In search of food paradise 



We haven’t taken the hour-long journey to Hen Long in nearby Surrey for quite a while, hence, missing how with a thick body-rope of Filipinos and other Asians, we would furiously navigate the knotty sprawl of bins and baskets that overflow with what seem like gems to our wistful, nay, greedy eyes, as friends had assured us—they who, we’d bump into, with a ‘high five,’ and a high-pitched, “Nandito ka rin!”

Akin to a pilgrimage, as Rose promised, I think it’s how Hen Long felt like—the oh-so-missed palengke we’ve all grown up with, which drew us paradise-like. Indeed, as home recedes farther, longing for food made from Saturday rituals of trudging say, to Sta Mesa’s wet market sharpens, like my sister, who would go straight to her suki for fresh-caught tilapia from Bulacan and just-that-morning gathered tahong from Cavite. And so, with innate primal sensory senses, she had tracked down not substitutes but the real thing before I got here to Vancouver.


I thought I had the upper hand in sourcing what would bring out something like genuine dishes from home, having visited and stayed those years, when I dared to enroll in writing courses at New York University’s Continuing Education programs and apprenticed with an editorial outfit for children’s supplementary reading workbooks. I discovered then, substitutions for say, tinolang manok with zucchini in place of murang papaya and hardy Italian spinach for dahong sili; in the absence of gabi for thickening, I used tofu for sinigang na ulo ng salmon, again with Italian spinach, finding nowhere in the neighborhood produce stores, talbos or pechay.


During Lent, searching for fish other than cod fillet, I had imagined I would find catfish, served as blackened fillet in restaurants, but like most fish here in North America, by the time it gets to the shelves, it’s unrecognizable filleted sans whiskers and skin. Diligent poking though among frozen bags had rewarded me with catfish nuggets, and of the best part—its belly, out of which I used to cook adobo that would last through the fasting season.


None of that for my sister, who, like most Filipinos, would not compromise the taste she remembers. Hence, we would train up to far north Surrey and walk a half-mile from the station to Hen Long market. What joy, indeed, to find fresh saluyot and malunggay leaves for dinengdeng (Ilocano abraw), thin eggplants and small ampalaya for pakbet, sometimes though limp and already brownish in the tips, sayote tops, as well, Manila clams and even paros or unnok among Ilocanos, and cuts for dinuguan with, of course, the essential dugo, pinapaitan, including the greenish papait juice.


But here’s the rub: Such bliss proves costly and why not, as one store manager in the small produce store a block away from home to whom I had complained about the $4 per pound mango from Cebu blurted out, “It was flown on a Boeing 747!” A thin bunch of malunggay leaves, for another, neatly bagged in transparent plastic, still green to the eye—but which when taken out would fall like confetti—costs almost enough to buy a kilo of rice in Manila. Sayote tops because of their limited shelf life would be as pricey as a kilo of beef from a karnehan in Quiapo.


Was it BC Premiere Christy Clark’s visit to Manila, which brought about an inundation of Philippine food in Vancouver, perhaps? We haven’t gone to Hen Long for a while (now housed in its own spanking grand plaza), it’s at T&T, a giant Asian grocery and produce market irresistibly located at our train stop close to home, where we’ve found the same eden; why wouldn’t we drop by almost daily even just to browse shelves with Saranggani bangus and tilapia cheeks, frozen gabi, saba, patani, kinudkod na kamoteng kahoy, laman ng buko, Pampanga tocino, Ilocano longganisa even Magic Melt ensaymada, Selecta and Magnolia ice cream.


Sure, haven’t we, as Filipinos, long adapted to other cuisines, not to mention what’s Hispanic and Chinese in our food, introduced to Italian and even French dining, as well as not too long ago, Japanese and Middle Eastern? I remember the burgers we loved as university students at the corner of Avenida and Claro M. Recto, but soon came McDonald’s. Long before the pizza chain conquest of Manila, D’Mark’s served what seemed closest to what we now bite into. Still, deep in our nests, the yearning for food with which we were brought up continues to rumble through our dreams.


