Eating Rotten Rice with the Ayta Tribe in Porac, PampangaNovember 19, 2014
My dad is from Pampanga, but my experiences with the province have only been relegated to Christmases, important birthdays, and a gathering every few months, if lucky. When I was younger, I was always unexcited at the prospect of gathering my wits and planting my behind in a seat for the 3-4 hour long journey, and as a result, the ride always felt more business than pleasure. Appreciating the culture and food came years later, when I was much more educated; buro was no longer just weird, rotten rice, but a beautifully pungent, fermented dish of shrimp and rice with the texture of an al dente risotto. Over the years, I wanted to reeducate myself, and view this piece of my history with a much more candid eye. I tried to join my dad more frequently on trips, but we hardly ever ventured out of his hometown, Angeles City, rarely eating out of my Kapampangan comfort zone.
I feel a little ashamed that it was work that got me to explore more of the province, but what other pretense would I have? It was an excuse to get myself up the mountains to Porac, and visit a community of Aytas who were cooking the way their ancestors did, and experience parts of my culture that even my Kapampangan father was far removed from.
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Our first meeting had been tense. A scholar working on a book on the Aytas had given me the number of a tribe leader in Porac, but when I visited him, he was angry and upset. Someone warned me beforehand that they were wary of outsiders, but not like this—as it turns out, the scholar had taken unauthorised photos and recipes, and published them for profit without giving any portion to the struggling community. It was hard to convince him otherwise, especially when the blueprint before me was so negative, and when the tribal leader felt we would only exploit him. Eventually I told him that this piece would only be about their food, I would get their permission first, and that I wouldn’t make any money out of this, but if I did I would give compensation.
Weeks later, going up the same path I felt a sense of dread, with friends in tow. I had an idea that a friend of mine, Chef Chele Gonzalez, would exchange his style of cooking with that of the locals. We would learn the most basic, primitive form of cooking, and they would learn from one another, with his ultra-modern background providing the perfect stark contrast. Documenting it was the real worry; I was afraid that they would approach us with animosity, but instead, that ever-famous Kapampangan hospitality presented itself. They were planning a spread that only happened during fiestas, just to welcome the curious outsiders who were really just inquisitive wanderers disturbing their peace.
Today, they were making binulo. Men were chopping bamboo, which would be used to cook the pork, fish, and chicken. The preparation methods were all the same—the meat was stuffed down the hollow tube, then alternated with leaves that grew only in that region. Water was then poured in, banana leaves rammed as a makeshift cover, then the wood was buried in hot coals, or placed directly on top of the fire. Each meat had a specific leaf that it was cooked with: kalibangbang, a large, slightly furry leaf with purple veins went with the pork, bangyad (a native lemongrass) with the chicken, and the smaller leaves of pingol bato with fish, to erase the greasiness. Each leaf served the same purpose, as a souring agent, which made it taste like the Ayta’s version of sinigang. The kalibangbang was subtle, with the acidity akin to that of a slight squeeze of dayap in the broth. Others had a more vinegary finish, but all lighter than the acrid punch of tamarind which we favor in the city. It was mind-boggling to see ingredients I’d never seen on our shores used this way; they were picked from the ground, treated with respect, and were used to heal the community by gathering the tiny village together.
There were rituals too, which made me feel as if I had walked in on secrets they kept only to themselves. If they had to spend days in the mountains, the captain narrated, they needed to survive off the land alone. Nothing goes to waste. With a makeshift bow and arrow carved from fallen branches and sharpened rocks, they pierced the throat of a chicken, then twisted its tiny, feathered head to complete the process and stop it from squealing like a pig. This was much harder to do with frogs, they told me, which were often the only animals one could catch while in the wild. They held the bird by the neck, letting the blood drain until it was pallid, then plucked its plume from the ruffled pores in scalding water. They taught us, too, that the bamboo served many purposes: it was also responsible for the fire. The strongest men hacked until the wood was thin, taking either end of a giant piece then rubbing them together in a sawing motion until friction led to flame.
Once the bamboo was lifted from the fire, we helped set the table, covering it in sheets of banana leaves. First, the rice, which had been wrapped in the banana leaf then steamed inside the bamboo. Then one by one, the dishes were poured into bowls—fish with pingol bato, chicken with bangyad, pork with kalibangbang. The rice had moulded itself together, alternating between hard and sticky. It was slightly fragrant, with the perfumed aroma of banana leaf permeating the roof of the mouth, back into the nose. Each dish had different subtleties, with the sourness of its respective leaf distinct in each cooked flesh. It was simple, comforting, but entirely decadent in the setting. No one talked, and when I asked for a drink, an Ayta elder taught me to fold the leaf on the table, and pour water to drink. Like they said, nothing goes to waste.
I was meant to write something that compared modern cooking to the most basic tenets of the process, but I came back weeks later, when Chele told me that the head chef of Mugaritz, Julieta Caruso, was coming to town. They were going to spend months travelling across the Philippines discovering familiar and forgotten traditions, and he knew he needed to bring her there. I felt more connected to them this time, speaking bits of the language, trying to understand as my tito translated what little Kapampangan I understood. They were warmer this time, with no cameras around, and spent their time carving bamboo, turning them into makeshift mugs, while the children painted flowers into their wooden pulp. We could hardly understand each other, but the food brought us strangers together, the same smiles of contentment as each binulo was emptied of its juice, identical sounds of relief as the steamed fish filled our bellies. As I sat with the captain’s young daughter, digging our hands into the flesh of hot plantains he had just roasted over the fire, I knew I couldn’t write about anything else. This piece was about home.