Mini Trails, Big Delights

And so it was on a beautiful sunny February day when we decided to hit the trails for the first time this year. A rather late snowfall has visited Vancouver mid-February so skiers and snowshoers have been congesting the more popular Cypress and Seymour trails. As one not too fond of crowded hike spots, we opted to check out what lesser-known North Vancouver trails would lead us. And we were not disappointed.

Featuring Kaidu, the Siberian Husky, and Kojin, the dachschund, it was a delightful intermediate hike to loosen those taut muscles for more challenging hikes this 2019, I hope. 🙂

#HelloKelowna

At the Philippine Consulate a year ago, a kindly gentleman was awed when he read that my hometown is Sagada. He was so impressed with the place that he enthusiastically described the sites he has seen there when he went to visit. He went on to say I was lucky to live in a place away from the city’s daily hustle. Sagada, he says, is Vancouver’s Kelowna–that drive away from the urban where you could just enjoy the serene beauty of a quiescent place. Such was his description hence I was doubly excited when the opportunity came to have a day trip to the gateway of Okanagan Valley.

This sunny city boasts of pine forests, provincial parks, expansive vineyards and orchards, and a lakeside cultural district. Truly a day was not enough to explore most of the place’s highlights but we made the most of it. Sharing some snippets from this marvelous trip with equally awesome ladies.

We went home spent and full, not just with the beauteous sights but with the first pickings of Fall apples, peaches, plums and grapes. You are indeed a  nice respite Kelowna.

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A year at a time…

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CTTO

A hatchling fell from its nest a couple of days ago and Dalifer brought it home with the hopes that we can nurture it back to health until it gets strong and old enough to fly that we can release it back to the wild. It was with us for two days then it dropped dead. That broke me. I grieved for it thinking we might have done better, or we thought we were doing what’s best for it but we managed the opposite. I consoled myself with the thought that it somehow knew we cared deeply, and that we tried.

What is it with passing away that leaves such a void in our souls? The chasm I still have in my heart almost a decade after my old man died is still as empty as it was that fateful day he left. People die, we grieve, and we ought to move on. But sometimes, no amount of toughening up, time and change,  is enough to say you’ve totally healed after your loss. I believe part of the misery comes with the regrets we harbor. The ‘what ifs’ and the ‘what could have beens’ make it harder for the soul to mend. Knowing you could have done better, done more, then maybe it won’t be as painful.

But we can only look back in hindsight. In my case, I allay my sorrows with the thought that I did not have the wisdom of age. But however way I look at it, there should be no excuses for me not having been kinder. And God knows I wish I’d been that–kinder. I wish I’ve been more forgiving. I wish I’ve been more compassionate and understanding. I wish I have been more.

I was not spiteful towards him. It’s just that I thought we had more time, and I knew time mended things. Time has the ability to make things better, and we can make our relationship better with time. But that was what escaped me, the fact that time was not something I had control over. It is not generous, it’s fleeting and we can only do so much. So now I can only live with regrets as I bear my grief, my loss, and my pain.

There’s truth in what they say that fate can teach you the hard way. And it did, I learned mine the painful way. So as I drink to my father’s memory today, I pray that even if I missed out in showing it, that he somehow knew he was loved until his last days. That to this day, I hope I made him proud.

Tintin the hatchling (yes we named the bird) was with us briefly before he succumbed to death. It took another bit of my heart away with his passing despite the short time we spent together. The bird flew to his final plateau. I pray he knew he was loved. I know we showed it.

But you, Dad, I hope you knew you were loved. Take it against me for not knowing how to show it, that will forever be on me, but you were.

Of Gods and Wine

“Tinagtago, Tapey, Tagay!”

Definitely one of the indisputable challenges of living away from home is missing the local tastes and flavours. Though it’s always thrilling to explore something new and different, taming the palate to not crave for tastes that one’s accustomed to does not happen overnight.

