Filipineses


What goes into guinataang halo-halo or bilo-bilo? (Peregrine Notes at Business Mirror Philippines)

guinataang bilo-bilo with ube jam in Manhattan

Within minutes, my friend and I had kneaded and rolled and set aside about two dozens of marble-smooth bilo-bilo. On separate bowls, sweet yam (kamote), plantain (saba), jackfruit (canned) and tapioca pearls (sago) lie in wait. Coconut milk is poured into a stew pot; when it rises to a boil, the tapioca pearls and yam slide first, the plantain and jackfruit next, and the bilo-bilo last and let boil until afloat. Our guinataan would be done in 10 minutes.

No special occasion, really. She would take a few spoonfuls at a time for dessert or as second breakfast; I like it mixed with my fruits, cereal and wheat bran. Cold guinataan for breakfast is hardly a Filipino ideal—a skewed image even.

Consider sounds afloat with it—no crowing roosters, yelping dogs, squalling children, high-pitched mother’s calls for missing kids, and vroooming diesel-driven tricycles, screeching on dirt paths. Flowing with the steady air, instead, is just a kind of distant roaring like the sea, an occasional scream of sirens on a 911 call, the timed grating of steel to steel on subway tracks, and a crowd rising in a chorus with each move of Tiger Woods’ or Rory McIlroy’s in the Ryder Cup championship on the golf channel, this typical Manhattan Sunday morning.

None of that would enhance the precious taste of guinataan with whiffs of home except, perhaps, on a wall in the apartment like here, a tiny oil painting of nipa hut idyll picked up years ago from a side street on Session Road in Baguio, and a doll in pink Maria Clara gown tucked in a luggage some forgotten-return-trips ago now propped up beside the TV.

If I were to complete the atmosphere with an outside view, I’d rather trace our way back through the network of streets where like a pilgrimage to that patch of Asia in NY’s Chinatown, we braided our way to get to the shelf for each ingredient of the bilo-bilo, aiming with arrow-like focus. For without blinders, we would get snagged in a paradise of robust salmon heads, as well as hill-sized mounds of pea tips (that makes talbos-ng-camote-like salad), radish as round as my arm that would be perfect for sinigang, and crisp bak choy (pechay) for greens to top it with.

Our first stop would have to be Mulberry St. closest from where we get off the N train on Canal and Broadway and head straight to a grocery for malagkit; for the right texture, it has to be a bag from Thailand. And on to the blinding walls of Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester and Elizabeth through tunnels of shelf stacked with soy sauce in a dozen brands, including Datu Puti, and noodles as familiar as Nissin, we get to the canned preserves for langka and coconut milk, and lastly along an aisle for miscellaneous ingredients that include sago—all from Thailand. The Chinatown trip would have completed two other trips we would have had a few days before to a Korean produce store for kamote and a Spanish grocery for saba, both on the Upper West Side.

None of this is exclusive, of course. Cravings for the taste, flavor and aroma of food from home have built communities, it turns out, across hemispheres. Most ubiquitous in capital cities is Chinatown though Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian food products have ballooned Asian markets, and where, once in a while, Filipino goods rivet a longing eye.

But as our search for perfect guinataan taste demonstrates, we cross yards, too, with Hispanics, whose neighborhoods have swarmed here in New York, and not only for saba but also for chicharon, called cuchifritos made exactly like our lechon kawali. Once while crossing Lexington and 116th St. in Harlem, I stopped agape at a corner sidewalk umbrella-stand for this scene: The tiny Mexican woman was scooping a whitish drink from a small transparent barrel into a plastic cup, a gesture that transported me to Manila streets or highways toward Laguna where we would stop for ‘sa malamig’.

If our ‘pilgrimage’ to Chinatown for guinataan is a bit extreme, consider how a group of Filipino friends drove from New York to Toronto for a bag of Laguna lanzones, and occasionally drive or take the Path Train to New Jersey for Max’s chicken, with some Manhattanites leaping regularly across the East River to Jackson Heights in Queens for lunch either at Josephine’s or Barrio Fiesta.

Beyond bodily nourishment, as I now realize, food that has formed a distinct taste, aroma, flavor and even color and texture in us, turns out to be an invisible driving force in our lives, and migrations have enhanced it. I think, culture as label does not quite cover the essence of this invisible force. Seeing how Chinatown and other community markets draw daily crowds like furious bees, and how one feels elated with but the sight and smell of home, it’s easy to imagine how tasting some could heal. Exile often descends in thick fumes of cold grey longings that an aroma rising from crevices of forcedly forgotten memories could dissipate—a bowl of guinataang bilo-bilo, for one.

Copyright by Alegria Imperial for Peregrine Notes, Business Mirror Philippines, Oct, 21

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My first Glorious Fourth (for One Shoot Sunday)

fireworks, courtesy of wikicommons

The heat of the merciless Manhattan sun: this is the first thing I remember of that morning eleven years ago at a July 4th celebration, my first, in New York. The earnestness in the rush on the streets leading to Penn Station is the second thing which struck me as I huffed breathlessly through that mile and a half from downtown where I was staying with a Filipino friend.

