#FilipinoFood Book Review: Cocina Sulipeña – Culinary Gems from Old Pampanga by Gene Gonzalez

In the foreword of a tantalizingly descriptive book about food from a long-gone town, food historian Doreen Fernandez asks: “how is a cuisine – country, regional, family – born?”

Within 200 pages, chef Gene Gonzalez brings his hometown of Sulipan, geographically from the province of Pampanga, to brilliant life – illustrating the lengths that illustrious families went to prepare both everyday (pag-aldo-aldo) and celebratory fiesta meals. “As a chef, I never expected that I would be digging deep into the anthropology of the cuisine that I remember enjoying as a child,” he writes.

From a chapter titled A Profile of Classic Sulipan Meals, Gonzalez describes what cooking in these kitchens were like. For instance, that “large Sulipan homes were built around the concept of hospitality,” where cooking and storage areas were the focal points in a kitchen “as large as the living room and, following the typical design of Philippine ancestral homes, was a separate building connected to the house by a covered walk.”

Gonzalez’s attention to detail, describing foodways that no longer exist, carves a place for this book on my shelf. I can almost imagine myself in one of these Sulipan kitchens. He writes about:

  • the silid or bodega for storing rice, ripening fruits, sausages and other sundries
  • the queng lalam, a rear entrance that takes you underneath the kitchen, where “roasting, quantity slaughtering and braising” were done, and where kawas (metal vats) large enough for six people to sit in were used for scalding feathers off wild fowl
  • the horno, a wood-fired oven made of lime and bricks that’s shaped like a beehive
  • the tangnan, a chopping slab carved from the trunk of a local tree
  • equipment such as the almiriz (mortar and pestle), gilingan (grinder), garapinera (ice cream maker), kuran (large clay pots), lakal (pot stand) and kampit (cleaver)
  • how families grew hito (catfish) and dalag (mudfish) in deep earthen jugs that collected rainwater on an open terrace

In a chapter on Soups, Gonzales shares a recipe for a fish ball soup made of bidbid, a “brackish to freshwater mullet, similar to bangus (milkfish) but with a sleeker body and an extra dorsal fin” that’s highly appreciated for its white, flaky flesh. There’s a recipe for sopa de flan, a rich chicken soup flavoured with sherry, cream and chives, with cubes of egg yolk custard dropped into the broth.

On Fish and Seafood, I marked the page for suam a tulya (corn and clam porridge). Like the best regionally distinctive foods, I was immediately hooked on this dish.

“The Rio Grande’s vast expanse of rich clay and sand beds was a haven for shellfish diggers,” Gonzales recalls, referring to the river that cuts through the heart of the province, with headwaters that originate in the Sierra Madre mountain range. “The river provided several varieties of indigenous freshwater and seawater fish that spawned downstream from Manila Bay. Shellfish was abundant, and often harvested by children bathing in the river’s clay waters.”

As a child, he continues, “I delighted plunging into the river, feeling its sandy bottom for clams. I would head home later with a bucketful of clams, to the horror of my mother and the joy of our cook, who would throw them into a waiting pot and make a soothing porridge to break the chill from the swim.”

Talk about a descriptive recipe heading! Then, in the next few lines, he continues:

“The recipe calls for freshwater clams, which are now quite rare, so you can substitute halaan (sea clams). In the old days, it was not uncommon for clams to be substituted with frog’s legs (to make suam a mais ampung tugak), native chicken (to make suam a manuc) or other delicately flavoured meat or game such as bayawak (monitor lizard) and sawa (python).”

It can be challenging to approach new ideas with an open mind, and the idea of corn and python soup admittedly sits on that edge, far from everyday fare as it may be. However, the value of having these details recorded – because the town and its cooking are literally no longer on a map – inspires a deep respect in me for people who work to preserve these culinary traditions.

