Beyond those immediate-recall images is a province rich in history. A walk through the streets of Taal takes one to a time of century-old houses, some of them homes of noted men and women in our nation’s past.
But for those who know food, Batangas is a great place to source ingredients. Batangas beef is reputed to be the best, which is why the markets in Lemery and Padre Garcia are where traders from Manila buy cattle. That may also explain why the Batangas bulalo, a soup of cow’s leg, kneecap to shin bone including the fatty marrow and gelatinous cartilage, is more well-known than its counterpart in other provinces such as the lauya of Ilocos and the pakdol of Leyte and Samar.
Yet it is not only meat that gives the province its culinary fame, but also its fish. The fish dish that is unique to and so is most identified with Batangas is the sinaing na tulingan. The small tuna, if done the old way, is cooked in a palayok (clay pot). The tulingan is mashed a bit by pressing the body with rock salt. Several pieces are laid in the palayok where pork fat and dried kamias (bilimbi) line the bottom to give the dish its unique flavor. Slow cooking and long simmering make the tulingan bones edible and a sauce, called patis, is extracted during the cooking. The resulting sinaing is not pretty to look at, black and mashed with a brown sauce, but it is a most delectable way with fish; the flavor is subtle despite the amount of salt put in.
The source of fish in Batangas is the Pansipit River, and on the ridge of Tagaytay, one can see the other two—Balayan Bay for seafood and Taal Lake for the variety of freshwater catch. The most expensive is maliputo, already rare because big restaurants in Manila corner these from the source. Occasionally, one finds the maliputo in the market, but only an expert can tell if the fish is what it is supposed to be and can trust the vendor, who guarantees that she sells the even rarer maliputo loob, which is what they call this species of talakitok (jack) caught in Taal Lake.
Cooked as sinigang (especially the head and the tail) or grilled over burning coconut shells that give it added aroma, the maliputo (called muslo in the province) has a milky taste that is enhanced when dipped into another Batangas specialty, the Balayan bagoong (fish paste), which is dilis (sardine) fermented almost to the point of being transformed into patis (fish sauce).
Yet it is not the big and expensive fish that are the most prized. Visitors to the province will swear by the small tawilis, which is dried and cooked either grilled on skewers, or fried. The Batangueño will take tawilis with hot chocolate or café barako poured over the rice. The even smaller silver gray dulong are displayed in mounds in the markets. A handful is either wrapped in banana leaves with kamias and steamed or made into patties and fried as torta. And while the tilapia can be found anywhere in the country, the Batangueño will say theirs is the tastiest because it comes from the lake where there is a right mix of the water and whatever the Taal volcano has spewed in its eruptions.
Batangas Cuisine vs. Ilocano Cuisine
Early Saturday mornings, the market at Lemery bustles with activity. Saturday is when the livestock—cattle, pigs, goats—are sold in the open area across the fixed market stalls. The buyer customarily buys a rope for his purchase.
Meanwhile, stalls around the market are occupied by farmers taking their second breakfast of the day. A huge pot simmers a stew called goto made of beef innards, together with some meat and the head, the soup colored orange by achuete seeds (annatto). A slice of meat is served by the stall owner, who completes the order with a generous ladling of broth. On the benches sit farmers eating goto in their unique way—biting into the chili, sipping the soup, taking the meat pieces with the rice. They usually bring the rice from their own reserve to save on the cost of the meal. It is a good example of Batangas frugality, and many have observed how even more tightfisted Batangueños are than the Ilocanos who are reputed to be so. This similarity of character extends to the cuisine of Batangas and Ilocos. Their food is cooked in the most basic way—boiling, stewing, grilling—the flavors coming from the right mix of a minimum of spices, never anything too aromatic and paying little attention to the presentation.
Both regions have a variety of vegetables. As in the Ilocos dinendeng, the Batangas bulanglang contains whatever vegetable is available. A must is that the vegetables be boiled together in rice washing and flavored with patis or salt. Sometimes the vegetable requires that it be boiled alone, or with one other complementary vegetable like the bulanglang na kibal (short stringbeans). And if the vegetables are newly harvested as they surely will be in most Batangas homes that grow them in backyards, there will be the inherent sweetness of fresh ingredients.
Both regions also use animal innards. The stew of goto at the Lemery market is like the sinanglaw, which is much awaited by patrons in the mornings near the post office of Vigan. Intestines, heart, spleen, liver, kidney and even the brain are chopped into tiny strips in the Batangas taghilaw, which is the equivalent of the dish called bopis in the Central Plains. One version of the Batangas adobo uses heart, liver and kidney. The tinindag is barbecue of pork liver, heart, spleen and lean meat and the ears, a favorite fare at the cockpit, eaten by dipping the whole barbecue stick into a deep container of vinegar.
