Penman No. 310: Tacloban’s Worthier Wonders

Merlie

Penman for Monday, July 9, 2018

 

ONE OF the pleasures of our recent visit to Tacloban was meeting up with two friends—the cultural scholar and UP Tacloban Humanities Division head Joycie Dorado Alegre, and the poet and Professor Emeritus Merlie M. Alunan. Beng and I made sure to spend an extra day in Leyte to see the UP Health Sciences campus in Palo, the fabulous Palo Cathedral, and other landmarks close to Tacloban. We’d already visited the Sto. Niño (ie, the Marcos) Shrine and the next-door Public Library—both of them in a rather sorry state, as I reported last week. But going around town with longtime locals like Joycie and Merlie revealed worthier wonders.

We made sure to visit other tourist staples such as the Macarthur Landing Memorial Park in Palo—an impressive work by the late sculptor Anastacio Caedo, better known for his plaster busts of a pensive Jose Rizal, one of which I keep in my home office as a kind of conscience. (Though no blushing fan of the famously vainglorious general, I’d been intrigued enough by MacArthur’s Philippine connections to visit his museum and tomb in Norfolk, Virginia.) I tried hard to recreate the tableau of ships massing on Leyte Gulf, only to have my musings spoiled by a tourist and his girlfriend wading into the pool in mock fatigues and rubber boots, posing with fake firearms.

But this was tragedy on a diminutive note compared to what no one visiting Tacloban can escape—the howling hell that was supertyphoon Yolanda and the many thousands of deaths it left in its wake. As we passed one traffic island after another—with the grass almost strangely manicured and impeccably garbage-free—Joycie or Merlie would tell us, “Those islands became mass graves. There are people buried there.”

A more formal and movingly expressive memorial to the lost lay farther on in Tanauan, in artist Kublai Millan’s sculpture built on yet another mass grave. Everywhere we drove on that coastal plain, the surging sea had swept people and whole families away, and while the city seemed to have regained its equanimity and was bravely soldiering on five years after, there was a hole in its heart still aching to be filled.

Merlie herself had gone through a recent personal tragedy, with the sudden passing of her beloved son Ebeb. Even as Yolanda had spared her, living as she did on higher ground, she couldn’t have foreseen this dark turn down the road. (She had lost her father and five other family members in the Ormoc City flood of 1991.) She was still clearly grieving, but had gone out of her way to entertain us, and perhaps thereby also entertain herself.

Nothing can ever compensate for the loss of family, but Merlie was threading a way forward, in that way uniquely accessible to artists. Every true work of art is an affirmation of life, and in Merlie’s case, she has art aplenty to affirm life with. To begin with, there’s nothing literally closer to life than food, and for almost two decades now, Merlie and her enterprising children have built up one of Tacloban’s best-loved restaurant chains, headlined by the now-iconic Ayo Café along Ninoy Aquino Avenue.

Ayo (the name derives from the Visayan term for “good”) serves food as familiar as Spanish sardines, lumpia, roast chicken, and burgers at prices that won’t make you weep, but with a twist—the twist being that it’s cooked and presented just scrumptiously right, with the choicest ingredients, in servings large enough for take-home leftovers. I’d heard about Ayo before from friends who’d been there (Merlie proudly keeps a guest book signed by writers and artists), and while I may have initially accepted her invitation out of friendship, I’ll be seeking it out on my own on my next Tacloban sortie (and I insisted on paying for our merienda to emphasize my patronage).

The Ayo interlude also allowed us to discover another of Merlie’s less-known talents as a visual artist who paints and also does plant sculptures. I asked her to pose for a picture beside one of her works, and learned that this was something she had been doing since her years in Dumaguete, perhaps again as a refuge or respite of sorts from the travails of daily life.