In the opening to a recipe called pescado en venagueta (fish in vinaigrette), Gonzalez writes:

“The plankton-rich expanse of the Rio Grande was an important source of protein for Sulipan’s riverside communities. The river teemed with many varieties [of fish] such as biya (goby); the sweet-fleshed gurami (gourami); licauc or ayungin (silver perch), known for their little roes and delightful as paksiw (braised in vinegar with garlic, ginger and spices); luwalo (perch), bony but white-fleshed and delicious grilled; dulungan or banak (mullet), served as quenelles or with mayonnaise; balulungi (needlebeaks)…and the prized apahap (bass) often huge enough to fill a large platter, particularly when spawning.”

This passage reminds me of a story about steamed turbot fromThe Physiology of Taste, a food literature classic by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. In the book, Brillat-Savarin is tasked to cook a turbot fish so big that the only way he could serve it whole (carving was unthinkable) would be to devise a steamer five times larger than anything he had in his professional kitchen. The solution? Why, a bathtub, of course, conveniently in the chambers they ended up in while singing about this marvellous catch through the house. Magic incited by fish!

Next, Gonzalez presents a recipe for betute (stuffed fried frogs), a Kampampangan delicacy like no other. When the rainy season begins, he explains, every kid in town armed with a fishing rod and string runs to the nearest swampy field and “jiggles a black piece of cloth in mid-air to simulate flies” to trap the unfortunate frogs.

Importantly, I find the name of this dish to be undoubtedly Filipino. “Betute, as the name sounds, is a pun for butete (pufferfish) – a term used to describe a person or thing with a bulging stomach…in this case, a dish of fried frogs stuffed with sausage meat or mincemeat,” Gonzales writes.

This brings another often quoted Brillat-Savarin passage to mind: to “tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”. People in the Philippines consistently find ways to make the best of their situation, and what always resonates with me is the desire to keep going with a dose of humour. What better way to prompt a smile than with clever puns and deliciously fried frogs.

On Meats and Game, Gonzalez provides recipes for cold-cut, braised and mushroom-and-cream sauced lengua (ox tongue). This “most refined of variety meats…had a special place on the tables of the elite,” he writes, adding that “variations in cooking (from pre-colonial preparations) were easily adopted by Sulipeños who had a huge repertoire for such cuts of meats and organs”.

In a recipe called adobado (subtitled “hunter’s stew”), Gonzalez shares the local take on a dish that preserves food with acid, prepared everywhere in the Philippines. Given the following ratios, however – 2 parts vinegar, 1 part fish sauce, 3 parts sherry – and the idea of finishing with a can of cranberry sauce (yes, the kind that goes with Thanksgiving turkey), this adobo appears unrecognizable to people who only know adobo made with soy sauce and vinegar.

Adobado preserved “the dumara (wild duck), agachonas (snipes), tickling (woodcock), batu-bato (wild pigeon) and the delicate denas or maya (rice birds),” writes Gonzalez. “In old Sulipan, migratory birds from cold areas such as Siberia were caught now and then from the marshes,” he continues, while bigger game “could be found in mountainous areas of the Cordilleras and Arayat.”

On Rice, Noodles and Eggs, Gonzalez shares a recipe for bringhe (rice cooked with coconut milk), pancit luglug (rice noodles with shrimp sauce) and an omelet made with calf’s brain that relies on dalayap (an indigenous citrus fruit) for its rather elegant yet simple brilliance.

Finally, on a section about buro (fermented meat or fish in rice), Gonzalez writes, “if there is any food so purely ancient and traditional among Pampangans, it is the many variations of buro. In fact, as the practice of making buro dates back to prehistoric times, it’s theorized that it was the predecessor of what is now called sushi.”

He follows this with a passage from The Book of Sushi written by Kinjuro Omae and Yuzuri Tachibana, that states, “the beginning of all sushi making was a method of pickling fish practiced first in Southeast Asia”. Long ago, they state, “the mountain people…preserved fish by packing it with rice; as it fermented, the rice produced lactic acid, which pickled the fish and kept it from spoiling”.

Cocina Sulipeña is an excellent book which I encourage you to find a copy of. Research on regional foods such as this can’t continue without our support!

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