as in a game of tag, racing to recount a morning risen

six decades since to this day hazed over, they still stutter

regressed in speech, drooling even, struggling

to understand why, why Tatang

never reappeared.

*Tatang–meaning father as used by Pampangos curiously borrowed by my mother, aunts and uncles, instead of Tata in Iluko. It must have been borrowed from children in their neighborhood in then Ft. McKinley, Guadalupe, Manila where the older children with my mother as the eldest grew up. They also called my grandmother Inay the Tagalog term for mother instead of Nana in Iluko.