Of course it’s her poetry that Merlie Alunan is best appreciated for (one of her poems, “Young Man in a Jeepney,” has been a perennial on my syllabus), and her sixth poetry collection, Running with Ghosts (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2017) is understandably heavy with waterborne death. But as she points out at the close of her title poem, life will go on, in all its bewildering indifference:

Grass sow their seeds over the turned earth,

The graves are greening in the seasonal rain.

Everyday we run with ghosts by our side.

God is silent. as ever blameless and inscrutable.

Penman No. 213: Artisanal Delights at Salcedo

IMG_9208.JPG

Penman for August 22, 2016

 

LIKE MANY Manileños, my wife Beng and I had heard of the famous and fabulous Salcedo Weekend Market in Makati but had never gone there, being staunch northerners who refuse to brave the EDSA traffic, even on weekends, if we could avoid it. But curiosity and circumstance finally forced us to relent a few Saturdays ago, the circumstance being a friend’s offer of a room at a nearby hotel that she and her husband weren’t going to be using.

That sounded to us like “Staycation!” so we jumped at the chance. This same friend—she’s in the travel business and gets around—had done us a similar favor a few months earlier as a Valentines’ Day treat for a pair of arthritic lovebirds. Since the room was huge and free, Beng promptly called her sister Mimi and Mimi’s kids and granddaughter Sophie to share the day with us, the idea being to walk a couple of blocks to the Salcedo Market, pick out whatever we wanted for lunch, then lay it all out on the long table and dive in.

IMG_9209.JPG

And that’s exactly what happened. The Salcedo Market opens at 6 and closes at 2, so Beng and I decided to take a sneak peek right after breakfast, before the rest of the family arrived all the way from Tierra Pura. Sure enough, even at that hour and with a slight drizzle threatening, scores of vendors had already set up shop under canvas tents spread out on what, on weekdays, is a parking lot close to the Makati Sports Club.

As I often point out in this corner, I’m no foodie—I’m an instant-ramen and canned-sardines sort of fellow for whom a trip to a food market might be like that of a heathen to the Vatican—but I’m addicted to food shows on TV the way some people can’t get their fill of horror movies, and am always curious to see what’s out there. Beng, on the other hand, will try and eat anything short of the rotten shark that seems to be all the rage in Iceland, and she has to catch me in a good mood so I can graciously agree to step into a restaurant where they serve pizza (I hate cheese), so the Salcedo Market sortie was, for her, sheer, exultant liberation.

What immediately struck me, despite what I just said about my aversion for fine dining, was how many options there were for plain-food folks like me on offer—burgers, lechon, smoked fish, pancit, siopao, barbecue, and such familiar staples. What lifted them above the ordinary was the freshness and sometimes uniqueness of the ingredients—many were cooked on the spot—and the assurance that you weren’t going to make hourly runs to the bathroom later in the day. Knowing that I had a mound of work waiting for me in our hotel, I loaded up on lechon, corn on the cob, fresh jackfruit, and breadsticks to nibble on, while Beng chose the fresh Chinese lumpia. Mimi and her brood arrived, and I let the sisters drool over the fish curry, the lamb kebab, the laing with daing, the vodka tinapa, the malunggay pesto, and the other more exotic fare.

That was the Salcedo market scene for the most part—good food done well (and whether I liked it or not was irrelevant; seeing Beng’s eyes light up at the culinary pageant was well worth the trip), and home-cooked and artisanal food you just can’t order from a fastfood joint. I hate to think about what had to happen to produce my take-home kilo of tapang usa—Beng didn’t appreciate my Bambi jokes—but it was heaven on the tongue.

This was where a short walk back to the dinner table rounded out our Salcedo experience. There’s a cluster of tables in the center of the weekend market where you can gorge instantly on your selections, but given how many of us there were and how much food we’d amassed, we appreciated the luxury of a long table with complete cutlery in our lodgings just minutes away.

IMG_9222.JPG

That abode, not incidentally, was Fraser Place Manila—and to call it a “hotel” frankly wouldn’t do it justice. Sometimes you just want a room, any room, to crash into for the night. Some other times, you want more than just a hotel—a place not just to stay but to actually live in, for a few days to weeks to months, maybe even years. (I’d learn from the staff that a couple upstairs checked in ten years ago—and liked the place so much they never left!)