Hence my delight when after three years, I was finally able to once again have a genuine, non-commercial, homemade “tapey”. I was brought to tears with elation. Because that’s how powerful food can be. It’s not just the euphoric gastronomical experience but the emotions that come with it. And in this case, “tapey” is home–a surge of heartwarming memories that involved a daringly playful childhood, a warm hearth all day long in my grandpa’s hut, village parties, “watwats” and “kikans”, lavish offerings to the deities and the gods.

 

The beauty of Sagada’s tapey is that we are taught to enjoy it in its unrefined version–to indulge in both the fermented rice and the juice alike. But since we’re making and selling the rice wine commercially these days, we now see them mostly in packaged and corked bottles.

Vintners are now featuring other varieties from local produce; bugnay, blueberries, lemon, persimmon, strawberry, and mulberry to name a few. (CTTO)

Japan’s sake and or the Chinese rice wine is not any different in terms of the fermentation methodology. But for some reason or reasons, the tastes are tremendously different. So when I was on the quest for finding a traditional “tapey” here in Vancouver and got kind recommendations to get Chinese rice wine as an alternative, I said, it just won’t do. I have to have that familiar taste.

Local winemakers tend to be meticulous in choosing the ingredients they work with. I’ve seen and heard numerous times that the secret lies in the “bubud” (yeast) used. Our local yeast come in hardened, pancake-shaped chunks that you simply crumble and add to cooked red rice (balatinaw) as required. These are not widely sold however that I remember having to  scour the public market to look for one before.

Bubud, a small chunk is enough to ferment a jarful of balatinaw rice. (CTTO)

As grapes are fermented and stored in casks made out of oak and other kinds of wood that contribute to the woody or vanillin flavors of red wines, “tapey” is traditionally aged in heirloom jars, thus keeping the purity of the red rice. Sugar can also be added to alter sweetness levels as desired. No wonder my grandmother can finish a bowl of “tapey” like it was just porridge.

I originally searched for “tapey” in this city hoping I could utilize it as an ingredient in a pastry I was working on. But when I uncapped the jar and got a whiff of its contents, all I could think of now is blowtorching a whole broiler and making myself a hearty pot of home. Then I would call on my ancestors and the deities to partake of this local ambrosia. Pinikpikan it is!

Etag, And Everything That Comes With It

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Raw pork, “speared” during Begnas.

We used to jokingly say you can never claim to have tried genuine Sagada “etag” (cured pork) if you haven’t had one with those wriggling “foodstuff” that sometimes come with a chunk. I had my fair share way back and fortunately had the stomach to literally stomach it. But of course that’s not a recommendation. Contamination in food is a definite no-no. This just shows though that our local methods were a work in progress way back. I’d like to believe we’ve come far from the crude ways we utilized before and are now more meticulous and mindful with our preservation techniques.

Like the ancient civilizations that experimented and or accidentally discovered methods to extend food perishability, our local forefathers used meat preservation procedures that are still prevalent in today’s local food practices. Curing pork has been a tradition that most possibly dates back to the earliest settlers in our “ili” (village). Salt is generously spread on big slabs of pork, left to dry for several days, smoked then stored–accessed when an occasion calls for it.

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© stock.adobe.com

Salt was a luxurious commodity decades ago. My grandmother recounted traversing mountains with a sack of produce on her back to exchange for a pound or two of salt with our lowland brothers, the Ilocanos. This image never fails to plaster on my mind every time I extravagantly season every dish I make with these priceless crystals.

As an elder of the village, Lolo always got one of the best part as his “watwat” (meat share when a pig is butchered during a festivity). He’d then spend days working on his slab and I could just gape but not allowed to ask too many questions. This was decades ago but I can still see myself tailing him to the back of our “inatep” (nipa house) where the magic happens.

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CTTO; Etag, up for grabs in the market.

A typical Sagada etag would be cured following these procedures. Variations are employed in-between depending on preferences but it generally follows the preservation method that’s done for pork; salting, sun-drying, smoking, storage.