Where was everybody going?

Inside the cavernous station, I felt even more lost as moving walls of people seemed to heave, instead of step, into their trains. Like hundreds of New Yorkers on a holiday, my friend and I boarded one of those coaches to Long Island’s north shore. I learned that Independence Day in most of America is celebrated in homes – among families.

Right off Westbury Station, our stop, I gleaned the Stars and Stripes planted on yards and home fronts. But didn’t I notice them flapping on Manhattan building facades? Maybe my focus was fuzzy in between the towers that slice the sky in the city, but sharper on the Long Island landscape of pretty houses with peaked roofs and latticed balconies.

On dappled sidewalks, passing through trimmed lawns, I felt the air enriched with holiday sounds such as shrieks of children, parents’ firm voices, and music from parties in progress. The air too, was textured with the scent of food – most sharply of meat being barbecued in backyards, some by the swimming pool and others under terraces, or shades of conifers.

waiting for the fireworks, image by Gay Cannon

My friend’s niece decked her terrace with Stars and Stripes buntings; even the table cover and napkins bore the colors. But the laid-out feast revealed the history of the household’s family, a narrative so common in families of America. There was pancit canton guisado (Chineses noodles) cooked by the niece’s Filipino mom, pasta from the Italian mother-in-law, hipon (shrimp) and alimasag (crab), from a Filipino aunt, sausage and peppers the Italian husband laid out on platters, rice and, of course, barbecued hotdogs and burgers.

Talk among family members were to me, slivers of life I had only imagined. An uncle of the host, a recent senior citizen ID carrier, spoke of his age with a new tune – it puts him first in any line like a boarding queue on a plane or in Disneyland; and it gives him 50 percent off bus fares and hotel rates, allows him time for more tennis and carpentry and Social Security perks.

The Italian grandmother in a motorized wheelchair showed off a cap with matching belt bag she got at a discount store that carries production overruns and sells everything for 99 cents. She had shopped on 6th Avenue from 24th to 32nd a week before, rolling up and down the sidewalks where there are defined ramps at every curb. She had taken the bus too, that ‘kneels’ as the door opens and the motorized steps flatten out turned into a ramp, and then raised to the level of the bus floor where on a designated row, the wheelchair locks into place.

There was talk about a Chinese in-law wrapping up work in Connecticut before she moves to Texas to a job with a fatter paycheck. A nephew who got his Med Tech degree at UST but who finished grade and middle school in New York had just returned, landing a job as a night lab technician. He didn’t mind the hours, and has taken a day job that gives a higher pay. He is in the Hall of Fame at his Long Island high school where he played tennis and won awards. Some nights, he puts this skill to good use, training petulant daughters of the privileged in an exclusive New York club.

Mere family banter but which, for me, unraveled the heart of democracy – equal rights and equal opportunities. As I listened, my awe dimmed when I thought of home in the Philippines. Isn’t my country ruled by the same principles? I thought, a bit sad.

Lunch over, we rolled up the table cover, crunched the napkins, and tossed these in the trash. As I crossed the lawn to sit on the swing, keeping to the edge fenced by the uniformly growing pines, I glimpsed through adjacent yards where barbecue lunches were winding down, too. Except for sheer markers like trees – a pear serves as a “cornerstone” – no walls topped with barbwire set off properties here.

I thought it was the end of the celebration when we said our goodbyes to catch the train back to Manhattan. The summer sun was yet mid-way its fall on the horizon as we boarded the 7 p.m. train.

We came back to a city jammed to the seams. The morning exodus at Penn Station had reversed; everybody had trained in, headed toward the East River for the fireworks. Blindly moving with the horde, we finally came to one of those parks opened to the public by private owners. This was at Kips Bay behind one of the many branches of New York University Hospital. Standing on the plant boxes, we scanned the sky. The fireworks were launched that year from four barges afloat the East River. This year, according to my friend, these were set on seven barges, a double whammy from South Street Seaport and the East River.

At 9:30, as in past years, the night sky started to breathe a quiet fire, exploding minute blossoms, and then raining splinters of the rainbow, swarming with shards of moonbeams or pompoms that heaved into giant chandeliers later falling on our faces. The display held us in what seemed a beatific moment. Around me, I saw faces lit by the shower of stars. With each variation – and not one seemed alike – our “ohs” and “ahs” swelled and ebbed.

That was all the sound I heard because we were too far to catch the symphony to which the pyrotechnics danced. No ear-splitting bawang or gunpowder smoke choked the air. Again, I thought of home and wished for a New Year’s Eve like the Fourth of July, and its promises I woke up to in New York.

Copyright © by Alegria Imperial as published in the Times Journal, 7/11/99, Manila

Posted for One Shoot Sunday at One Stop Poetry, the inimitable gathering place for artists and poets. Come check us out!