This piece won third prize in this year’s Doreen G. Fernandez Food Writing Award. Founded in 2002, the competition is dedicated to the memory of the eminent food anthropologist Doreen Fernandez who wrote books and many articles about food during her lifetime. The competition is the first of its kind in the country, and aims “to inspire research into Philippine culinary culture and sustaining a pool of increasing new talents in food literature and journalism.” This year’s theme is “shellfish.”
December is the rainy season in the Philippine Cordilleras. It is when the cold northwest Amihan wind from Siberia dumps its moisture as it creeps across the mossy mountaintops. It is also the fallow period here in the rice terraces of Batad in Ifugao. During this agricultural resting time, the stair-like fields are filled with water, in preparation for their next stage as seedling beds. The paddies seem empty, still water reflecting the blue-gray skies above. But they are teeming with life.
After my morning coffee, my adoptive younger brother Aggung calls me to enlist my help in foraging for lunch. A few steps away from my hut, he pulls out his machete and hacks at a bila, a large-leafed plant related to the taro. He gathers a few long stalks, heaves them onto his shoulder, and gestures for me to follow. We head out to the higher terraces, where the paddies are not disturbed by ducks or frolicking kids. He lays the meter-long stems on the water, and sloshes away.
We move to another terrace, where he laid other stems the day before. The bila was now crawling with all sorts of snails feasting on what would be their last meal. He picks them up one by one and shows me the different types. The dark round ones are called bahikor (Pila sp.), the tiny soft-shelled ones, oleppaw (Physa sp.). He giggles as he explains that his Ifugao name, Aggung, refers to the spiral pointed gastropods (Melanoides sp.).
He shows me a large yellow snail and sneers at it. “This is the ‘gorden’ (golden apple snail, Pomacea canaliculata). It is a pest.* It also doesn’t taste good.” He sets it on the edge of the paddy and crushes it underfoot. He then shows me how to dig into the silt to find te’am (Sphaerium sp.), small clams that resemble fingernails. We go to a couple more terraces until we fill our small basket with creeping mollusks. As we head back to our hut, we pull out some wild gingers ensconced in the rock walls.
In the kitchen, our catch is rinsed and left in a basin for an hour in order to shed silt and be less gritty when eaten. As is usually the case in these remote mountain villages, cooking is simple. The snails and clams are just boiled in water spiced with slivers of ginger. Some salt is added. I suggest a Tagalog addition, garnishing the soup with leaves from the paktiw chili bush growing nearby. They give a vegetal freshness to the broth.
Unlike the lowlander’s preference for tasty, umami-rich ulam (viand), the highland palate is much less fussy. Perhaps it is because their traditional rice is already so delectably fragrant that there is little need for flavorsome viands. It is also what makes their taste buds discern the differences in snails: the mild sweetness of the oleppaw* versus the muddiness of the gorden.
A cold breeze blows, and we huddle closer to the fire as we have lunch. We take a few sips of the soup to warm us, and ladle shells onto our platefuls of rice. The noontime silence is punctuated with sucking noises and giggles as I struggle to eat the snails. Seeing my predicament, Aggung snips off a thorn from a wild pomelo tree and hands it to me. I use it to pick at the tiniest, most recalcitrant oleppaw.
After lunch, I wondered why the shells weren’t thrown away. They were put on a plate and laid out in the sun. When I ask why this was done, Aggung brings me to the neighboring house where he asks our father, Tatay Fernan, and his neighbor Tito Juan, to show me something. The elders bring out a basket of sun-dried snail shells and started chopping six-inch pieces of runo canes. They then go to an open space nearby and start assembling a small tower, making alternating layers of the runo sticks and shells. After the tenth level is gingerly topped off, Tatay Fernan takes a slice of pitchwood, lights it from the cooking fire, and starts to set the tower alight while Tito Juan fans the flames. The smoking canes crackle, and sparks fly as the burning tower eventually topples over.
After the embers of this molluscan funeral pyre die out, the two lakays (elders) fish out the shells from the ashes. What used to be hard brown spirals now look delicate and ghostly white. The immaculate charred remains were placed in a bamboo culm container and pounded into a fine powder. What was it for?
After having their tender meat consumed for human nourishment, the solid mortal remains of snails are reborn to become human stimulants. Once pulverized, shells become apor (lime), an essential element of mamàh. Known in English as betel quid, mamàh is the Ifugao synecdoche for an assemblage of various psychoactive botanicals: the mature fruit (mamàh) of the Areca catechu palm, the leaf (hapid) and flower spike (puchu) of the Piper betel vine, and dried tobacco leaf. The heart-shaped hapid serves as the wrapper, and a quartered Areca fruit, a segment of puchu, and a strip of tobacco are enfolded and chewed.
Mamàh, they say, is needed to warm up one’s body in preparation for hiking steep mountain trails. It also reportedly gives a sense of “well-being, euphoria, and heightened alertness”. While masticating the spicy-bitter-minty mixture, a bit of the apor is applied to the teeth. This will bring about the characteristic crimson smiles of many in the Cordilleras.
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As snail apor is hard to come by these days due to the disappearance of endemic gastropods in the rice terraces, mineral lime is more commercially available. However, this caustic powder is not preferred because it burns one’s oral mucosa. In this village, people seek out the elders, for they alone have the patience to process the milder aporfrom snails and clams.
The chewing of betel quid is an ancient practice found in many cultures from East Africa all the way to Oceania. Its consumption dwells in a sort of alimentary purgatory: it might or might not be food. It might be considered food in the sense that it is taken into the mouth and chewed. In other places, it is also sweetened with rose petal syrup and embellished with culinary spices like cloves, cardamom, or saffron.
However, it also might not be considered food because it is not meant to be swallowed, nor is it taken for nourishment. Its juices must be spat out lest an overwhelming drunkenness takes over. Its main function is to arouse the body and excite the mind. It is at the same time addicting and disgusting. Nevertheless, it is loved by both humans and their gods, as many cultures (including the Ifugao) offer betel quid in their rituals .
From its humble life in the watery shallows of the rice terraces, the terrestrial snail takes a slow journey to nourish humans, bring their minds to a euphoric highness, and finally, after a trial of fire, please the gods of the earth and sky.
About the author: Raymond Aquino Macapagal is Assistant Professor at the Center for International Studies, University of the Philippines - Diliman, where he teaches Social Science, gastronomy, and cultural heritage. He has a Master degree in Food Culture and Communication and a Master in World Heritage, both from universities in Italy. He still works to develop community-based tourism in the UNESCO World Heritage Batad Rice Terraces, Banaue, Ifugao, and he’s taking up a PhD in Indigenous Studies at the University of the Philippines - Baguio.
* This foreign species was introduced to the Philippines in the 1980s, ostensibly as an additional food source for rice farmers. It turned out to be a pest, voraciously eating new rice shoots and outcompeting endemic snails. Its meat also turned out to be unpalatable. See: Joshi, R. C. "Problems with the management of the golden apple snail Pomacea canaliculata: an important exotic pest of rice in Asia."