Many-splendored gifts of fields and forests (and shores, plains, hills, mountains…)

This piece is for all those who hold Philippine vegetables in low esteem—out of ignorance. “The variety is so limited,” complained one American. “Puro ginisang gulay,” said a Filipina. “Why don’t Filipinos eat salads?”

Variety we certainly have—all year round. Vegetables vari-shaped, multi-textured, multi-tasted, are available in supermarkets, wet markets, talipapa, tabu, sidewalk stalls, and backyard gardens. The Filipino, being part of an agricultural community, usually knows what vegetables are available at what season, and how best to treat them. And so deep is the knowledge that classifications do not mean much.

Take nangka, for example, which is vegetable when green (cooked with coconut milk), and a fruit when ripe (yellow, fragrant, wonderful when chilled). The banana, a fruit most of the time, might be considered brother to the potato when boiled with it in pochero or cocido. And yet when green and mashed into nilupak, it is still fruit.

We eat green leaves, of course, but make a distinction between mature leaves and tendrils, thus talbos ng sayote, ng kalabasa, ng ampalaya, ng sitsaro. Of these plants the leaves are not eaten, only the young tendrils. But consider all the other greens, which Tropical Cookery: Encyclopedia of Asian Vegetables by Yoshiko Yoshida (National Book Store, 1981) lists as Common Greens: kulitis, considered a weed, goes by the poetic English name amaranth. Pako, the lovely fern that needs rainy weather. Alugbati (Ceylon spinach) favored by the Visayans, and saluyot (Jew’s mallow) by Ilocanos. Petsay and petsay-tsina, kangkong, talbos ng kamote. And of course cabbage, lettuce, and mustard greens, known even to Americans.

Wild greens include uray (spiny pigweed), kutsarita, lupo (swamp amaranth), halon (Joseph’s coat), takip-kohol (wort), sarsalida (glymus), olasiman (purslane), talinum (fame flower) and ispinaka (New Zealand spinach). Tree greens start with our favorite, vitamin-rich malunggay, alibangbang for souring sinigang (Bauhinia), kolis (lettuce tree) in which to wrap and steam little fish like dulong and dilis; even mango leaves and ubud and bamboo shoots, which are tree borne, but not green.

Consider the flavoring greens like spring onions, kutsay (Chinese chive), dill, kintsay, wansoy, tanglad, yerba Buena (mint), balanoi (sweet basil), sulasi (holy basil), and parsley. Nor can we forget the flowers we eat: the squash flower, katuray (sesbiana), kutsay tips, sampalok flowers (great in sinampalukang manok), himbabao, and puso ng saging or banana heart, which is technically a flower.

Check out as well those classified as gourds—kundol, pepino, kalabasa, upo, patola, ampalaya, sayote. And the multitude of legumes: “sitaw, bataw, patani,” around the Bahay Kubo, as well as garbanzos, utaw (soy bean), habichuelas, sitsaro, sigarilyas, paayap, linga, kadyos, etc. And the fruits: rimas (breadfruit), kamansi (breadnut fruit), kamias, siling labuyo, siling haba, bell peppers red and green, okra, tomatoes, eggplant, corn. Perhaps one should add as well mangoes and pineapples, which when green are used to sour sinigang broth.

That is certainly many-splendored variety, gifts of the tropical weather, the fields and forests, the shores, plains, hills and mountains. The Filipino, having grown up amid the above, knows their flavors, uses, combinations. One vegetable dish we Ilonggos call laswa, similar to the Leyteño lawot-lawot, combines vegetables of different textures—leaves, seed and fruit vegetables, etc. —and steams them with shrimps, hebe (or hibe), or bagoong.

How do we cook them? Sautéed with garlic, onions, tomatoes, shrimps and pork—ginisang gulay. Many vegetables are simply steamed and served with buro or bagoong. Glenda Barretto’s Filipino salad bar has a selection of greens, talbos, eggplants, etc. with a range of dressings: bagoong na sisi, suka’t bawang, patis, and gata. If one’s understanding of salads consists of them cold and with a sour dressing, then there are the kinilaw, enhanced by sourness just as fish and seafood are: kinilaw na/ensaladang pepino, kinilaw na papaya (malibalang), ensaladang lato (and other kinds of seaweed). Alugbati and tomatoes can be dressed with patis or bagoong. Native lettuce and tomatoes, salt-crushed ampalaya, tomatoes and onions, labanos and tomatoes, are traditionally vinegar-dressed. To fresh, uncooked pako the Pampangos add tomatoes, hard-boiled egg sections, shrimps and vinegar. Salted eggs and tomatoes need no dressing, because the juice of the tomatoes is slightly sour.

Yes, Virginia, there are Filipino salads, but they were not called that at the beginning.

Today young chefs and family cooks feel free to invent even more salads. Gene Gonzalez’s Lasap has a rolling salad cart, with the makings of salads, e.g. green or almost ripe mango strips, to combine with bagoong, and/or with crispy crablets. He encourages the use of tiny crisp dried dilis or lobo-lobo (baby sole) to sprinkle on green salads. Glenda Barretto’s puso ng saging partners button mushrooms in vinaigrette dressing. When the Nielson Tower Restaurant was new, she had of sweet pink pomelo, singkamas, and avocado. The green and the white makopa (brought in from abroad) —perhaps combined with our native pink one—are great with a light mayonnaise. And of course the lovely fruits of the Philippines appear in salads as well: coconut, makapuno strips, mangoes, chicos (sapodilla), oranges.

The Ilocanos are perhaps the champion vegetable cooks. Pinakbet, traditionally talong, ampalaya and okra layered with fish bagoong and crushed tomatoes, has become the pan-Philippine vegetable dish. It has been adapted away from the austere original by the addition of lechon kawali, pork, even olive oil. And of course there are inabrao, dinengdeng, bulanglang—mixed vegetables with fish. And we must mention all the sinigang varieties of the islands, always with a duet, trio or quartet of vegetables.

Philippine vegetables are indeed gulay ng buhay—accessible to all budgets, available in many seasons, good even only with rice. An entrée it can be, therefore, a side dish, a health tactic, and always a delight.

—from Foodscape by Doreen G. Fernandez in Food Magazine, December 1998

All photos © Neal Oshima

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