Filipineses


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?

 

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Canopies of tender pink

 

No sighting in my past could have prepared me for cherry blossoms. The closest perhaps would have been the sprigs of kakawati in summer. But they didn’t create canopies of tender pink, recoloring the sky, which cherry blossoms do. Entranced on my first spring in North America, I lost every word that would mean, awe, toddling with eyes up and dropped jaw through rows of them in full bloom at Washington Square in Manhattan, later at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and the Jefferson Mall in Washington, DC.

Today, where I live in Vancouver, BC, I simply race the wind two blocks from home to neighboring streets and get suffused in hues of silky pink. I’ve joined revelers with Vancouver Haiku Group, of which I’m a member, on Sakura (cherry blossom) Days, as well, at Van Dusen Gardens. Still, no matter the jamming, shared cheer, especially shrieks of children seeing them for the first time in other gatherings like at the Japanese cenotaph at Stanley Park in honor of Japanese Canadians who fought in WWI, the Burrard St. Skytrain station, and countless streets in the city, always a hush falls on many stunned by the pink glow.

Whispers, in fact, hint at reverence for me, during scheduled viewings, usually three days—like they say of women, at the “peak of their beauty”—because on the fourth day, a pink drizzle might begin. Uncannily, too, the wind as if in haste, might follow with gusts, causing a petal storm that would inundate sidewalks and lawns. Blue skies, then soon reappear within a week through bare-again crowns, while brownish leaf sprouts spike the nodes, as the cherry trees revert to just-trees.

As brief as a held-breath, perhaps explains the urgency behind viewings and festivals as timing must coincide with the trees’ inner clocks. While the flowers as harbinger of spring should bloom at almost the same time as last year, dates had not seemed to be exact and flowering happens in waves; buds burst early in warmer regions, and on to cooler areas, climbing northward to higher places, according to my readings. Like right now here at home, while a ‘daily watch’ website has reported several viewings, including the Accolade cherry blossoms at City Hall, trees in my Marpole neighborhood have yet to bloom.

Picture almost identical scenes of families and friends swarming under the blossoms in Japan, where viewings started during the Edo period, and to this day, picnicking, sipping sake and tea as depicted in kimono embroidery, woodblock prints, canvas and porcelain paintings and other arts. Duplicate this in Europe, South America, Australia, and Canada, crowding under the blossoms, perhaps like the now 50,000 trees in Vancouver, gifts from the Japanese, and you find a world enrapt.

Would some of them, wrapped in beauty, be pondering on ‘the transience of things’? And perhaps, accept with gentle sadness the ‘pathos of our existence’? If so, then viewing cherry blossoms would be for naught; it could even be a source of strength like how Japanese soldiers expecting defeat in Leyte apparently asked that they be “permitted to bloom as flowers of death”, echoing the last known message that invoked, “Sakura, Sakura”, earlier in the Battle of Peliliu (Palau), where like cherry blossoms so soon shed in millions, 10,000 said to be mostly young fell.

While I have ceased to wonder why Sakura festivals begin to swirl as soon as buds sort of break into a smile, first, and then, as if overnight, burst full-faced to cover what had been ghostly gnarled limbs in the winter, and then, in a whiff, as if by a sleight of hand, they’re gone, nothing prepared me for the subtle transformations wrought by cherry blossom storms. Think how evanescent beauty really is, how ephemeral life could be, how close our own existence to the cherry blossoms, indeed.

Published in Peregrine Notes (Alegria Imperial) at The Market Monitor, Manila, Philippines, March 16, 2015

 

 



Citizenship, what does it mean?
With my certificate of Canadian Citizenship

With my certificate of Canadian Citizenship

Citizenship if acquired by birth is simply a way of life, I believe, and not thought about. In truth, I never knew what it was being a Filipino citizen. 

Was it in being solemn during the flag raising ceremonies from grade to high school? I recall how the class sergeant-at-arms used to get me back in the line because when bored I’d break out of it to talk with a seatmate, three warm bodies up. Was it joining the Girl Scouts of the Philippines?  My troop learned how to cook bean soup in the beach though it was gritty, and yes, we planted a tree on Josefa Llanes Escoda Day behind the library in our high school, with none of us touching the soil, as we formed a lunette to watch our adviser and the principal, dig and put in a mango seedling that really never grew in the two years before my batch graduated.