Three weeks ago on a deep bin at T&T, along with Mexican papayas and Chinese pomelos, there gleamed big guayabano packs, to my slight dismay from Thailand; anyhow, though priced like two sushi dinners, my sister bought one for me, and frozen saba for her. On reaching home, we chewed on our memories, wordless in thought. And then, somehow reality sneaked in unbidden with a string of reklamo: The guayabano tasted too bread-y, and the saba not maligat. We stopped there and fell into what felt obvious—how is it ever possible to implant home in another hemisphere, anyway?


911 Revisited (repost from a 2010 post)

It’s still for me a searing memory…that morning 10 years ago

a dragonfly/zips into a tower–/what I remember

Visit to a Hallowed Ground

I looked on a shallow dish of dirt, raked and dug out, and still seething. From where I stood at the portico of St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street from across what used to be the World Trade Center, I gazed and gaped incredulous. How could it seem so small, so nothing now?

That now hallowed ground I had once walked on, eyes up where the twin towers held up the sky, was raw like a vulture’s leftover meal — the vulture that had zipped into it from the same sky.

The smell of burning still tarnished the air: it was sharp and pungent. Thin spirals of smoke still seeped off the ground where the dying has not ended. There was a stench in the downtown train I thought must be someone’s mess or as the friend I was with said, could be the cleaning agent used. And then, I realized it was the stench of decaying flesh.

For the first time on this visit to New York, three months after the disaster that the world now calls by its date, September Eleven, I finally lived the nightmare.

I could not recognize turns on the streets I learned by heart a whole summer I lived in New York. I had to let go, and be led on by the steady stream of people, moving about in a daze like me. We have walked into a city that was pummeled, ripped, and blown in parts; it felt strange.

The buildings around the World Trade Center, once glinting towers now scarred and wearing ashes have turned old and looked haunted. Delis and coffee shops serving breakfast at 8:45 that morning have grown frost where they had stood still.  (In which of them had I once shared with a friend the tastiest sticky bun ever one morning we walked this far?) But I had yet to find the remains of that day.

We had stopped at every cross street that opened to Ground Zero, and hung our heads. We had stalled, holding back tears, where instant graves had blossomed on wrought iron fences or granite walls. The graves drew out the grief, and tears gave names to what were earlier anonymous faces: A wife to one of those still missing stumbled into a huddle, and crumbled to the ground, touching a framed picture adorned with ribbons now frayed and fading. She had visited this grave each day since. A brother to one still lost crept from behind us quietly planting another candle where what he lit last night was dying. He had no way of telling if his brother was among the dead; he was still missing like many who walked into that ordinary summer day but whose bodies have not been found.

A wind ruffled the pages of a letter a grandmother had pinned on a young woman’s framed portrait, detailing how her oh so innocent two-year old son regaled the family with stories of a visit to the zoo in last weekend’s tearful dinner. A scrap of lined paper, bold scripts now blotted, was a young boy’s inspired poem on the heroic death of those he didn’t personally know. The ‘graves’ were now a mosaic of grief; none of us who strayed into them could stay around for long.

Memories of the nightmare played on. On these same streets, thousands of wounded had limped, transformed by terror and grief. Some had lost their hair in the fire, others, half their faces. The sirens had screamed, flying through the night and days from then on. New York congealed into a mass of the helpless hurt, the faceless who came to help, and the cops and firemen who gave their lives to others whose names they had no chance to ask. Blood flowed from cut limbs, and also from veins held up for the taking. This city of spunk and internal faces broke into a weeping, sobbing, moaning humanity. We, who lived through the nightmare whole days on end on television, could only imagine half the reality then.

From St. Peter’s portico, we glued our eyes on those giant combs of steel, the cranes that moved clumsy marionette arms; the diggers had not stopped sifting for remains. They had gone deep underground, out of our sight. After this visit, when they hit what used to be the Cortland subway stop, five more bodies turned up. But where we huddled, necks craned to Ground Zero on this visit, there was nothing else we could see out there. What I kept staring at instead, and like perhaps those strangers around me did, were spots on the ground that held memories, my own.

At the atrium that winter--its last

At the atrium that winter--its last

Through the haze of the silent grieving I shared with strangers around me, I combed for my own souvenirs from the ruins. I glimpsed my first in the steel skeletons of what was once the atrium, the Winter Garden. When it glinted under the autumn sun, I felt a leap in my breast.