  • Choose a slab of pork that has some fat and skin on it.
  • Apply a generous amount of salt to cover the entire chunk.
  • Sun-dry the meat for three days to a couple of weeks. The longer, the more flavourful.
  • Cold-smoke the meat. Be careful to strategically place the meat where the heat can’t cook it but smoke can reach it. Smoking is done until the desired color and outside texture is achieved. Avoid using resinous wood as this causes bitterness. Sagada folks primarily use alnus (common alder) wood.
  • Etag can be stored in room temperature in air-tight containers or wrapped with paper and stored in dark places to avoid moisture development.

*Some skip the smoking part and simply store the salted pork in earthen jars. Etag cured this way misses the reddish dark coloring that is typical of the common Sagada etag.

Like the mold that forms when cheese is aged, a thin, whitish mold would cover the etag after a few days. Maggots also hatch on the meat. Unfortunately, you can’t protect the salted meat from flies 24/7. This then requires a rigorous amount of washing prior to cooking. And of course boiling the meat in 100 °C or more to kill any bacteria that may still be thriving therein.

For the uninitiated, etag is not the kind of food that is love at first bite. Especially if one has seen those wriggly little “flavours” before they were washed off. Interesting how it was even featured as the top most bizarre Filipino food because of such. But as earlier mentioned, we’ve come a long way from the unrefined methods we’ve employed decades ago.

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Masferre’s Sagada Etag; A pioneer in the vacuum-packaging of the native delicacy.

Today, we see more advanced ways to preserve the etag. Local entrepreneurs are even packaging this native delicacy in vacuum-sealed packets thus ensuring longevity and the prospect of importing it for sale to far places.

It is a celebrated native gourmet that Sagada has repackaged its annual town fiesta to showcase the etag as its major theme. The ingredient is featured as a main element in various dishes, to show that it can be furthered as a dish. Not just as what we’ve grown accustomed to, an enhancer to the “pinikpikan”, but a standout on its own.

The etag’s flavour profile is so distinct that personally I cannot classify it as a ham, bacon, or any cured pork product that has used similar procedures in its preservation. The secret might be with the species of the wood used to smoke it. Maybe the local pig and the local slop it has eaten. Or maybe, those wriggly “foodstuff”? That’s a secret I would not be so keen to uncover for everyone to know.

“Batik-o” Had Me At Hello

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“Pinikpikan” by James Gabriel A. Wandag

Food captivated me the moment I entered my grandfather’s nipa hut when I was barely four years old. My young mind vividly recalls the sight of corn, tied in a bunch and drying near the “dapwan” (hearth), meat that was darkened by the smoke, and the sound of chickens clucking somewhere in the corner. There was a sharp, distinct smell permeating the cramped indoor which I could not register then. I only came to find out, months later, that it was the aroma of “etag”, pork that was cured the Sagada way.

I consider myself lucky growing up with grandparents who enriched me with traditional ways. I was a daring kid who climbed up mulberry and nisperos trees with the neighborhood boys, the one who proudly came home in the evenings with scraped knees and insect bites. What had always been a treat though was being called off the dusty Dao-angan road by Lolo Bacagan an evening every week so I could go wolf down the “batikuleng/batik-o” (gizzard) while Lola had the “eges” (intestines) after Lolo finishes his prayers and “atang” (offering) to the “anitos” (spirits). I had older siblings but Lolo always set aside the “batik-o” for me. That made me feel really special.

“Pinikpikan” was the highlight of my weekends. Lolo would butcher his choicest chicken, slice generous slabs of his “etag”, scoop a ladle or two of his prized “tapey” (fermented rice) from an aged “gusi” (ornate jar) and produce the most delectable dish from the “dapwan”. My siblings and I would huddle with our grandparents as we heartily grabbed heaps of rice from a common serving plate we call a “bituto”. We each had a “sukong or apagan” (bowl made from coconut shell) that we can fill and refill to our hearts’ and stomachs’ content.