"Mythogyny", and anthology of BC elder women' s true stories we gathered on tape, which I co-edited

“Mythogyny”, and anthology of BC elder women’ s true stories we gathered on tape, which I co-edited

With members of Women Elders in Action (WE*ACT), the volunteer organization to which I belonged

With members of Women Elders in Action (WE*ACT), the volunteer organization to which I belonged

Was it immersing myself in Philippine history not from learning in the classroom but stories I

gathered and later lived? My first encounter with colonial history left me tongue-tied from awe in an interview I had with the late Fr. Jesus Merino, OP, then director of UST’s museum of history and sciences for our college campus paper, The Flame.

If a moment in time had some kind of spirit, that interview must have cast a spell on me, so much so that I married a restoration architect, the late Felix N. Imperial II, who lived and breathed not only the ruins of Intramuros but the history and mythic stories embedded in them. One historical perception he inculcated in me is this: with thicker defense lines landward than seaward, the Spaniards definitely feared not invaders but Filipinos.

Did hopping in on those jeepneys that rounded us up, voters, in the three elections I got to vote make me a citizen? What a fiesta those days were with the candidates’ minions scrambling for a handshake or a hand as if to lead one to a seat of honor. I remember the grand fun an aunt, my age, and I had those election weeks in our childhood where our mothers, both public school teachers served as inspectors in the polling places, and we had stay in at our house, sharing a mat, pillows and a “mosquitero”as well as gothic stories told to us by our “kadkadua” (helper). By the time I had to vote, there was but one choice, Marcos, of my home province.

Was getting drawn into the maelstrom of the Second Quarter Storm, but not deeply knowing what I personally struggled to oppose, being a citizen? A former classmate whom I met in the shadows under which we would talk sent me away, doubting if I had to follow to the end our idols then, Voltaire Garcia, Joel Rocamora and Edgar Jopson. He told me that I, like a flotsam, simply lolled in the current because I felt none of the oppression fought against. I dropped out.

Years later, in my job for government media, I would meet in the flesh the haunting gauntness of hunger and suffering among malnourished children, farmers barely surviving their confusion that came with agrarian reform, wives scraping the soil during draught or railing at Mayon during an eruption one day before a harvest, and they wrenched my guts. But the same job had also brought me to paradise-like spots where I often wish to this day to be transported.

Yet, was I being a citizen when during the People’s Revolution what mattered most for me had to do with a deadline? And as if there had been no two raging rivers when later I leaped on to serve the new administration of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Digging into the arts like a ballet on Noli Me Tangere’s Elias, crying over a 100-year old pain, I must have finally synthesized my being a Filipino.

But again, I encouraged my sister, a chemist, to apply for immigration to Canada, convincing her of the moribund state of sciences in the Philippines. She kicked and screamed against leaving but her papers came faster than her prayers to be denied. Even faster was the approval of her petition to get me, and my papers to immigrate. I left behind a swath of life-artifacts from clearing out in three months a life I thought I’d never look back to again.

At the book launching of "Mythogyny" with Ted Alcuitas, then editor and publisher of now-defunct Silangan, where I served as associate editor

At the book launching of “Mythogyny” with Ted Alcuitas, then editor and publisher of now-defunct Silangan, where I served as associate editor

Doing a bird dance at Stanley Park at a First Nations village

Doing a bird dance at Stanley Park at a First Nations village

Had I shed off my being a Filipino when I bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver, and on landing signed my papers for permanent residency? That marked day one of my rights among them, health care and public services and the freedoms of assembly and speech as well as my responsibilities to uphold the same rights in others. Today the 22nd of July, a year ago, I took my oath of citizenship.

Did I turn Canadian in an instant? Yes and no.  What I have become is more Filipino than I had imagined, possibly enhanced by my newly acquired freedom to find in Canada the threads I thought I had snapped broken when I left. I had unabashedly interwoven whom I am with these, often loudly qualifying my Filipino-ness from where I speak. And many times I would be told, ‘Ain’t that something!’

