Dirty Pleasures

 The ice cream vendor's cart (Photo by Patrick Roland De Guzman/Creative Commons license)

The ice cream vendor's cart (Photo by Patrick Roland De Guzman/Creative Commons license)

Growing up in the Philippines in the ‘60s, our version of “fast food” were those peddled by ambulant vendors whose resonant voices became part of the soundtrack of our daily lives.

Our parents warned us sternly against eating those treats – they were believed to be dirty and unhealthy, therefore forbidden. That made them all the more tempting and delectable, not only because they were cheap and convenient (delivered right to your door, no waiting in line), they also allowed us a wee taste of rebellion.

Who can ever forget, for example, how “dirty ice cream” in such flavors as queso (cheese), mais (corn) and langka (jackfruit), scooped high onto tiny sugar cones, would always beat out the more sanitary – and more expensive – Magnolia as our summer cooler of choice, after we had made sure that no adults were around to stop us from peering deep into the vendor’s cart to savor the flavors of the day?

Looking back, I realize that ambulant vendors peddling food were so present in our lives then that we were never hungry. They would come like clockwork at their appointed time.

At around six in the morning, we would wake up to the blaring horns of the “potpot,” the vendor on bicycle selling freshly baked sweet breads. Inside those two giant aluminum bins on each side of his bike would be an array of ensaymada (buttered brioche), pan de sal (dinner roll), pan de coco (coconut bread), monay (sweet buns), and such horribly named breads as pan de regla (sweet bread with red filling). They would still be warm and fragrant, with enough sugar to jolt us out of our early morning lethargy.

An hour or so later, the puto (rice cake) vendor would come, carrying on his shoulder a long, sturdy bamboo pole with two thick and flat aluminum canisters with conical covers on each end. Inside those canisters were several varieties of still-warm puto and kutsinta (brown rice cake), cut diamond-shaped with a sprinkling of toasted coconut on each one. The white puto was always my favorite because it had a few grains of anise seeds in them and it would melt in my mouth so effortlessly, without the need to slather it with butter. The kutsinta was always dark brown and sticky (not the artificially colored orange ones available now). When we bought a slice or two, the vendor would make a cone-shaped container from a cut-up banana leaf on which he would put a spoonful or two of freshly grated coconut that we would sprinkle over the rice cakes.

Coming close on the puto vendor’s heels would be the palitaw (sugar-coated rice cake) vendor with a giant bilao (flat cane basket) on her head. The bilao would be lined with banana leaves so the palitaw and kalamay (sticky rice cake) would not stick to the basket. We would eat these native delicacies from cut-up banana leaves and they would be served with grated coconut.

In summer, as the noon sun started searing our skins and we thirsted for something cold, the samalamig (shaved ice drink) vendor would come pushing his cart that held several giant plastic jugs filled with multicolored syrup. I don’t remember much of this native slushy because it was a major no-no in our home, after my biologist father lectured us on how mosquito larvae and worms would infest dirty water, which was likely what the ice shaved for the slushy was made of.

But when the bell of the “dirty ice cream” man would ring, the neighborhood kids, who were lucky enough to have a few centavos and no adult to stop them, would come running. It was always a wrenching moment for me because my yaya’s (nanny) constantly watchful eyes prevented me from joining them. I would watch longingly as my playmates slurped and licked their cones as quickly as they could so the hot sun wouldn’t beat them out of their ice cream treats. When the Magnolia vendor would come much later, I would get my twin popsicle treat, but it always felt puny compared to the multi-scoop “dirty ice cream” that the other kids had already enjoyed.

Afternoon merienda (snack) time would mean the return of the “potpot” and a host of other vendors as well. Some days it would be the taho (sweetened tofu) vendor carrying on his shoulder a pole with two medium-sized aluminum bins, one containing the warm white soft tofu and side container of tapioca balls, the other the syrup that would be poured into the scooped out taho.

Other vendors would peddle turon (plantain rolls), mais (corn on the cob) wrapped in a burlap sack to keep the heat in, binatog (hominy served with ground coconut) and such fruits as santol (sour apple-like fruit) and manggang hilaw (green mango), which the vendor would slice in the middle so she could put a spoonful of pink bagoong (shrimp paste) on it, sandwich style. This green mango treat would make our mouths water with anticipation, never mind that it would be wrapped in whatever trash paper the vendor would have picked up along the way. We were living dangerously but didn’t realize it.

The evening hour was always announced by the unmistakable call of the balut (duck egg embryo) vendor. I used to wonder why balut was always sold at night. I only found out much later when I was already an adult that it goes well with beer, and beer is best enjoyed when relaxing with friends at the end of a hard day’s work. Balut is also reputedly a guaranteed aphrodisiac, pampatibay ng tuhod (a knee strengthener), the guys would wink.

Many years later, I would be told that several of the balut vendors that circled our neighborhood very late at night were actually undercover military operatives watching our streets and houses for suspected subversives. At that time of widespread paranoia, that discovery was enough to stop me from buying from ambulant vendors again – a decision I regret now. After all, fast-food Filipino style, just like our homeland’s politics, may be dirty and messy, but they always provided satisfying pleasure.

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino