[For the third year, ANCX is publishing the winners of the annual Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award. This year’s theme is “livestock,” which in the Philippines pertains to cattle, pig, goat, carabao and horse. This winner of an honorable mention is all about the transportive quality of food.]
A familiar aroma welcomed me and my mother in my grandparents’ home in California. My uncle was in the kitchen scooping us a heaping bowl of pinapaitan. This was our first day as immigrants. My mother was committed to residing here for good while I was already planning my return to the Philippines to finish my studies. That first sniff and sip of the bitter soup made me feel like I was still in my hometown, Baguio City.
November 2020 marks my first year since I finally moved to California for good after college. I am now scooping myself a ladle-full of this hot and bitter dish and pouring it over leftover rice. The heat and oil of the soup softens and breaks down the grains of rice as it warms up the entire bowl. Somehow, the homesickness is undoubtedly fought off by the lingering taste in my mouth.
My Ilocana mother often cooked soup dishes to compliment the cold Baguio climate. The pinapaitan or papaitanis one of those Ilocano dishes which I savor regardless of weather. Mother would wake me up at 6 in the morning, 7 the latest, on a Saturday to go to the talipapa (satellite market) behind Baguio Medical Center.
Although a bit groggy at times, I did not mind our regular Saturday morning endeavor. Arriving after 8am in the talipapa meant going meatless for a week or two! We had to be there for the newly butchered cow, pig, and goat amongst other fresh produce. Our checklist is as follows: beef shank for bulalo, beef sirloin for tapa, pork belly and ribs for adobo, sinigang (sour soup), or nilaga (boiled), goat ribs, feet, and head for sinampalukan (tamarind stew), goat thigh and shoulder for caldereta (tomato sauce stew), and the elusive combination of goat innards and papait (bile). The latter is what we and the other shoppers scramble for. Goat’s meat is always the first to be sold out. If we are lucky, we get to bring home an extra bag of papait. The fresh papait is the bitterness I’m longing for, which groceries overseas lack.
“Neighbors, who are usually relatives, would get together to gather and butcher the goats in the fields,” I remember my mother saying, recalling how goat-based dishes are prepared in their province of Pangasinan. The men bring the newly butchered goat to the pulpogan (torching station) to hang and manually torch it over coal or wood fire until burn marks on the skin are visible. This adds flavor to the meat when cooked. Afterwards, the goat is washed and pat with walis tingting (broom made from the midribs of palm leaves) to make sure that fur and char is completely washed off.
The goat’s parts go towards the sinampalukan and caldereta. No part of the goat is wasted. The innards and papaitare for the pinapaitan. This is the internal organ where the bitter bile comes from and is what we call the bittering ingredient. This dish has an unappealing smell to some people but “not if the butchering is done right,” as elders say. Bayanihan, communal cooperation, is vital.
There is such an appeal to the pinapaitan’s preparation as my mother still remembers how her grandmother used to call them to watch the process even as a child. And as my mom learned from her elders, I also learned from my mother. I start by handing her chopped onions, garlic, ginger, and innards for sautéing—in that order. She continues to stir until water comes out from the innards.
Goat stock is added for the soup itself, to give a savory kick, and for cooking the ingredients all the way through. She brings the soup to a boil and adds the papait (Repeat). She adds the long green chilis on the last simmer. Slow cooking is the key. Sometimes, we add tamarind leaves, just the way my father likes it. The soup is best served hot with rice or over gin and tales. As for me, a side of extra papait please! After all, what is pinapaitan if not bitter?
Uncertain of the date that I return to my hometown, the bitterness I feel—homesickness rather —can still be soothed with a bowl of soup. The bitter dish eases my bitter feelings. I have only cooked the pinapaitan twice in my lifetime, and always with my mother’s guidance. One day I will muster up the courage and skill to lead the cooking process and tell the stories. The struggle of early Saturday mornings, the noise of the talipapa, the marvel of heritage stories, the hard work of the cook, the large pot that holds a dish that our family and neighbors can share, that sense of community – this is when I know I’m home. This is when I know it’s all better.
[Shulamite Maiden Pormentira is a recent graduate of B.A. Language & Literature from the University of the Philippines (Baguio). She now resides in California. Her primary interest is food and culture.]