Art by Gica Tam
Food & Drink Features

A taxonomy of Lutong Itik

Once upon a time there were more ducks than people in Pateros. Now the ducks have all gone, even in the dish that still bears its name.
Elmer Nocheseda | Jun 02 2019

This essay won first 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 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 “fowl.”

 

The dish is called lutong itik, yet it is pork. Not a piece of duck meat is in the dish anymore. Lutong itik, by its very name is understandably fowl though noticeably porcine. When the supposed duck meat becomes pork in lutong itik, it may raise issues in cooking terms, if not, culinary taxonomy. However, the change from duck to pork is not a simple replacement or shifting preferences but rather, a serious reflection of the vagaries in the environment that created this dish in the first place. But then, why not just call it lutong baboy instead? 

Still called lutong itik, this dish is no longer cooked with duck but pork. Art by Gica Tam, with a photo of the dish provided by the author.

 

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To answer the question, we have to go back to Pateros where the dish was first invented. As the toponym of this duck dish suggests, Pateros is a riverine town of duck raisers. The 1613 notice of Fray Pedro San Buenaventura, “lubhang mapag yrog nang ytic ang manga Sanglay” hints of their Chinese beginning, Visiting Pateros in 1842, American Charles Wilkes exclaimed that the “number of ducks of all ages may be computed at millions”, which is an obvious exaggeration, but who knows. The national census conducted in 1918 actually counted more ducks than people in Pateros. The 4,113 inhabitants share the small town space with about 15,230 ducks as “poultry and eggs are sent daily by the lake towns to Manila. Pateros is the center of the poultry industry.” This was the environment where lutong itik was born.

Lutong itik is particular to Pateros. In fact, the same 1918 Census observed the ordinary food of the Laguna de Bai lakeshore communities consists of “rice, a little bagoong, some vegetables cooked with fish like hitodalagbiya and shrimps caught in river or lake, while bovine cattle and poultry are only slaughtered on feast days.” The average Filipino thinks more of his “gamecock and cockpit than he does of the food value of his poultry and eggs,” and that “the general rule of the duck growers is to sell male birds only, the females being kept for breeding purposes.” It confirms Fray Juan Francisco de San Antonio’s 1738 observation that “the ducks are bred to lay eggs” and not necessarily for their meat, as indicated by an old 1754 Royal Treasury document that a fisherman named Biscuyo, delivered 1,300 duck eggs to the royal warehouse. Duck meat is hardly in our daily diet.

 

A picture of the Pateros River with puya or duck pens in the Album of the German resident of Manila, Karl Johann Karuth CA 1850.

The primal lutong itik is cooked using the meat of aheng or male ducks culled or ejected from the puya duck farms. Experience taught Pateros that they need only one male aheng to breed a brood of ten egg-laying female akak. Thus, in Pateros, the lone aheng is not a symbol of machismo, but rather of a kakaning itik, the male duck butchered for its meat, a term also used to describe henpecked husbands. 

Kakaning itik requires great labor to prepare, and much effort to render. It is matrabaho. The duck is completely dressed, cleaned, scrubbed with dapugan ash and salt, and drenched with vinegar while repeatedly mashed to ooze out the slime called uyam. Thrice repeated and washed in clean running water, and completely rendered to leave no trace of anggo or gamey taste and smell. It is chopped into small pieces to guarantee the meat to be tender when sautéed in oil with ginger, garlic, onions, and tomatoes, until boiled in water with its own thickened blood just like cooking dinuguan. This time, the vinegar is not mixed with the blood but with the tahure or fermented tofu that has been pickled salty with soya bean sauce. 

 

Calling it still lutong itik is like trying to prepare the pork meat as a smidgen of duck relished as recollection.

 

The heap of tahure mashed in a bowl of sasa vinegar is added toward the end to round up its flavor, and should not be stirred until cooked and done, with folk wisdom adding slices of green papaya as meat tenderizer as well as siling panigang for added color, heat and zing. It is done when the duck meat looks tender as its golden oil temptingly glistened on the rendered stew while the slivers of green papaya look invitingly firm and flavorful. My father speaks of using tahureng gabe, for better relish, but I have no idea where to get them now.

We have lived with ducks for a long time as the Malay word itik was never replaced by its Spanish equivalent pato. But by the 1960s, unbridled growth in human settlements continued to encroach on the riverbanks that were once reserved for puya duck pens. The river started to run dry and became so foul that not even the ducks nor their stories would want to stay. What used to be a town with more ducks than people, is now brimming with 63,840 people with no duck at all. 

The ducks have all moved elsewhere. Their absence is amplified by the missing duck meat in the dish. Calling it still lutong itik is like trying to prepare the pork meat as a smidgen of duck relished as recollection. It is a fowl dish after all, not by spare, but by remembrance. In Pateros lutong itik though porcine is still fowl.

 

(ABOUT THE AUTHOR, FROM THE DGF AWARDS) Elmer Nocheseda is a familiar name and face who has won several DGF Awards through the years.  He is the author of several books, one of which is about his hometown of Pateros and the others on our traditional art forms Palaspas and Rara (or banig art). His newest book “Taguig” was launched recently. Elmer said that he will still write essays on food for the DGF but will no longer be included in the competition. He will just write because he enjoys it. Mabuhay ka, Elmer.