With members of Marpole Place, a community center run by the Marpole Oakdridge Area Council Society where I served a two-year elected secretary of the board

With members of Marpole Place, a community center run by the Marpole Oakdridge Area Council Society where I served a two-year elected secretary of the board

Peregrine Notes, Opinion Page, Business Mirror Philippines, July 22, 2012



Like a heap of sand

Santa-lucia-gate-intramuros

Built or erected in marble or stone, though some cast in metal, as landmarks in a country’s history or reminders of heroic deeds, monuments are so aimed at permanence or impregnability that for it to crumble one day hardly sound possible.

From what I learned from a restoration architect, my late husband Felix N. Imperial II, who studied the art at Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, and came home with quixotic dreams to apply what he had learned in Intramuros, keeping monuments intact requires more than stone masons, brick layers and other such hands (because it is as much a handiwork as building them), it asks of governments a political will—monuments belong to a nation, after all.

Indeed, a great number of such buildings or structures have defied decay from both centuries of natural and manmade disasters like tropical weather and wars such as San Agustin Church but especially elsewhere, those well-kept palaces and temples we often dream of walking into, if only to experience a moment of greatness or a glorious past that for many of us exists only in ether. Virtually a young city of 140 years, I see no such buildings here in Vancouver the likes of Philippine colonial structures most of them sadly left for time to eat away.

But why must a country like the Philippines struggling to stave poverty feed its past of non-living things? Answers to this all too common question with what seems obvious can drag into either despair or acrimony those who belong to the many sides of upholding or not patrimony. Such complex imbalance of forces to Felix had first, scaled down then later, hazed his dream: Intramuros would have given the Philippines a niche with the only medieval walled city in Asia among nations who showcase an inimitable past.

Except for the four gates, major parts of the walls, and the esplanade at Parian, a few of which he restored from the ground like Puerta Santa Lucia, most of his dream—if but one of the palaces, the Ayuntamiento, would have risen again—like moth wings slowly powdered and blown away. He died though, realizing how tiny a vessel man’s body to bear his dreams.

I think Felix was luckier in that he found closure and acceptance, in contrast to my paternal great grandfather who had built not a national monument but a personal one, which I suppose most families would recognize, “for his heirs”. Of these, there are several in Vancouver, most of them exquisitely cared for as living museums—one of them, the Colbourne House still breathing right across our gate.

My great grandfather’s house was of brick and mortar townsfolk of Bacarra called, kabite; its frame had been all I grew up with, a hulking shadow right across from our then fragile wood and bamboo house; apparently its interior was burnt. While almost a myth to Santiago, a nephew my age, and me, as adults we dwelt on snippets of what sounded like tall tales about it. Such as: a short bridge spanning a narrow moat, circling the house, washing the base of a fat rectangle of what we heard were stables, and dark wooden doors and windows that would open at midmorning to the camino real.

As Santiago and I sometimes sat on ruined steps of what we thought must be a grand staircase, we imagined a giant chandelier flooding a hall. Long dining tables like those stacked up under the creaky house we lived in must have been set on those monogrammed linens I once found in my grandmother’s trunk. Guests must have taken their liqueur from those Depression shot glasses, which we thought were toys in the buffet shelf of Santiago’s mom.

He and I hardly met during our university years in Manila. Not even when a court case stirred enmity in our families in a fight over yet another property, the land where our house stood—we had since lost the one where the kabite stood through another heir. Two decades later, poring over a heritage book about our town, we closed the pages miffed at nary a word about it.

During a rare visit to town after yet another decade, I missed seeing the landmark. As I later retraced my way with an aunt, I learned why: it was gone. Where it had loomed solid as a small mountain, there sprawled a thick growth of poison berries and cactuses.  “Why, didn’t you know,” my aunt had said. “It crumbled like a heap of sand in the last earthquake.”

I would have to tell Santiago about it, I had vowed. But I decided to keep to myself a realization that no matter how massive some structures are like what my great grandfather built to defy impermanence, these could vanish. On the other hand, Felix’s view of Intramuros may yet be fulfilled: “it had lived through three centuries without me it would stay for others to dream of more.”

In photo: Puerta Santa Lucia facing the bay was totally ruined in WWII when a tank rammed into it; it was restored from the ground up by restoration architect Felix N. Imperial II, using traditional techniques of merely fitting the stones and without any reinforcing bars. He restored all four gates of the Walls.

