Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Gubat on the Tongue, Fire in the Belly

As our boat berths at the walled shore of the town proper of Gubat, dusk was trailing behind us. Mount Bulusan, on the backdrop, fades with the clouds, and the sea calms down and darkens, dissipating the floating pieces of crepuscular colors, stray dead leaves of the season sinking. But the streets of the town proper near the church, particularly in Balud del Norte and adjacent barangays, are coming to life. It is Thursday, and tomorrow is the day of the saud, the market.
Although the town has a permanent public market along the main road, Manook Street, the old tradition of the saud still persists. On ordinary days, the town proper is quiet, but on saud day, it is bustling. Saud day falls on different days in different towns in Sorsogon, the southernmost province of Luzon and of the Bicol Region. In Gubat, it is on Friday.
On Thursday afternoon, the vendors come, some from other towns or provinces, some from the upland barangays within Gubat. As dusk arrives, the market grows, occupying three blocks and wending its way through the streets of Diaz, Roxas and Herrera.

By early evening, light bulbs are turned on in many stalls, shining on heaps of plump tomatoes. The pungent smell of dried fish wafts in the air. A stall carries the ingredients for the popular Bicol dish pinangat—taro leaves, chilies, the grated meat of mature coconuts. The upland people bring down with them the upland produce, notably the tuber of the palawan, a giant variety of gabi, or taro.
My venture into Gubat, a laidback town at the northeastern coast of Sorsogon, is now being enriched with the scents and colors of produce from farms, mountains and sea, signifying further journey, now into its flavors. It turns out that a visit and tour of Gubat are not complete without tasting its food.
Food encapsulates the intertwining of the mundane and the divine. The earth and the sea somehow can be more intimately felt bodily, on the tongue, being taken in, through what are harvested from them. In a way, the cooking transforms into palpable forms the essences of both worlds that, once on the tongue, create an inner heaven. Little heavens are concocted in the kitchens of Gubat, which has a gastronomic repertoire common to Bicol provinces as well as uniquely its own.
Ditas Ramos, tour operator and excellent cook, serves as company and guide not only to the interesting places in Gubat but through its flavors as well. Our daily forays are punctuated by lunches and dinners, determinedly local in their flavors and preparation. If not prepared by Tita Dites herself or their cook Amen, Tita Dites and her assistant Rowena get the delicacies and snacks from local experts to bring with us as we climb hills and swim on the shore.
Most visitors will expect seafood to be offered in a coastal town like Gubat, and locals are wont to serve them. The welcome dinner is delectable kinis, mud crabs, some as large as plates, fresh from the fishponds of Tita Dites’s brother Ding, the town’s mayor. The crabs come, steaming and deep orange, the color of sunset. They are prepared rather austerely. Just put them in the pot, says the cook, cover it and put it over a low fire until they are red and done. Just that and no water. The firm meat, on the tongue, gives off a flavorful surge: the piquancy of the sea tempered by a hint of sweetness, reminiscent of sweet corn. Although the crabmeat in its plainness has more than enough flavor, actually the tastiest I have had, I prefer to dip it in spiced vinegar. I almost shudder in the joy of eating.

Mayor Ding dispenses a bit of folk wisdom: don’t eat crabs while drinking alcohol. It hastens drunkenness. So crabs are never served as pulutan. I almost agree; I am intoxicated.
The Ramos household has another way of preparing the crabs, recognizably Bicolano: simmering them in coconut milk. Despite its richness, the milk does not inundate the sea flavor of the crabmeat, retaining its subtle kind of sweetness.
I have this romantic image of fishermen risking limb to get to the crabs hiding in the remotest crannies, while waves crash against the rocks. But my vision is dashed.

The crabs were raised, alongside prawns, in Mayor Ding’s eleven-hectare fishpond in the neighboring town of Prieto Diaz. But the baby crabs were gathered somewhere here by scouring the estuary and dredging the floor. The fry gatherers sell the fries for two pesos each to those who fatten them up. Then the fries, now the size of fingernails, are sold to fishpond owners. The mayor says he let the crabs be, and after two or three months, they were occasionally fed pieces of dried fish. After four months, they can be harvested.

In the afternoon, one can chance upon crab fry gatherers. On our way to Rizal Beach, we saw three gatherers near the mouth of the Ariman River, among nipa palms. Under the sun, they dredge the floor with circular homemade sieves and carefully go through mud and small peddles. They look like panning for gold. We climb down to check on their progress. For more than hour now, one gatherer has two in his container, a plastic liter-size Coke bottle. The dark-colored fries scurry at the bottom of the container, looking very much like small pebbles or fat dog ticks. The gatherer resumes his laborious search, getting handfuls of sand and stones and combing through them while the sun beat on him. A flicker of the romantic crab hunt image burns in my mind and is replaced by something more palpable.