The Fraser—part of a Singapore-based global chain—calls itself a “serviced apartment,” and as soon as we stepped into our two-bedroom suite, we could see why: the 180-sqm enclave was really a virtual house, with a complete kitchen, laundry, three toilets and baths plus another john for guests, and quarters for a housekeeper or caregiver. All your needs were attended to by the staff, the wi-fi was free and strong, and aside from the Salcedo Weekend Market, a host of other restaurants and facilities could easily be accessed in the neighborhood.

But who needs restaurants when, like us, you could bring in loads of choice take-out meals and groceries? It made me smile to see a guest cross the lobby with a bag of veggies and what could have been fresh fish—as only a hotel with a full kitchen could allow. (I also heard dogs yapping faintly in the hallways—the Fraser is pet-friendly, but no cobras please.)

IMG_9221.JPG

 

There were a couple of downsides to consider, and it’s best to put them out front. Fraser Place Manila isn’t exactly located in what you’d call Makati’s trendiest corner. It stands across a row of office buildings, separated from them by a parking lot. It doesn’t have a penthouse bar or restaurant with a 360-degree view where you can party with your gang until the wee hours. (Cravings does operate a restaurant on the 33rd floor, beside the pool.)

But it’s these very “minuses” that guarantee peace and quiet, which Beng and I appreciated later that evening after our visitors had left and as I typed away on a book project and Beng worked on a painting for a forthcoming exhibit. It also means (of course I had to ask) that we could’ve gotten our princely suite for less than what we recently paid for a small room at an airport hotel near LAX.

Some days, Makati might as well be as far as LAX for us Dilimanians, but we’ll be sure to be back for more of Salcedo. Watch out, Bambi!

 

IMG_9203.JPG

Penman No. 83: A Bag of Bread

IMG_20140110_155634Penman for Monday, January 27, 2014

ONE OF the most delightful gifts that Beng and I got a couple of weeks ago for my 60th birthday and our 40th wedding anniversary was a bag of oven-fresh bread, accompanied by a handwritten letter. I found the bread so literally warm, and the letter and its contents so unique, that I secured the permission of the sender to reproduce it for this column. It’s a testament to the persistence of good things and good intentions—and, of course, of good people in a world too often and too crassly ruled by the bottom line.

In part, the letter said: “I’m sending traditional pan de suelo breads which are pugon-baked on the suelo or floor of the 75-year-old wood-fired oven of Kamuning Bakery. The crust is crunchier and it should be reheated with a toaster and not with a microwave oven. Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez, and others of past generations have written about this pan de suelo bread of the Philippines.

“I bought Kamuning Bakery just before Christmas, and have kept the old owners as minority shareholders so they can continue the traditions and tastes of this bakery. I also bought the land and old building. I invested here because I believe in the old owners, the pugon bakers who are artists and the staff with their unique commitment to their craft and vocation. I want to support this independent pugon bakery with their traditional no-preservative and no-additive Filipino breads, despite the huge challenges of this era of big multinationals, bakery chains and supermarkets and their mass-produced factory or industrial breads.”

2014-01-16 22.41.53

The sender of the bread and the letter was none other than my fellow STAR columnist Wilson Lee Flores, business chronicler extraordinaire and confidant of Filipino taipans. Wilson may move in those lofty circles, but his feet remain solidly on the ground—in this case, Kamuning and the oven floor on which pan de suelo is baked, unlike the more familiar pan de sal, which comes to life on metal trays. (Incidentally, many young Filipinos probably don’t know that kamuning—like the kamias that lends its name to the same street across EDSA—is a plant, Murraya paniculata, with tiny and fragrant white flowers.)

