By Sol Vanzi
Born in Cavite as Aguinaldo was proclaiming independence in the next town, my grandmother raised six children and a dozen grandchildren in a house with no running water or refrigerator. She had for a stove a shallow wooden box filled with river sand, on which were arranged several large stones. On it, she boiled, fried, baked, steamed, smoked, and braised delicious dishes that I continue to attempt to replicate in my own modern kitchen.
Every day at dawn, my grandparents’ home stirred into life while the rest of the neighborhood slept. Lola Tina would start a fire to boil water for coffee in a 10-cup takure (stainless steel tea pot). Using a hollow bamboo tube called pang-ihip, she coaxed embers buried in ashes back to life, kindling wood scraps and dried twigs.
Once the fire became steady, she positioned the kettle firmly on three large stones that served as a stove, and added big pieces of wood gathered from her husband’s carpentry shop. As soon as the water started boiling, she would take the takure out of the fire, take its lid off, and measure ground coffee from a tightly covered tin can: one level teaspoonful for every cup of water. Left to steep for five to 10 minutes, the coffee grounds sank, making it easy to pour brewed coffee into mugs.
The ground barako coffee came from a Batangas farmer who delivered coffee and baked goods once a week. We all drank it mixed with brown sugar and carabao milk, which a neighbor supplied in sterilized Coca-Cola bottles. Any milk left after everyone had had coffee was made into kesong puti or carefully poured over rice sprinkled with rough sea salt, a perfect breakfast paired with grilled salted fish stored in baskets hanging from the roof beams above the stove, which served many purposes.
From those beams dangled flat bamboo trays called lastay, used for drying salted fish and meats like seasoned beef tapa, tocino, and langonisa. Smoke rising from the stove below flavored and preserved them while keeping away insects. The area was also unreachable to cats, mice, and other animals, pets and pests alike. The dried fish and meats were particularly useful during the rainy season when the public markets were either inaccessible or closed.
She had only the most basic cookware: a heavy kawali (wok) big enough to cook a kilo of pancit, two thick pots with cover for simmering boiled meats and soups, a large clay pot to cook rice in, and a steel parilya (grill) for broiling meat, vegetables, and fish.
Lola Tina often surprised the family and neighbors with the variety and volume of the food she could produce from her simple kitchen. On special dates, she cooked fiesta dishes: deep-fried lechon kawali, steamed leche flan, whole stuffed rellenong manok, several types of bibingka and kalamay, arroz valenciana (seafood paella), and sweet fruit preserves.
Meantime, fruits, vegetables, and leftover food were stored in the paminggalan, an aparador-type wood cabinet with very airy bamboo walls. Leafy vegetables like kangkong, camote tops, and pechay were kept fresh in bowls of water, just like fresh cut flowers. Fruits were also kept there until ripe enough to serve at mealtime. The paminggalan doors were kept locked to keep out pets, pests, and hungry children.
No wall separated the dining area from the kitchen, facilitating easy movement of people and food. The window close to the dining table held the banggera or banggerahan, used for drying plates and drinking glasses. In its corner was a large tapayan (clay jar) holding roughly three gallons of drinking water, which was always mysteriously cold.
All the grandchildren took turns going with Lola Tina to the Zapote public market, always taking a calesa for the short one-kilometer trip. We learned the names of all the fish, where they were caught (fresh water or sea), and what dishes they were good for. Returning home from the market, we learned to gut, clean, scale, and cook the fish.
Our first kitchen lesson involved preparing an ingredient that grandma used in pancit and almost all her sautéed vegetables. There was hardly a day she did not use pakot, a term used for the mixture of small crabs and saltwater shrimps and shrimp heads that’s pounded to a pulp in a stone almires (mortar and pestle) to squeeze out its thick, flavorful juices. The pakot extract thickened even more when stir-fried with fried onions and garlic, and its flavors enriched whatever the final dish was to be.
Lola Tina left me her almires, which I cherish as much as the kitchen lessons I will remember for the rest of my life.
Sadly, pakot is a term unfamiliar today to even those who claim to be experts on the cuisine of the province. During a very recent culinary heritage tour of Cavite, I asked featured Caviteno chefs if they used pakot in their pancit, and their reply was: “Pakot? What’s that?”