Later in the afternoon, on another side of Gubat, on Gubat Bay, people gather sikad-sikad and tuwad-tuwad. By this time, the water has receded, revealing a craggy expanse. At the Pier of Gubat, actually the tail end of a seawall jutting into the sea, one sees men, women and children casting long shadows on the moon-like landscape, absorbed in combing the ground. We climb down to search for dinner but don’t find any sikad-sikad. We have more luck at the public market, where heaps of the little conches (most likely the strombium canarium Linnaeus) are being sold cheap.
Rowena is able to get a basin full of sikad-sikad. The conoidal tuwad-tuwad, with black and white varieties, is unavailable. They taste the same, they say. The seashells are cooked in coconut milk with malunggay, horseradish tree leaves, by Amen. They can also be cooked plainly in water with a dash of salt. They teach me to eat them. By holding on to a claw-like appendage, pull out the flesh or use a toothpick. The curled up flesh tastes like crabmeat. After the meal, I have a sizable pyramid of shells, enough to make a home décor.
But the pride of Gubat sea produce is the angol. Fresh from the sea, the angols shimmer, speckled with dots of periwinkle color. It looks like a cross between a tilapia and a parrotfish. It is actually a variety of parrotfish, although smaller and thinner. But what it lacks in size it makes up in taste. A preferred way to cook them is by simmering them in vinegar, garlic and peppercorns.
The angols are accompanied by the side dish of cooked pili fruit and cuyog, a common Bicol fare. It is an acquired taste, says Tita Dites. The ripe pili fruit, with the skin dark, is boiled. The skin is peeled off and the fruit dipped in fermented cuyog sauce, which is similar to bagoong, with a dash of calamansi juice. The pungent woody flavor of the pili is neutralized by the saltiness and sourness of the sauce. During the season of storms in Catanduanes, when fishermen cannot go out to sea, we ate pili and cuyog with steaming rice. The boiled pili fuit can also be dipped in sugar and eaten as dessert.
Not to be missed when in Bicol is the Bicol Express, the famous dish of pork, bagoong alamang and lots of chilies, so Tita Dites prepares her own version. She simmers the kakang-gata, the coconut milk of the first extraction, until the oil appears. She puts in pieces of pork and spoonfuls of bagoong alamang, salty fermented shrimp paste. Then she drops chopped chilies into the concoction and her own addition, the seldom used vegetable sigarilyas (winged beans). The sigarilyas adds crunch to the richly flavored and spicy dish.
What catches my fancy is the interesting kinagang, a rare Gubat delicacy, and Mayor Ding professes to be an expert kinagang maker. The main ingredient, the ulang or crayfish, is not available in Gubat at the moment. We stop in Abuyog, halfway on the way to Gubat from Bulusan Lake, and order from a fisherman. The next day the crayfish arrives fresh from the river. The crayfish is shelled and its meat mashed and blended with strips of coconut meat and sprigs of herba buena, a variety of mint. The pasty mixture is wrapped in elongated leaves, like cannas, with a funny name of higikgik and then steamed. The mayor says that hagikhik leaves must be used or else it will not taste the same or as delicious.
The rectangular and savory kinagang looks like a type of kakanin, sweet snacks usually wrapped in leaves, and can be eaten as snack, appetizer or as ulam, accompaniment to rice.
Another leaf-wrapped delicacy of Gubat is the much simpler binut-ong, which many Gubatnons reminisce about eating for breakfast. I have to climb a hill to have a taste of it.
In the landlocked village of Villareal, in the inner southern part of Gubat, seventy-year-old Leonardo Ermino is considered an expert binut-ong maker. At the barangay proper, a hill rises, hemmed in by bright fields. Eighty-two concrete steps lead to an artificial grotto with an image of the Virgin Mary, and a sweet snack, prepared by Leonardo and the womenfolk of Villareal, of ginataang palawan, a giant taro that grows on the edges of fields and patches of marshes in the village. The root is harvested, cut into strips and cooked in coconut milk and brown sugar, making a filling dessert with a starchy sweet flavor.
With the view of the rolling hills, fields, sky and a bit of sea, Leonardo shows us how to make binut-ong. He takes an empty aluminum can of milk, his measuring cup, which can contain about 300 milliliters, and fills it with rice, the glutinous kind. He lines a large bowl with a piece of banana leaf—the tougher saba variety he advises—passed quickly over fire to make it pliant. He pours the rice into the bowl and sprinkles anise seeds. Then he pours in one-and-a-half cup (the can) of coconut milk. He deftly gathers the ends of the banana leaf and ties them with a strip of dried abaca bark, making a nifty pouch. The rice pouch is placed in the pot with water, and he let it cook over low fire for an hour and a half.
The binut-ong has a subtle flavor, unlike other tastier foods of Gubat, tantalizing the tongue. Every now and then, I bite on anise seeds, which burst with their pleasant sweetish tang. My mind soars in the sky with the earth on my tongue.
Earthier on the tongue is the hinagom, sweet squares of brown rice cakes also wrapped in banana leaves. The taste reminds me of espasol, a popular southern Tagalog sweet. To make hinagom, only newly harvested rice is used, roasted on a pan over low fire. One must constantly stir it lest it may burn. Then the roasted rice is pounded in a mortar with coconut meat. The coconut must be of the right age, not too young and not too old. Continue pounding the mixture until the paste is almost smooth, which by then can be wrapped in the leaves.
The hinagom has a likable grainy texture. I can feel the heat on the tongue from the pounding. Served with freshly brewed coffee, the hinagom is total comfort on a downcast day. The barangay of Carriedo is known to make the most delicious hinagom.
The queen of the Gubat sweets is the timatim. In the afternoon in the town center, an old woman goes around selling it, a heavenly cassava cake. The cassava is mashed with coconut milk, and then steamed. Halfway through the steaming, pili nutsor strips of young coconut (buko) meat are sprinkled over it. The circular cake is served with a lining of fresh banana leaf, its whiteness contrasting with the deep green. I put a piece on my mouth, where it slowly melts. I imagine the essence of the earth being absorbed into the body, as strips of twilight clouds hover over the sea, making this trip to Gubat fuller and complete.

