Lugaw for the Dentally Deranged: The Origins of the Beloved Watery Rice PotageMarch 21, 2020
Into a bowl dinner was poured, a watery potage of rice, lambent like a wash of stars, sweetened with wee chunks of dark panutsa (raw sugar); maybe, made sweeter as the doting father teased out for his children the familiar strains of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ followed by an array of kundimanditties from a beat-up piano hugging a corner of the abode that lazed by the bank of Pasig River.
One of those children who subsisted on such humble fare after World War II turned into one of the nation’s captains of industry. His business pursuits, pundits would quip, ‘ran from erection to resurrection’ or a chain of swank motels and memorial parks. And he still wants his father’s piano in which shreds of his soul, by his own admission, swill like lugaw he had learned to love.
Plain lugaw was what a 90-year-old business mogul—of $12 billion estimated net worth—shared for breakfast with a portly newspaper honcho; the latter groaned in disbelief, appetite honed by hoped-for lavish food fare lost at the sight of a spartan meal before him. Lost to him, too, was whatever symbolic significance lugaw can proffer as cud for thought—something so alimentary, about grains or gains with no liquidity problems, the so-called tubong lugaw.
Maybe, the once-dirt-poor-migrant-turned-taipan wanted to acquaint the newsman with the origins of a food staple that nourishes over 3 billion people worldwide—lugaw echoes how the rice crop is nurtured in flooded paddies; sharp stalks reaped by hand, a task that leaves stinging cuts on the wrists; threshed; then, dried for weeks before silicate husks are milled off delicate grains.
Or maybe, one flinches at the horror a dim, grim past held for rice growers, Arroceros, that short stretch of street from the foot of Quezon Bridge to a section of Taft Avenue, Manila. There once sprawled a settlement for outcasts, mostly Chinese migrants, often hauled off by authorities from the walled city of Intramuros to do their wishes and whims. In the 18th century, Dominican friars introduced irrigation to double rice crop yields in outlying farmlands near Manila. As usual, the pariahs were like sheep led to those tilling fields.
Neither fun nor funds were paid for those who did planting in the newly irrigated paddies, the chink-eyed hordes just toiled on; the infirm and sick dropped dying from exhaustion; those who tried to flee were either hacked or shot dead, their guts and gore enriching tracts of farmland. Thus, Arroceros Street honors the nameless hundreds who planted rice including their remains. And as kismet would turn out, karma would be paid throughout the centuries.
Lugaw can be construed as earnest wish for prosperity, plied in feng shui lore as 168 (yi lieu ba, which is too close-sounding to yi lu fa, “make money all the way” or “prosperity all the way”).
The pauper’s recipe thrums with that fond craving—6-8 cups of water thins out a cup of rice, simmered in low heat for up to six hours. Or as long as you wish because the longer it cooks and the grains meld/melt into the broth—now, that’s called congee—the more it harnesses, as those in the know have it, healing powers, including sound health and longevity.
(Recent findings from the Harvard University School of Public Health somehow validate such claims: “For each ounce (28g) of whole grains eaten a day – the equivalent of a small bowl of porridge – the risk of all death was reduced by five per cent and heart deaths by 9 per cent.” Research abstract here: http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2087877).
The basic 168 broth can be spiked with an array of flavors. Once laced with beef or pork sweetbreads, lugaw morphs into goto. With chicken, it becomespospas or the Hispanized misnomer for rice soup, arroz caldo. Or lugaw can be a canvass for a palette of flavors from other ingredients—century egg, lotus seeds, coriander, watercress, bean curd, bamboo shoots, fish flakes, dried seaweeds, shrimps, dates, sausages… the possibilities that threadbare simplicity offers are endless.
Rice, of the grass family, is also known as Oryza sativa—which leaves most people wondering if it is a next of kin to Cannabis sativa.