Peregrine Notes, August 26, 2012, Business Mirror Philippines Opinion Page



‘City of my affections’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


 

 

 

 

A city is

not a

landscape I now realize; it is a heart’s structure recalled blindly within its chambers. But it has taken time for me to sense that I prowl Vancouver’s streets in search of Manila, ‘city of my affections’, an endearment borrowed from my idol, Nick Joaquin.

Disbelief over this thought would strike anyone who has lived in it. Indeed, what do I miss in Manila? How could I not remember chaos in its streets, the high decibels of groaning engines, grating brakes of buses and jeepneys, music from stores and snack nooks vying for ears from across each other in streets? What about the grime, the rawness that has become its nature? Could these be what have heightened my senses?

In contrast, Vancouver is calm, rarely frazzled. Even during rush hours, only staccato steps, light laughter and snatches of conversation counter the deep breathing of pneumatic brakes plying their routes on main streets—no honking except when extreme danger of an accident pops up; only an ambulance and fire truck tandem is allowed to rent the air.

Buskers, as street performers with permits are called here, sometimes crochet music in the breeze. I once stood with a small crowd, letting pass a few buses I had walked on a stop to board, for a concert violinist stage an engaging performance of a few Beethoven concertos. With all my senses Manila has sharpened, none such moment passes without me plunging in it.

And because buses run on electric and no diesel in gas pumps, skies always tend to be iridescent except on foggy days in the fall and hazy ones in the spring, and especially when frozen in the winter. Perhaps it is under such clarity that has made Vancouverites commit to a clean city. I can’t say how it is achieved because I hardly catch cleaning dirt monsters with circular brushes in between wheels creeping through streets as in those mornings I did in Manhattan, and from a deep mist, Imelda’s orange clad sweeping brigade.

Once in a while when on my way to a meeting, I’d have to skirt around from getting sprayed by a power hose, dislodging dirt on the just-poured-with-disinfectant sidewalk. I had met waste pickers, too, donned in neon-striped, yes, orange vests, combing the streets and picking up bits sweepers missed. Discreet CCTV cameras notwithstanding, I’ve learned as a Vancouverite to keep my garbage or toss it away where I must.

And yet when drawn within to write, what creeps in are more of what I don’t see like Manila’s mangy dogs prowling and sniffing at the air like ghosts under a day moon or starved cats meowing their hunger at shadows. But more heart rending, who wouldn’t agree, are children on Roxas Blvd. who dart by your car window, a sniffling runny-nosed baby strapped to their fragile bodies, joints protruding, right hand up with eyes begging for sympathy or alms—and you later find out, the baby is no kin and whatever is given goes to whoever hired them.

Vancouver, too, has a few dark spots like a stretch of Hastings St. by Chinatown. Once in a while, I’d stumble on a homeless man in a corner. A couple of them have taken a permanent post by the granite steps of the cathedral. I had talked to youngish woman I caught sniffling as she counted the coins thrown into a hanky she knotted in the corners as in a box, learning of an abusive husband she just left but tearing her heart out was a daughter too, she hoped to go back for once she recovered from the horror of that day. Didn’t I listen to a similar story of a woman who cradled the asthmatic child she fanned as it labored to breath through an uneasy slumber by the entrance of Harrison Plaza? Could poverty of hearts possibly incarnated into ghosts possibly haunting me, I had wondered then.

Ahhh..but there’s Manila Bay that overpowers with its irony of vastness, fullness even grandeur at its incomparable blaze at sunset. And for true-blue Manilenos, the romance of pocket corners in stonewalls and intimate streets scented by champaca, veiled in shivering shadows of ilang-ilang trees like those in Malate. I merely close my eyes to find my late husband sketching on his favorite dappled stone bench at Paco Cemetery, as he waited for me to finish up at the then Inquirer offices.

Like carrying a hidden side of the day moon, I stroll on Vancouver’s West End relishing shades of giant chestnut leaves, often pausing in a pergola by a formal English garden once a private estate, then promptly getting on to the end of the street on English Bay. Most times silky smooth unlike swollen Manila Bay, this bay unfurls at the feet as if cajoling in tiny wave rolls. Even its late summer sunsets are sweet peach orange, bouncing against slopes of mountains framing it as if it were a stage for dreams. Now, do I sound like I’m switching my affections? I think I’m two-timing! 

Published at Business Mirror Philippines in my weekly column,

“Peregrine Notes”, August 5, 2012



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