Contact Information
There are no restaurants serving Gubatnon dishes. Ditas B. Ramos is knowledgeable about Gubatnon food and can act as culinary guide. She runs the Countryside Adven-Tours. Contact her through telephone numbers 02-632-7418 (in Manila) and 056-311-1280 and 056-311-1216 (in Gubat), or email
To contact the local government of Gubat, call Rowena Fajardo through telephone numbers (056) 311-1061, (056) 311-0435 and (056) 311-7962.

The Kulinarya Food Trip
Occasionally, the Department of Tourism arranges food trips under its Kulinarya Program, which promotes “culinary tourism,” in cooperation with tour operators and local governments. The trips are arranged per region or province.
The Kulinarya Bicol itinerary includes Legazpi City in Albay and Sorsogon. The first day comprises tour of the Cagsawa Ruins, Mayon Volcano, satellite market, Albay Central Pili Nut Store and Daraga Church; lunch at Small Talk Café in Legazpi; and demonstrations on preparing pinangat, Bicol Express and pili sa dahon. On the second day, one proceeds to Sorsogon to visit a pili farm in the sitio of San Rafael, to trek around Bulusan Lake, to have lunch at Balaybuhay and to watch demonstrations on making crispy pili and kinalu-ko. Later in the day is Gubat, checking in at a resort on Rizal Beach and watching demonstrations on binut-ong and timitim.
Trips depart every second and fourth Friday of the month. Rates per person are Php11,460, Php10,085 or Php9,850 (by public coach); or Php16,226 Php14,851, or Php14,616 (by air).
The rate includes overnight accommodations at Fernando Hotel or another hotel; overnight accommodations at Rizal Beach Resort or another resort; fare from Manila to Legazpi then back to Manila, inclusive of taxes and surcharge; meals; cooking demonstrations; guides; and transfers and tours.
For inquiries, one may contact the Department of Tourism’s Office of Product Research and Development at telephone numbers (02) 526-7545 and 524-2254, or through emails
rnsebastian74@yahoo.com and dot-prd@yahoo.com.
One may also contact partner travel agencies and tour operators, which include Trips Travel (02 811-4163/ 811-4115;
trips@tripstravel-phil.com), Southeast Travel Corporation (02 524-5676 to 83; southeast@skyinet.net), Sharp Travel Service (02 817-0169 or 817-0071 to 74; ststours@cfsharp.com), Rajah Tours (02 522-0541 to 48; sales@rajahtours.com), Nexus Travel (02 928-5589; inbound-local@nexustravel.com.ph), CCT.168 Travel and Tours (02 687-0129 or 637-9611; cct168aurora@pacific.net.ph) Baron Travel Corporation (02 817-4926 or 817-0203; leisure@barontravel.com.ph) and Action Holidays Tour Corporation (02 242-2001 to 04; actionholidays@yahoo.com).

Pili nut candies
The quintessential Bicol pasalubong and pabaon is the pili nut candies. Most are caramelized or coated or glazed in sugar. I was given ones coated with raw sugar pulot or molasses and wrapped in dried leaves of hamilig, which is as strong as paper. It is very likable. The leaf wrap lends an additional flavor to the confection.
The label read Nimfa’s Pili Candies with the phrase “Conserva sa Dahon.” The candies are made in Poblacion in the district of Bacon in Sorsogon City with mobile phone number 0919-2880931.

Photos by Benhur Arcayan