The delights I experienced from this native delicacy propelled my fascination with food and flavours. Unfortunately, it was a small town where folks send their kids to the city to become nurses and engineers. Pursuing a career in the culinary arena was rather unexplored in my time. That or it was a repressed passion for me that I was just too scared to venture on. Until now.

I realize now that my childhood was an introduction to a romance with food that was only rekindled when I reached my thirties. It’s extremely terrifying to be thinking about doing a leap between careers at this stage in my life but I know that passing up the opportunity would not only make me unhappy but will guarantee that I’ll forever be haunted by these native edibles that I can never rediscover, explore and innovate if I don’t equip myself with the appropriate and ample knowledge and training to guide me on.

We have rich local flavors that can easily be enhanced with the freshest produce from our backyard gardens. In a world where food movement is rapidly evolving to suit different lifestyles and preferences, and the ways to enjoy an ingredient is countless, I am inspired with this little dream to learn about our flavorful roots, and share. Food is meant to make us happy. Food is meant to be shared.

I’m embarking on this long overdue journey of food discovery and appreciation. They say the best way to begin is to go back where it all started. That means revisiting what made the “pinikpikan” explode with flavors. What makes it a staple in Igorot dinner tables since time immemorial? What makes it distinct? How can I describe that wonderful aftertaste? What spikes the flavor? Is it the “etag”, was it the way the chicken was butchered? I’ve eaten the dish probably a thousand times but I’m realizing just now how naive, if not clueless,  I am. Maybe I’ll start with the “etag”. And that is a story for another post.

 

Lessons from a Fur Baby

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I thought I was smart enough to be able to teach my dogs, “Sit, paw, kiss mommy.” Unknowingly, they have been teaching me far more valuable lessons you wouldn’t expect to glean from someone who cannot utter a coherent syllable. Not unless of course it is a husky who is an expert in sassing. “Woo yoo woomoon!”

  • Show gratitude. When given a treat, wag your tail. Lick your owner’s hand. Let them realize you appreciate the gesture and the thought. Return kindness in however way you can.
  • Don’t live life at a breakneck speed. Stop and smell the leaves. Every damn leaf. Be in the moment. Take time to enjoy the simple pleasures.
  • Be silly. Chase your own tail. Get scared by your own farts. Fight with a lemon. Not everything needs to make sense.
  • Be compassionate. We might not understand the intricate workings of human behaviors but we sense these emotions and we react accordingly. We know that our warm, furry presence beside them draws out these happy hormones. Be kind, just because.
  • Interact. Connect. Bark your hellos to those you meet along the way. Hold your hands up, or paws, for a high five. Even a shy smile can mean a rainbow to someone.
  • It’s okay not to be okay. There are days when even an enticing game of tug is not enough to keep us bouncing off our feet. We have our moments too when we just want to be in our little, dark corner. Not every moment is unicorns and butterflies, and that’s perfectly alright.
  • Some, if not most things, are worth the wait. We know our humans and we trust that they always come back. Waiting for them to open that door does not take away the enthusiasm we show whether the wait was for five minutes, five hours, or five years. It pays to be patient.
  • Be lazy. Being idle is not a sin. Take a nap on the couch. Wake up then nap some more. That body needs and deserves a rest. Indulge whenever you can.
  • Fear can be overcome with love. Even the most aggressive and frightful dogs can become tame and gentle. Letting go of insecurities and being open to receive love make this transformation possible.
  • Forgive. Even those who love us hurt us sometimes. But that’s okay, we should not hold grudges. We still smother them with love like there’s no tomorrow.

And probably the most important lesson would be to PLAY. Life is too short to not live in the moment. We might live it driven by different aspirations and pressures but there should always be time to play. Because this means that we genuinely care for ourselves. That we are mindful of fulfilling our ongoing physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral developments. Play your way to happiness.

In loving memory of Cody, our fur baby with nine lives.

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“Cody-bumbums”
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