Batangas differs from Ilocos cuisine in the use of food coloring. The tinindag, like the goto, is bright orange because of the achuete. Batangas City adobo is red-orange rather than the usual brown found in other provinces. In Taal, however, the adobo sa dilaw has a tinge of yellow because of the turmeric used.
But the coloring is not what makes Batangas cooking attractive. It is how the flavors are preserved, the ingredients of which are supplied by nature. In Batangas kitchens, cooking is kept at a minimum to highlight rather than to coat. Vegetables then retain their sweetness. The freshness of the fish comes through. Meat requires very little spices to enhance its natural flavor. One’s first impression is that Batangas dishes are unsophisticated. But the more apt description is that the food is simple and straightforward, coming from the natural bounty of land and sea.
Tinapay and Lomi at Cuenca
We stopped at the entrance marker of Cuenca, Batangas, where it says “Home of the Bakers.” Our guide is a true son of the town, Lucito Chavez. His family used to have a small bakery, but he decided to open his in Manila called Tinapayan Festival near the University of Santo Tomas. If you go to many bakeries today, you will be told, more often than not, that their master baker comes from Cuenca. The baking skill passes on from father to son or nephew or cousin, not dependent on culinary diplomas, just apprenticeship.
We could have waited for the tinapay festival, a celebration of the Cuenca’s major product and a tribute to the people who make them. It is usually scheduled in November but that has been iffy up till today.
We visited many panaderia (traditional bakeries), some still using the pugon or antique wood-fed ovens. Familiar breads like monay, kababayan and pan de limon were sold to buyers who came non-stop, though in trickles, at the time we were there almost at noon. Most buyers come in force in the early morning for their breakfast pan de sal and in late afternoon for merienda. Chavez acquainted us with breads we hadn’t known about such as burdado, a mamon that has an artistic curlicue design on top done with sugar icing.
But my attention was diverted by the food that is still done the traditional way there.
Chavez’s favorite place for lomi is called “Glowing Sunrise.” It doesn’t give you a hint that this is where you can get perhaps the richest lomi I have ever tasted. It’s loaded with fat noodles and slices of pork and innards. If you don’t know the recipe but can discern what went into it, you can guess that lots of starch and beaten egg make for its thick consistency. You only need a small bowl to get really full. And then you cut the rich flavors with the bland pan de agua, its partner bread. Maybe that bread got its name because water, at least good water, should be tasteless. And perhaps the undulating top can be interpreted as waves.
A little walk, and we were following our noses to the aroma of barbecue sizzling. At Inday Ludy’s, the grill is constantly working. But the barbecue, again, is not the teeny-weeny bits we sometimes buy but cubes of pork. It used to be bigger, said Chavez, so that these were sliced in the parts that were already cooked. Then the still uncooked insides were put back into the grill. His eyes smiled at the thought of years ago when you got more than your money’s worth. The taste is mainly of pork and a bit of seasoning, no marinade and no basting. It’s the pork that makes this barbecue so good, Chavez declared. There’s nothing like pork from Cuenca, according to him, and he would never buy pork anywhere else. He has his vehicles travel there to get pork for his restaurant, Tinapayan Festival.
Suddenly, Chavez remembered a dish he hadn’t had for a long time. He asked if Inday Ludy’s cooked sinangaok. It was a strange name. It was broth with chunks of pork with fat, a bit dark with sitaw (long beans) and labanos (radish). Chavez explained that the cooking is also called kinamatisan, cooked with tomatoes in the broth, which also has a bit of pork blood. It has a slightly sour flavor because of the tomatoes, like the tinola in the Visayas, which usually uses tomato as the souring agent. His mother, Chavez said, added slices of chayote and okra.
While we took all those in, food and information, we were told that Inday Ludy is Ma. Salud Atienza, who cooked these food when she started her restaurant in 1981. Her heirs have continued the business, keeping the food as it must have been since it opened, well, except that the pork cuts in the barbecue used to be bigger.
But guess what, all those food weren’t supposed to be our lunch, merely tastings. We were going to another place but we had had too much already. Next visit, Chavez said, we will go where the cooking uses a lot of pupor, crunchy bits that result from rendering pork fat.
Pork lard, after all, is used in bakeries to make traditional cookies and pastries like ensaymada. In Iloilo where several panaderias can be found, those crunchy bits or chitterlings can also be found and are sold to restaurants. Called tulapo, these are used as toppings for vegetable dishes, adding flavor and texture. Of course, you can eat tulapo as is. I wondered if this was the same as chicharon Bisaya.
Country Cooking: Philippine Regional Cuisines by Michaela Fenix (Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2014) can be ordered at: http://www.anvilpublishing.com/shop/country-cooking-philippine-regional-cuisines/
Micky Fenix writes the weekly column “Country Cooking” for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Her book on regional cuisine will be published this year.
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