Friday, September 25, 2009

The Souring Agents of Sinigang

I know how to cook without any formal training simply by watching from the sidelines of my mother's kitchen. I learned just enough for me to know that most sinigang dishes would need a souring agent or pampaasim, and in most cases the pampaasim is not always the popular tamarind or sampalok. The tamarind is the most obvious choice as flavour ingredient, but if you are an avid sinigang fanatic, that is not always the case.

Most provinces I have gone to have their own version of sinigang. Maybe because cooking sinigang is easy and that it is a complete meal in itself (meat, carbohydrate source, vegetables, soup...). I am not sure why we have grown accustomed to having sinigang as sour (as most Pinoy rice partner dishes are salty and spicy). Personally I prefer enjoying my sinigang piping hot and the more sour the soup, the better. I could not imagine sinigang without any pampaasim, till I tasted the Bohol version (which tasted more like nilaga). With no offense to my Boholano friends, I still would want to squint my eyes while eating a sinigang meal. Pampaasim spices should always be available in most Pinoy households, not only for sinigang but also for kilawin and paksiw dishes. Most of the time, these plants are being grown as backyard ornamentals.

The most easily available pampaasim is sampalok or the fruit of Tamarindus indicus. The tamarind grows big and has fine pinnate leaves typical of leguminous trees. It has become a favorite tree and could be seen almost in all corners of habitation including bustling Metro Manila. Sampalok is however not native to the Philippines. It got introduced early on with the influx of prehistoric migrants coming from mainland Asia. As its name suggests, T. Indicus originates from India and its neighboring countries. This very popular pampaasim is the first choice for sinigang, but personally I prefer it to be cooked with pork or chicken (sinampalukan, using leaves rather than the fruit) as main ingredient.

Another readily available pampaasim is the common and very useful calamansi/kalamondin or Citrofortunella microcarpa. The calamansi is actually an old cultivar of native Citrus plants (relatives of the orange and limes). It has been used extensively in Filipino and other Asian cultures that its exact origin has been obscured. But its domestic importance has been passed down from one generation to another. In cooking, the calamansi is preferred to be used for seafood dishes, to remove the foul fish or seafood taste. Calamansi is therefore best in cooking seafood sinigang.

A different experience is when beef sinigang is cooked using guava or bayabas as pampaasim. Personally I do not enjoy beef dishes but what I remember from my mom’s beef/ guava sinigang is that it has the most identifiable taste. It is very undeniable when the fruit is used because of the somewhat sweet fruity flavor. Guava or Psidium guajava is an import from tropical America and probably one of the recent choices for sinigang sub acid component, maybe why it is less popularly used in the dish.

I was once told that the souring agent choice for cooking fish sinigang is Averhhoa balimbi or kamias. The easily grown plant is also very much available in Tagalog communities. So bountiful that it is almost certain that kamias fruits are always available for cooking, and if not the plentiful harvest could be dried up or pickled, to be stored for future use. The kamias is probably the most sour-tasting among the mentioned, minus an identifiable fruit flavour that the other candidates have. It is long been domesticated like the calamansi. I tried to confirm where this plant originated but got confused by the contradicting facts. But it is certain that it is not a native of the Philippines.

The native counterpart of kamias is karmay or Phylllanthus acidus. A Bicolano friend told me that they call this iba and that they use this in place of kamias. In fact the P. acidus and A. balimbi trees ares hard to distinguish from each other when fruitless. Karmay fruits also look like round version of kamias fruits. In some Tagalog and Bicol households they use the karmay as souring agent for sinigang and paksiw.

In the Visayas, another native tree is used in Visayan sinigang versions. This is batwan or Garcinia binucao, a close relative of the mangosteen. In fact, the fruit resembles a small unripe version of the mangosteen. In the island of Panay, the attractive tree grows tall and abundant, much so that the fruit found its way into the local sinigang dishes and the Visayan palette. A local would readily prefer a batwan sinigang than any cooked with another pampaasim.

