Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Berna Romulo-Puyat: On Drinking with the Tribes, Eating Chicken Eyes, and Cooking with AdlaiApril 6, 2020
I have to admit—I was a bit nervous meeting our Department of Agriculture’s Undersecretary Berna Romulo-Puyat. I’ve always looked up to her as an incredibly fearless, passionate, and determined leader. Her zeal is infectious, and her warmth effortlessly courses through you—it is so easy to be in her company. Our interview with Berna was supposed to focus mainly on what she does, especially after the successful turnabout of Madrid Fusión Manila’s regional meals.
“Nako, I’ve already emailed my answers to your guide questions a few minutes before you arrived!” Berna laughs as I turn on my voice recording app. Upon checking her answers, they were already more than what I needed. I am still surprised at the turnout of my interview with her. We chatted for more than hour and a half straight. The ball just kept rolling naturally. There were no guide questions; just free-flowing conversation about travel, Filipino culture, and basically, how life has been going so far.
“Okay, so this is adlai and this is heirloom rice,” she gestures to two vacuum-sealed bags containing grains. “It looks so boring, noh? But look what happens when they’ve been prepared!” She then brings out two containers filled with colorful salads. “These were prepared by Chef Robby Goco (who firmly believes that adlai is the next quinoa) especially for today’s shoot! They’re new on the Green Pastures menu: The Terra Natura Salad made with heirloom rice and the Umami Salad made with adlai. Try it!”
It’s hard to believe these meals are actually made with local grains! One look at them and you’d think they’re dishes swiped from some hipster restaurant in Melbourne. “I’ve realized, when you present food in a dish in its raw ingredient state, it’s okay. But, when you see it on a dish, iba talaga. People suddenly become so curious! It’s like, ‘What ingredients did you use? What’s in this dish?’ We got a lot of questions like that from our foreign visitors during Madrid Fusión Manila. It was also an eye-opener for fellow Filipinos. They were so surprised that we have ingredients of this quality existing, so why don’t we just buy local produce right? We get to support our farmers pa and it’s so easy to grow—it can thrive in varying local soil conditions! In fact, Bruce (Ricketts) was telling me, ‘I’d rather use adlai than barley, it’s cheaper pa.’ Then Gaita (Fores), she actually ordered already 150 kilos of adlai. She ran out. So now, she’s ordering again.”
It might be safe to say that adlai has so much potential to be the next super-grain. It can grow despite poor soil quality and waterlogging, plus, it’s resistant to pests. Berna also tells me that it makes you feel full longer and has the highest energy content compared to corn, white rice, and even brown rice. When the indigenous tribes served Berna and her boss some adlai in Bukidnon, her boss thought, ‘why don’t we start planting adlai even in Luzon?’ Now that it’s accessible here in Metro Manila, Berna pitched it to our rockstar chefs who, in turn, are going crazy over them. During Madrid Fusión Manila, JC de Terry served them as croquettes; Margarita Fores tossed them Carabao butter—simple yet spectacular; and now, Chef Robby Goco’s serving them in Green Pastures’ newest salads.
For someone as fresh-faced as Berna, it might take a bit of difficulty imagining her harvesting palay and cacao, collecting coffee beans, and picking strawberries (a skill only women are allowed to do!). “When you look at the statistics, it seems as if there are only a few women farmers. But actually, if you ask IRRI, it’s undervalued because a lot of the women, they work even without pay or they don’t mind being underpaid because they have to help their husbands for the income,” Berna tells me.
“I went to Mount Kanlaon, and the people I went with to harvest were all women. It was very tiring, but you see, women are very precise. When it comes to the planting, the harvesting, and the sorting—they’re all women. Even with cacao and heirloom rice—90 percent of the farmers in the Cordillera are women—even Gaita was so shocked! It’s the men that fix the infrastructure, but more women do the work because they need to help increase the income of their families.” Berna sits me down and looks me in the eye. “Mikka, when you become a mom, you immediately start to think of what you will feed your children everyday—it’ll always be your kids first. It will make you more responsible as an individual. Your priorities will change in a heartbeat. Also, there seems to some extreme meticulous trait in women. When I went to Madrid Fusión in Spain, I met Cory Lee (chef of Benu) and his presentation was all about women divers in Jeju island going underwater for the freshest abalone, uni, and octopus! I think there’s a certain way women dive or get these underwater creatures, which is why only they can do it.”
