Nilupak: A Rite of Manly Passage in BatangasFebruary 23, 2020
When making nilupak, in goes an ingredient called ‘musa sapientum’ or ‘the fruit of wise men’—or simply, bananas. No, not mushy ripe ones; the mealy sort, sans any hint of yellow in the pulp, more insipid than sweet, which makes a perfect basic ingredient for the chewy delight that takes a whit of eternity to churn up.
Sure, it would take maybe an hour or two—easier, too—for a gourmand with a food processor to whip to a smoothie all the ingredients that make up nilupak. But that would be a travesty, an anachronism to nilupak, Tagalog for ‘pound to a paste.’ Easy processing loses all the food for thought. Homespun lessons winnow out like rough morsels when the pounding is done the old-fashioned way—by hand, because manual is manly—and the process is construed by Batangueño old-timers as a passage.
The crucible into which the ingredients go into proffers a riddle for rite participants: ‘Kung malalim ang kay nanang, mahaba ang kay tatang (if granny’s is of a deep bottom, gramps has a length to fathom).’ An elder plies that out to break the ice, even to elicit a brink of laughter from a gaggle of maidens watching from the sidelines as the first batch of ingredients are poured into the hollow of a mortar—most are hewn from a tamarind tree trunk—while the first pair of maglulupak (pounders) prepare for a go, man equipped with a heavy wooden pestle, maiden with the ingredients on hand. The risqué riddle refers to the mortar-and-pestle ensemble; wordplay might as well be foreplay.
Into this gathering that tests one’s mettle and stamina I found myself with a Batangueña maiden that had me smitten; it was back in the 1970s, the quaint food rite or madness of method to wring out a man’s staying power unreeled beneath a stand of barako coffee trees at the home yard of a friend in Luta del Sur, Malvar, Batangas—with meaningful glances swapped between elders and the young. Well, it turns out the test is done in other far-flung villages in balisong (fan blade) country as a rite of courtship.
First, my maiden deposits the main ingredients into the mortar’s gaping hollow— wedges of boiled saba bananas and cassava, handfuls of grated young coconut. Next, my move: bash, bash, bash… smash, smash, smash… mash, mash, mash…
Time crawls like trickles of perspiration on one’s back. Gags and laughs galore: “Is your tool getting stuck in that hole?” “Getting so hard to take it out now?” “That’s the way to do it, rotate your pestle a bit, rotate.” “That’s such a sweet, sweaty thing to do.”
A bit of respite after the first ingredients are pounded to a smooth paste, as my ladylove has to slather into that amalgam a few tablespoons of sugar, pinches of salt, dabs of margarine.
After a few seconds rest, there’ll be more of that bash-mash-smash that turns the mixture to a smooth consistency. Thank you to the basics of kendo which helps me muster reserves of stamina. I use a bamboo splitting technique: keep a firm grip on the pestle, allow its weight (not force of arms) to do the bashing; keep a smooth flowing rhythm using the hips as follow-through to the pounding motion.
And the elders—and what you deemed then as the love of your wretched life— keenly watch, grin, and nod approvingly at how you endure the ordeal, without a whimper, without a plaint.
And to this day they tell straight to my face that, after having gone through that sinew-sapping rigmarole for a recipe, I must be good in bed. That translates in elegant Tagalog as mabait ‘pag tulog.