There are other trees and plants used as subacid ingredients in Philippine cuisine. I heard that other Garcinia species maybe even better souring agents. Some trees, even their leaves have sub acid components like libas (Spondias pinnata). They may not be as popular as the ones mentioned but this does not mean they fail in comparison in flavour and taste. I hope some of these may get to be discovered as better souring agent alternatives, thus giving us a much better and exciting sinigang to anticipate in the future.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Intimidating Appeal of the Native Anibong

I was flipping through the pages of William Warren's 'Tropical Garden Plants' when I saw my first images of the genus Oncosperma. It was a picture of O. tigillarium . That was almost 10 years ago. Imagine my thrill to see full grown specimens flanking the orchidarium when we visited the Singapore Botanic Garden 2 years ago. The palm was indeed exquisite and majestic, hovering over other plants planted near it. But at close up, the plant has a draw back. It was almost completely covered with long spines. But for an adventurous plant enthusiast like me, the spines appear intriguing rather than a source of danger.

Last year while doing my thesis, I read in Dr. Madulid's book that Oncosperma tigillarium is native to parts of Palawan. It was locally called the anibong. The book also stated that there were other Oncosperma species native to the Philippines including O. horridum which could be found in lowland forests. And when I spotted an orange trunked Oncosperma in Makiling Botanic Gardens, I immediately dismissed it to be O. horridum. I was wrong.

Last week I was again flipping through another book, Riffle and Craft's 'Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms' and once more I came across the genus Oncosperma. It was written in the book that Oncosperma has about 5 member species. It was also the only palm genus where the Philippines was mentioned first in roll call, meaning there are more Oncospermas native. And indeed there were 3 out of 5, Oncospermas horridum (widespread), gracilipes (Luzon and Biliran) and platyphyllum (Negros). The other 2 are O. fasciculatum (endemic to Sri Lanka) and the common O. tigillarium (which book says is native to a lot of countries but does not mention the Philippines). I cross checked O. tigillarium with other references, they claim it could be found in the Philippines like in Palawan and Polilio islands. So that is 4 out of 5 species native.

My new found knowledge about Oncosperma made me want to investigate about the Makiling anibong. Literature available about the Makiling Botanic lists the only Oncosperma in their collection is O. gracilipes, the smaller species in the group. Though it does not grow as tall and towering as the anibong, this locally called anibong-liitan has a reddish orange tinge to its long spiny stems, making them a more attractive and dangerous looking specimen for any garden.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Culture of Paper and Wood Shaping in Paete

It has been a while since the clan had an excursion. So when prospects of going to Pangil in Laguna surfaced, my siblings and cousins immediately expressed their willingness to come. At 9 am on a Sunday we found ourselves following a Rizal province route to Pangil. We were warmly received in the Diaz family household and were treated to a sumptuous lunch of broiled pork, spring rolls and fish dishes. After the lunch, Ralph (my niece Cindy’s husband) took us on a short tour of neighbouring town Paete.

In Paete, we visited the really exotic Exotik, a boutique restaurant serving unusual fare like python meat, wild boar, etc. Though we did not get the chance to sample some of the out-of-the-ordinary dishes, we had our eyes full of the vivacious architecture and landscape. My sister even got herself a very nice Paete souvenir from the restaurant shop, a wood sculpture of the Last Supper.

My sister-in-law and my cousins got themselves very much interested in one of Paete’s famous products, paper mache. Come the ‘ber’ months (September, October...), people involved in this craft, concentrate their efforts in shaping familiar Christmas icons, particularly the very celebrated figure in red, Santa Claus. As a result, hundreds and hundreds of Santas adorn the front porches of selling stalls, signaling the start of that joyous season all Filipinos love. The Santa displays also exhibit the ingenuity of the Paete folk in expressing their art through wood and paper.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hoya Blooming in Between Rains

It has been raining here in Manila for almost a week now. I am a little bit worried about my succulents as most arid plants (xerophytes) could not stand its roots being soaked long in water. One of my collectible bromeliads wilted away, my only specimen (a gift from a friend). I don't even know its botanical name.