One whole summer on one of my New York visits, that garden with its palm trees and benches was a “beach” where friends and I picnicked on tiny packed lunches. We had seen a couple of bridal entourage from Chinatown sashay from the marble steps, the bride’s gauzy veil and train twirled and knotted up in her arm, to pose for pictures. We had watched babies put to sleep on the benches, and toddlers let go of their carriage to crawl on the steps. We had sat beside someone who came to work on stuff he pulled out of a sagged backpack. We had walked here like most, to read the Sunday New York Times, and that ought to be the whole day.

I sought for the South Tower in what was now a hollow span in the sky, and, with scrunched eyes, retraced my steps that last time I rode the escalators up the lobby of the third floor, or was it the fourth?  It was on my birthday the year before. A friend and I had huffed first to St. Peter’s for the noontime holy mass, crashing into a side door, right off the subway stop, to the lower church. (When I walked up the portico on this visit, I could not recognize the church, except for the name; I did not know it was the oldest Roman Catholic Church in New York or imagined it had a portico.)

In the haze, only one of the two towers--to last forever

In the haze, only one of the two towers--to last forever

That day was planned like this: from church, we would cross the street and skirt around Borders bookstore, cross the fountain between the towers, and slip through one of the South Tower’s revolving doors to get tickets to a Broadway show; it was a birthday gift. I picked “Kiss me Kate” from the line-up of shows up for discount in the Tickits booth on that lobby. The line had snaked when we got there.

In the crawl, I feasted on the view from the glass windows that opened to the sky. (Was it from here I first saw the gothic spires of Trinity church rising delicate like a filigreed cone against the angular buildings around it?) Another line on the other side of the lobby had stretched its tail; the line was for those who wanted to fly up the elevators to view New York from the ‘top of the world.” I had vowed to do that some other time. But I was sick the rest of that summer and did not go back.

I flew back to New York two days before September Eleven, but I was driven away by friends to Baltimore soon after I wheeled out my suitcase from JFK International airport. We took the Verrazzano Narrows off the southern edge of Manhattan. The sky was its usual glorious New York glow, something really other worldly on summer nights: the skyline seemed cutout against that sky, and the windows of skyscrapers as always, backlit.

I traced with my eyes the rhythm of the tower tips on the sky, and had decided how flawlessly it flowed: the Citicorp and IBM huddle way down west, the Empire State, Chrysler, New York Met Life midtown, and the black towers of the World Trade Center on the southeastern end. Curving into Verrazzano, I felt the towers had seemed within my arms’ reach. My friends told me – a bit prophetically it later turned out – “Look at the towers for the last time, at least for now,” and I did.

Two days later, over a bowl of breakfast cereal, I watched the North Tower spewing fire, oozing black smoke, as an airplane the size of a dragonfly on my host’s small television screen kept on its steady flight path into the South Tower. Before my eyes, the tower burst into flames, tiny figures flying off; and then, it imploded, falling on itself in giant billows of smoke and ash. For weeks like many unknown to those who died, I watched and grieved for a weeping New York on television. Up until this visit, I was caught up in the endless weeping with America.

When that president of Cantor Fitzgerald sobbed before the camera for the one thousand employees he lost that morning, I wept. When the Beamer widow spoke of her husband on camera and never once quivered or winced in pain, I also wept. Even the sight of the American flag hoisted on every home front made me cry. Imagine how “America the Beautiful” sung in almost every show drew out the tears too, or how the “Star Spangled Banner” that wrung the hearts of thousands in baseball fields – and who would let out one huge sigh when an eagle was let to soar on that last line — when the World Series had resumed and the Yankees played, touched me. I was so drawn in the humanity of tears that I forgot why I too, was crying.

Three months later, on this visit, the open grieving seemed done. On the streets, beyond Ground Zero, I scoured for a reason for my tears. There was little I could pick up. I realized then that my sorrow was only for the death of my paltry memories. How could I have known that in those gleaming towers that I thought of merely as landmarks for two summers, thousands of real human beings made their living?

How could I have known that in this city where people looked inside and hardly ever showed a hint of feeling, thousands were husbands, wives, and kin who were loved deeply? How could I have imagined how coming face-to-face with senseless destruction of that magnitude felt?  How could a summer visitor know?

between the moon

and the gaping sky, still

my fractured heart

(this and the introductory haiku also posted at NaHaiWriMo facebook page under the prompt ‘nine-eleven’)

Copyright © 2001 by Alegria Imperial