Now on its 17th year, the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award is the first food writing award in the Philippines. Dedicated to the memory of the pioneering food anthropologist and dean of Philippine food columnists, the Award aims to inspire research into Philippine culinary culture and to develop a pool of new talents in food literature and food journalism. This essay won second place and is written by Iloilo resident, Marie Joy Rosal Sumagaysay. She currently teaches at the Miagao campus of the University of the Philippines and has a Master’s in Art History from UP Diliman.
A nondescript carinderia, the native lean-to eatery propped on one side by stilts, overlooks the coastline of San Joaquin—Iloilo’s last town before Antique’s first. In summertime, one can have a hearty lunch at the veranda while enjoying the relaxing breeze and the blazing orange blooms of the fire trees below.
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This is SEA BREEZE, an eatery set up at Tiolas in the 1950s by Concordia Carpio, a wife and mother of eight kids. Sea Breeze and a couple of other roadside kiosks were the travelers’ savory pit stops. Before the advent of Ceres and speeding vans, there was the trak. It was a fleet of unwieldy buses with names like “76” and “Diana Russ” that transported people and goods from Iloilo to Antique and vice-versa. Sixty-five kilometers from Iloilo city, Tiolas was the ideal stopover. The national highway splits into two there. At thirty-five minutes faster, the right road cuts through the mountain to Hamtic, then San Jose, Antique’s capital. The left road, on the other hand, hugs the scenic, undulating coast passing Anini-y then Tobias Fornier (formerly Dao) where literally “the mountains meet the sea.”
Almost every vehicle stopped at Tiolas before. No one seemed to rush. It was a requisite activity to take a break, eat and perhaps buy something there.
From one of many trips to Antique, I recall the sight of elderly women with banana-wrapped parcels on sticks beckoning to commuters. Called linagpit, the parcels contain tiny, translucent fish that locals christened bisya. In other places it is known as humoy-humoy or dulong. Bisya are freshly caught from the shores of Tiolas and adjacent barangays between November to December, then in April to May.
The linagpit sellers reappeared every season but the many carinderia of Tiolas, by the 2000s, started to disappear. Tiolas slowed down as passenger travel sped up. Eventually, Sea Breeze also had to close.
In 2016, Lola Concordia’s grandson, Joerey Carpio, an OFW* in Taiwan, came home for good. It was good indeed because Sea Breeze’s kitchen got busy again. Joerey wanted to continue his lola’s legacy in Tiolas. Drawing from countless memories helping in the carinderia, Joerey, together with his sister, Lorena, began serving Lola Concordia’s bestsellers—sinabawan nga isda, sinugba nga isda, sinugba nga lukos, kinilaw nga isda (fish soup, broiled fish, grilled squid, vinegar-washed fish). It is sea to table at its best, the menu dependent on the fresh catch of Joerey’s fisher friends.
For me, what’s most exceptional at Sea Breeze is their linabog. Having struck a friendship with Joerey, I was able to learn more about this underrated menu item—a rather plain yellow viand of finely shredded fish meat. Yet the taste and the story of the dish makes up for its weak Instagram appeal.
For most Ilonggos, linabog is synonymous with pagi, stingray. In truth, linabog is not just pagi. It actually pertains to a cooking process. Linabog is to cook any kind of fish in coconut milk and spices especially turmeric. The same is true with Ilonggo dishes like tinuom (seafood, chicken or vegetables wrapped in banana leaves and roasted over coals) and linagpang (seafood or chicken grilled then cooked as soup with onions and tomatoes). Their names describe how they were made.
Linabog at Sea Breeze is distinct and localized. The fish used is sirup (snake mackerel), also known as liwit ati. Gempylus serpens is its scientific name according to Ulysses Alama, my go-to fish researcher and friend. The more popular silver cousin of sirup is liwit, a favorite Ilonggo fish for prito (fried) and escabeche (cooked with sweet-sour sauce).
Joerey prefers sirup over pagi as the latter can retain the unwanted fishy langsa odor when cooked. Besides, sirup is very cost-effective allowing more people to afford the dish.
Fishermen do not bother selling their sirup catch at the market; nobody seems to like silver-gray to black, slimy-looking fish. The same is true with bilong-bilong ati (moonfish, Mene maculata) and sirum-sirum (lowfin pomfret, Brama dussumieri ). Perhaps, it’s the remnants of colonial mentality that make people buy fair-skinned fish instead of black ones. Only “connoisseurs” like Joerey and fisherfolks know the delicious value of marine black beauties.
It was a slow start for Sea Breeze when it reopened in 2016, maybe because Joerey changed the carinderia’s name. Heeding advice from some friends, he restored the original name on the metal signboard so old customers knew it was still their same favorite place. True, indeed, as evidenced by Joerey’s story of some recent customers thanking him that Sea Breeze reopened. Now in their sixties, those nostalgic returnees recalled fond memories of getting off the trak to eat there as kids together with their grandparents.
Sea Breeze Carinderia, a heritage icon of Tiolas, has become the savory pit stop that it was once before.
* OFW is the abbreviation for Overseas Filipino Worker. OFWs have become a dominant category for migrant earners contributing significantly to the Philippine economy. In 2017 an estimated 2,339,000 OFWs lived and worked abroad. Remittances from OFWs globally are at least 10 percent of the nation’s GDP.
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Photos by Stan Cabigas