[For the 5th consecutive year, ANCX is publishing the winners of the annual Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award. On this its 20th year, the theme revolves around “Roots, Fruits and Vegetables.” The original title of this 3rd prize winner is “Pakbet: The Kumintang of the Women in Santa Maria.”]
I learned how to cook pakbet from the women of Santa Maria, Pangasinan.
There were hot and humid middays in 2017 when my husband and I would arrive in a sitio we’d visit twice or thrice a month. Those three-hour drives in our first car, a 1986 Superbeetle we call Uncle Bugoy, were some of the most memorable trips we had as a young married couple doing missionary work in Santa Maria.
As Mike paid attention to the road, I would be planning out the Sunday afternoon’s crafting class in my mind for the children in the neighborhood. We’d bring snacks, candies for prizes, art materials, and a curated playlist of songs the kids would learn to sing and dance to.
Another constant thing on my mind would be the mothers in the sitio who were also waiting. We would tell them what time we’d leave Baguio so they could make their preparations. They made sure to remind families nearby to join the Sunday gathering. Then they’d harvest crops from their own farms and put together the needed ingredients to cook a meal for the community.
The day’s ulam (viand) depends on what vegetables were available. The classic dish of those Sunday afternoon late lunches was pakbet. Thoughts of that bowl of steaming fresh-off-the-pot pakbet ladled on to a mound of piping hot rice would be more than enough to take our minds off the scorching heat and winds of Pangasinan.
Every time we arrive, our first stop was the kitchen of Nanay Nida, whose home was where families gathered. One time, I got to watch how she and the other mothers cooked pakbet. Pakbet, or pinakbet, originated in Ilocandia but have regional varieties. “Pinakbet” is from the Iloco word “pinakebbet” which means “shrunk” or “shriveled.” Anyone would understand why and how the shriveling and shrinking happens when they see how the dish is made.
Mise en place. On the table, there were different kinds of washed and nicely-cut lowland vegetables: okra, small and oval-shaped ampalaya (bitter gourd), round and short eggplants, sitaw (string beans), pallang (winged bean), malunggay fruit, cardis
The cooking begins with the red ember of charcoal in the clay stove heating up the bit of oil in the pot. “Pwede mo naman din lagyan muna ng konting karne kung gusto mo, saka mo ilagay ang kamatis at sibuyas. Ang sikreto nito ay nasa kamatis, dapat damihan. At syempre, ang sikreto din ay nasa nagluluto,”Nanay Nida said, smiling as she explained her first step. When the oil was hot enough, the meat was mixed in and allowed to render.
I recalled how my grandmother would say, “I-sisim pay, ah, dayta karne tapnu rumwar ti manteka na.” (“You have to render the meat first so its oils come out.”) This word “sisi” meant “to render” so the best flavor is developed.
With the meat rendered, some roughly chopped onions and almost two cups of native red orange tomatoes were handed to Nanay Nida. As she tossed these into her pot, I noticed that some tomatoes were whole. One of the women explained that as the tomatoes would cook in the covered pot, its juices would come out and serve as the subtly sour base flavor. This acidity is balanced by the bagoong (fish paste). Fish, often galunggong (mackerel scad) or dilis (anchovy), sun salt, and water are the components of this key ingredient. Every ounce of these natural ingredients creates the distinct comforting flavor profile of pakbet.
“Kukulugin na natin ito,” Nanay Nida continued. Kukulugin is a process that takes time: a kitchen towel is placed over the cover of the pot, then both hands would toss the pot while firmly holding each side handle secured by the towel to make sure the heat is insulated and spills are prevented. To finish the pinakbet dance, all other vegetables are added. The pot-flipping process gets two or three rounds more until the vegetables are tender and its juices, known to Filipinos as “katas,” come out.
That flipping technique is both vigorous and graceful at the same time. Over time, how the women here toss their pots of pakbet have become like the dignified kumintang hand movements created by our ancestors as they celebrated the simplicities of everyday life, whether it be a good harvest, sunshine, rain, or a family milestone. It’s here where I see how the flavors of pakbet are built naturally and beautifully with the aid of patience and gracefulness, much like how life ought to be celebrated—not struggling but simply going with the flow.
[Kaye Leah Cacho-Sitchon won first prize in the 2020 edition of the DGF Food Writing Contest. She is a Communications Instructor at St. Louis University in Baguio City where she is a resident.]