My late friend, Edilberto “Ed” Alegre, would have been happy to be here. And surely he would have reminded us of the theory that to learn the true texture of a particular culture you first need to eat their food. To compare one particular culture to another, compare how they cook a particular common dish. The case in point in this case is puto maya and tsokolate. This one, at the wet market in Da-o, Tagbilaran.
As Ed advised, the public wet market is the best place to sample real indigenous culture. The malls would be the worst. Here the food would have been processed to adapt to market demands, issues of shelf life as well as other considerations related to packaging and middle-class-public expectations. The wet markets make no such compromises. The ingredients are bought and prepared in the early morning. They stay in the shelf for the rest of the day. Nothing is refrigerated. There are issues of hygiene of course. Admittedly, a weak stomach is always safer at the malls. But one might also learn how to pick the food well. Smelling the food before eating it is allowed and does not offend accepted norms. You eat at your own risk.
Unless you feel singularly lucky or consider yourself well-educated in indigenous cuisine do not be reckless with anything that has the word “kilawin” attached to it. Always remember that kilawin does not necessarily refer to dishes which are not cooked. Its meaning comes closest only to things which must be fresh otherwise they are no good.
Such as for instance the skin of animals after their fur has been scorched off. Do not take risks with this food unless you know personally the person who prepared it; and even then, only if he knows personally the state, even the pedigree, of the animal involved. Never forget, the skin is the dirtiest part of the animal. You take risks even with cooked poultry.
But if by some chance you would be lucky enough to come to a trustworthy dish of kilawin prepared from the face of a pig, garnished with onions, chili, tomatoes and such other condiments as you would expect from the universal kinilaw, then prepare to eat a good meal. And since this is a dish common to most of the cultures of the Philippines then it is a good platform by which to compare the diversity of textures of the different local cultures, the true commonality and diversity of their sense of taste. But why risk anything when there is also the old, safe, and traditional puto maya by which you can do exactly the same thing? Here, you can’t go wrong. The worst you risk is mild diarrhea.
Ideally, the puto maya is eaten with a cup of tsokolate and, if in season, a slice of sweet mango. The tsokolate should come unsweetened. Sweeten to your taste and sweeten only to the extent you do not lose the natural bitterness of the tablea after it has been boiled in a cast metal borneo and stirred continually with a wooden batirol. The quality of tablea as well as the labor placed into melting this in the borneo, the amount of care given to the cooking process is elemental. The measure of quality is told by the fine-ness of the tsokolate brew, its thickness, the absence of solid bits in the mix.
Pour this over the puto maya and then eat, accompanying each mouthful with bites of mango to complete the blend inside your mouth. The puto maya should have just the right taste of ginger in it. The ginger is a bit stronger here in Da-o, Tagbilaran, than it is in Tabo-an, Cebu. But it is over the issues of rice quality and cooking process where the Boholanos win, hands down. Bohol grows its own rice. Freshness, as always, dictates the final taste. But there is also the fact that the puto maya is steamed here instead of just simply boiled as they now do in Tabo-an. But beyond this, the fact that Bohol is still very much caught in the old ways of doing things for better or worse. In Bohol, you might still find the old taste of the past, its special charm still contained in its puto maya and the host of other dishes it has to offer.
Most of the old churches here were damaged by the recent earthquake. In the back of people’s minds lurks the question of whether the resources are there to restore them. Since resolve always follows after the strength of will, and since the strength of will in turn follows after summoning sufficient motive, then the relative taste of puto maya is pertinent here. It would be a waste if Bohol lost its particular puto maya. It would have something to say of the culture itself, one must presume. The same way, we might think, the Catholicism would be changed here if we did not do enough to restore Bohol’s damaged churches. It would be a sad and sorry waste, something you would rather not dwell on Christmas Eve of course. Still and all, Merry Christmas!