I ask Berna to tell me more about her trips, and how they relate to today’s local culinary scene.“I think all the chefs are looking for something new. And I noticed that most of the chefs, if they can buy local, will buy local because it’s cheaper and you get to help the farmers. And, I noticed with all the chefs also now, they want to meet the farmers and talk to them. It was Gaita at first who went with me to my trips; but recently, JP Anglo has been asking if he could accompany me next! It’s great because it’s really an experience—you have to experience it! Gaita and I were planting rice. And then, she cried after. She goes, ‘I never thought how hard it was to plant rice.’ And then you tend to value the ingredient more because you realize the work it takes to source the food on your plate.
“I remember we were eating in a group and then, for example, there was a bit of rice left on the plate, and then somebody goes ‘Oy, we have to finish that, it’s so hard to plant rice.’ It gives another dimension. It’s fantastic. It’s like, when you plant with the farmers, you know they’re happy that you’re with them. Some of my friends ask why I don’t bring them along, and so I did. We started to pound rice with the farmers, we sorted seeds…and then my friends discovered ingredients they’ve never tasted before; ingredients that you can only find in that area. My friend swears that the best kutsinta she’s ever had came from one of our trips to Isabela. And then the pancit of Tuguegarao, they call it Batil Patong—wonderful. And then the Pancit Cabagan of Isabela, oh my god. You have to try it!” she beams.
“One of my most unforgettable experiences was when we planted and harvested rice in the rice terraces. When you’re planting, and then you see the rice terraces, you stop because it’s so beautiful. It’s just so breathtaking. Except, dapat nakapaa ka, hindi pwedeng nakaboots. After that, I needed three pedicures because the dirt really seeps into your toes, but I don’t mind. I like planting with the farmers because it’s part of the experience. But don’t be fooled, it gets to me sometimes, too! There was this time I was harvesting coffee with the women farmers in Bukidnon. It took us one hour to get to that place. And when we were in that place already, it took us another 30 minutes to walk there, and two hours harvesting. Tapos pagod na ako. And they go, ‘Ma’am, akyat pa tayo!’ May Arabica pa, because Robusta’s low, Arabica’s high. I go, ‘Okay, gaano kalayo?’ ‘One hour.’ ‘Hindi na, parang awa mo na, ‘wag na!’” Berna laughs as she recalls the memory.
Berna tells me about her visit to one of the several Bukidnon tribes, where she was invited to partake in one of their customs of eating the eyes and feet of a chicken killed in front of her—“they were just boiled and season with a bit of salt!” she tells me. “They said ‘for us to welcome you, you have to eat the eye of the chicken, eat the paa’, ganyan. Each pala has a meaning. Apparently, when you drink wine, it means maturity. Water means to clear the mind. The eye is to see what projects you are planning now and seeing yourself fulfilling them. Yung paa symbolizes ‘walking the talk’. When they were showing me what I was about to eat as part of their ritual—trust me it wasn’t so bad okay?—it was just that I needed to relax a bit and not think about what I was eating. So I started eating the eyes and all these other things that were part of the tribe’s rituals. But then as I reached out to down a glass of water, I didn’t know, vodka pala! You can imagine the state I was in. So kinain ko na lahat, at wala akong paki!”
Chatting with Berna, time didn’t seem to matter. Getting to know about her life’s work was and is indeed an honor. Seldom do you get to chance upon people who are so passionate about what they do, the wouldn’t mind taking the extra mile or getting dirty just gain something that cannot be bought by any amount of money—wisdom through experience. In the business of food, we tend to take a lot of things for granted. Berna’s travels, I believe, teach us otherwis, They help us remember where each bean of coffee is sourced, how each stalk of palay is harvested. They help us to be more mindful and to gain a heightened appreciation of the what we put inside our mouths.