Rather than the overworked adobo (so identified as the Philippine stew in foreign cookbooks), sinigang seems to me the dish most representative of Filipino taste. We like the lightly boiled, the slightly soured, the dish that includes fish (or shrimp or meat) vegetables and broth. It is adaptable to all tastes ( if you don’t like shrimp, then bangus, or pork), to all classes and budgets, (even ayungin, in humble little piles, find their way into the pot), to seasons and availability (walang talong, mahal ang gabi? angkong na lang! ). But why? Why does sinigang find its way to bare dulang, to formica-topped restaurant booth, to gleaming ilustrado table? Why does one like anything at all? How is a people’s taste shaped? But still, why soured? Aside from the fact that sour broths are cooling in hot weather, could it be perhaps because the dish is meant to be eaten against the mild background of rice? Easy to plant and harvest, and allowing more than one crop a year, rice is ubiquitous on the landscape.
One can picture our ancestors settling down beside their rivers and finally tuning to the cultivation of fields, with rice as one of the first steady crops. RICE Rice to us is more than basic cereal, for as constant background, steady accompaniment; it is also the shaper of other food, and of tastes. We not only sour, but also salt (daing, tuyo, bagoong) because the blandness of rice suggests the desirability of sharp contrast.
Rice can be ground into flour and thus the proliferation of puto; the mildly sweet Putong Polo, the banana leaf-encased Manapla variety; puto filled with meat or flavored with ube; puto in cakes or wedges, white or brown eaten with dinuguan orsalabat. THE GREENERY The landscape also offers the vines, shrubs, fields, forest and tress from which comes the galaxy of gulay with which we are best all year round. “Back home,” an American friend commented. ” All we use from day to day are peas, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and very few others. The dietarily uninhibited Filipino, on the other hand, recognizes the succulence of roots (gabi, ube, kamote); the delicacy and flavor of leaves (pechay, dahong bawang,kintsay, pako, malunggay) and tendrils (talbos ng ampalaya, kalabasa, sayote); the bounty of fruits (not only upo and kalabasa, talong and ampalaya, but also desserts likelangka and banana, which double as vegetables; and the excitement of flowers like karutayand kalabasa.
Long, long ago there lived at the foot of the mountain a poor farmer and hisaged, widowed mother. They owned a bit of land which supplied them withfood, and their humble were peaceful and happy. Shinano was governed by a despotic leader who though a warrior, had agreat and cowardly shrinking from anything suggestive of failing health andstrength. This caused him to send out a cruel proclamation. The entireprovince was given strict orders to immediately put to death all agedpeople. Those were barbarous days, and the custom of abandoning oldpeople to die was not common.
The poor farmer loved his aged mother withtender reverence, and the order filled his heart with sorrow. But no one everthought a second time about obeying the mandate of the governor, so withmany deep hopeless sighs, the youth prepared for what at that time wasconsidered the kindest mode of death. Just at sundown, when his day’s work was ended, he took a quantity of unwhitened rice which is principal food for poor, cooked and dried it, andtying it in a square cloth, swung and bundle around his neck along with agourd filled with cool, sweet water.
Then he lifted his helpless old mother tohis back and stated on his painful journey up the mountain. The road waslong and steep; the narrowed road was crossed and reclosed by many pathsmade by the hunters and woodcutters. In some place, they mingled in aconfused puzzled, but he gave no heed. One path or another, it matterednot. On he went, climbing blindly upward towards the high bare summit of what is know as Obatsuyama, the mountain of the “abandoning of aged”.
The eyes of the old mother were not so dim but that they noted the recklesshastening from one path to another, and her loving heart grew anxious. Herson did not know the mountain’s many paths and his return might be one of danger, so she stretched forth her hand and snapping the twigs frombrushes as they passed, she quietly dropped a handful every few steps of the way so that they climbed, the narrow path behind them was dotted atfrequently intervals with tiny piles of twigs. At last the summit was reached.
Weary and heart sick, the youth gently released his burden and silentlyprepared a place of comfort as his last duty to the loved one. Gatheringfallen pine needle, he made a soft cushion and tenderly lifting his oldmother therein, he wrapped her padded coat more closely about thestooping shoulders and with tearful eyes and an aching heart said farewell. The trembling mother’s voice was full of unselfish love as she gave her lastinjunction. “Let not thine eyes be blinded, my son. ”