The Kamuning district is one of Quezon City’s oldest—in fact, the bakery was put up in its present location in 1939, when the city itself was established—and while modernization has inexorably overtaken many other parts of the city, Kamuning has managed to retain some of its 1940s charm and character, an effect assisted by the proliferation of antique and resale shops and even a vintage-car restoration outfit in the neighborhood.

You can’t get more original than Kamuning Bakery, which has stayed pretty much as it was when it opened. It’s been kept alive by the seventy-ish Ted Javier and his sister Beth Javier Africa, the son and daughter of the late Atty. Leticia “Letty” Bonifacio Javier, who co-founded the bakery with her husband Lt. Marcelo Javier.  Wilson tells the rest of the story: “It was President Quezon’s close ally Alejandro Roces, Sr. who suggested to the Bonifacio family of Los Baños Bakery that they open the new city’s first bakery. So they sent their newly-married daughter Atty. Leticia Bonifacio Javier and her husband Marcelo, who founded Kamuning Bakery.” Sadly, however, Marcelo, his father-in-law Major Miguel Bonifacio, and another of Ted’s uncles were killed by the Japanese during the Second World War.

So it fell to Letty to keep the bakery going with the help, in time, of her three young children, producing pan de suelo, described by Wilson as the “fist-sized version of pan de sal with a hard and crisp crust,” and of which Nick Joaquin wrote “colegialas got their gums toughened on their segundo almuerzo in the morning and, with hot chocolate, their meriendas in the afternoon.”

Indeed it was all the crunchy goodness that Wilson and Mang Nick promised, but don’t take it just from me. Just last month, a blogger named Tummy Traveler reported, after receiving her own gift bag of the bread, that “The pan de suelo was toasted just right. Just the right amount of crunch on the outside yet the bread still had that delicious moistness and softness on the inside. It had a faint hint of sweetness that went well with the salty corned beef together with my freshly brewed coffee and sausage.”

If all this sounds like a shameless plug, it is. Let’s help Wilson Lee Flores help keep a family and Pinoy tradition alive. I’m already planning a sortie there this weekend with Beng to stock up on the good stuff, and to visit an antique shop or two while we’re in the area. Kamuning Bakery can be found on 43 Judge Jimenez corner K-1st Street, one street inward on the left somewhere between EDSA and Tomas Morato, telephone 929-2216. They also have a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/kamuningbakery1939.

IMG_6589

WHILE I’M writing about bread and giving thanks to friends, let me thank another fantastic baker, Theresa Juguan, who with her family and husband Herwig hosted me and Beng in their home in Puerto Princesa over the post-Christmas break. A few months earlier, we had been first-time guests at their seaside villa just outside Puerto, and we struck up such a rapport that Theresa and Beng now call each other “sister.” I’ve also urged Theresa to write her cookbook-cum-autobiography, with her life-story being as remarkable as her cooking and baking.

What I most enjoyed about this second visit, though, was playing “Tito Butch” to Theresa’s granddaughters, particularly five-year-old Zanique and her elder sister Zitroenne and cousin Zantelle, who amazed me with their precociousness. Since the in-house wifi was down, my MacBook Air—hooked up to cellular Internet—became the center of the girls’ attention. “Tito Butch,” they cried, “we want to play! Can we use your computer?” “Sure,” I said, “where do you want to go?” And here’s what floored me: these girls knew what a URL was and could recite it by heart: “W-W-W-dot-Y-8-dot-com!”

So I keyed in the address and sure enough, a website for online games popped up. “Go to Games for Girls!” shrieked the kids, and so we did, and they quickly zoomed in on “Cooking Games,” which featured the step-by-step cooking and baking of everything from spicy corn and shrimp salad to tiramisu. “You cook this,” said Zanique, “and I’ll cook this!” And so they did, in all earnestness, arguing over the sequencing and the measuring of the ingredients. (Beng and I had watched Zanique stick by her grandma in the kitchen, helping with the making of fresh lumpia and admonishing a tita who was going about it the wrong way.)

Thus are great cooks and bakers and great traditions made.