But in spite of the rains, one of my native Hoyas flowered. I have actually neglected my Hoya collection, and this species, Hoya halconensis, has proven to be a beautiful and resilient plant. The buds secretly developed in the rain, emerging only with the pale yellow blooms in between the rains last Thursday. Shame that it did not last long, the delicate raceme melted away once the rain pour restarted.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From the Tree to Paper

I started doing my plant illustrations...again, needed for me to finish my thesis. I started actually last december but because of some unforeseen circumstances i had to put it on a halt. But i finally reopened my sketchbook and resumed sketching.

I have about 4 months to draw about a hundred plants, profile, plan and detail. I realized it was hard to just base them on the pictures so in some cases I had to go back and collect sample parts of the plant.

Plant no. 1 is the familiar Adonidia merrillii or bungang china (christmas palm to foreign collectors). I was trying to do it alphabetically, but eventually had to draw whatever I have access to available plant parts. I am now in plant no. 15, the Batanes voyavoy or Phoenix loureroi, which Ronald Achacoso generously donated a whole frond from his lone specimen. I have to do measurements, scaling and put the final illustration into paper. At least 85 plants to go!!!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Wonder Noni in Quiapo

I was in Quiapo doing a little shopping when I chanced upon a medicinal plant. You might think that since it is Quiapo, there is nothing strange about seeing medicinal plants near the historic church where mystics and local gypsies frequent. After all herbal medicines abound carts scattered around the church periphery and in Plaza Miranda, from mere cough, 'pilay' and 'lamig' remedies to the famed 'pamparegla' and 'pito-pito'. But this plant is not on the carts being peddled by the gypsy manangs. It is the once popular noni fruit of the juice fame, its wonder parts still intact on a tree. 2 compacted specimens are flanking a makeshift parking lot near the Quezon Bridge.

The Noni is Morinda citrifolia, called by locals as bangkoro. The tree is common in Asian and Pacific islands. In the Philippines, I have seen it growing in coastal areas of Bohol, Batangas and Bataan, probably present in a lot more of the coastal provinces. It is said that all parts of the noni is medicinal but recently the fruit was tapped as a dietary supplement for general well-being, hence the juice.

So again what is strange about seeing the noni fruit tree in Quiapo? If you think about it, Quiapo is actually a low lying area near the coast of Manila Bay. It was strategically annexed because of its proximity to Intramuros, the old port town of Manila. The lower part of the Pasig River was probably lined with Morindas in the Spanish era. Maybe we could just assume that the noni in the parking lot is a remnant of the old Pasig River flora. If we put it that way, seeing the noni in Quiapo is not anymore strange...but sad.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sir Dimanlig's Landscape Sketches

Last Monday we attended the opening of Prof. Ace Dimanlig's sketch exhibit over at the new architecture museum in UPCA. Sir Dimanlig is currently the president of the Pasig City Sketching Club and is a veteran sketch hobbyist. He is known for his winning sketch of the National Museum at the back of the fifty peso bill.

Before the ribbon cutting, Prof. Dimanlig gave a short lecture about sketching as a fulfilling hobby. He showed his current sketch book and how the sketch subject may vary from picturesque scenes to as simple as the person sitting beside you. Most of his sketches were done using a plain ink pen. His drawing pad is small, easily could be tucked into any bag and carried everywhere he goes.

Since Prof. Dimanlig is a landscape architect, most of his 20 piece exhibit tackle landscape scenery. His monochromatic images of plants are reminiscent of familiar tropical and vernacular scenes. After the exhibit opening, the attendees were also urged to join the on-the-spot sketching session done around the UP chapel. Most who participated chose to also depict landscapes typical around the garden parts of the campus.

Prof. Dimanlig's exhibit will run all throughout the month of August. For people who would want to see it, please proceed to the UP College of Architecture so you could be ushered into the architecture museum.