In a story written for a magazine, Rodessa Dauigoy Lachica once ordered binallay con laro, a Lenten specialty from Isabela, her home province. Relatives obliged her, even if it meant cooking the dish out of season.
Lachica wrote about a type of kakanin (rice cake), a delicacy of the Ibanag, an ethno-linguistic group in the provinces of Cagayan, Isabela and Nueva Vizcaya. Its language sounds like birds chirping, the words coming in fast and high-pitched. Lachica’s essay won first place in the 2006 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez (DGF) Food Writing Award.
When the packet arrived, it was wrapped, like most rice cakes, in banana leaves. What’s inside looked like suman or biko, but white and shaped like a rectangular pillow. Lachica said that binallay is made from malagkit (sticky rice) ground into white powder, then added with water, kneaded, shaped and steamed.
In a separate container was the laro, or syrup. Lachica noted that probably only an Ibanag could prepare it correctly because the laro has to be blood red, “almost watery and not too sweet.” It’s made by boiling coconut milk until the oil is expressed, then adding sugar or molasses.
For Holy Week, Lachica said that only binallay con laro will be eaten in most traditional Ibanag homes. Like all ritual food, there is meaning to how the food is eaten. With the binallay con laro, it’s the method of unwrapping, separating the sticky rice from the banana leaf, which is not an easy task. “The challenging process… is said to be symbolic of the Ibanag’s persevering nature and close kinship,” wrote Lachica.
Fish and Lent go together in Catholic tradition. Avoiding meat was known as abstinence, and all Fridays were for fasting and abstinence. Mark Kurlansky, in his book “Cod” (Penguin, 1997), wrote how the Basques were given their “great opportunity” because they supplied the “salted cod” or bacalao, year-round.
In the past I had written that bacalao was never cooked in my family, but it seems that in Cavite, it’s a Holy Week ritual dish.
The Chavacano way
Ige Ramos’ winning essay, also in the 2006 DGF Food Writing Award, was about cooking bacalao the Chavacano way. (Chavacano—pidgin Spanish interspersed with Tagalog words—is the language of Zamboanga.) The basic procedure is much like the Basque way, desalinating the fish with several changes of water, then cooking it in sizzling oil that gives the dish its name, pil pil, because of the hissing sound.
Ramos wrote how the fish is moved in the pan “in a circular motion over low fire until the oil takes on a dull matte yellow color.” The Chavacano way cooks in the oil “garlic, onion, tomato, bell pepper, chili pepper and bay leaf,” plus softened chickpeas and green olives later. Adding potatoes, he said, is an influence from Mexico.
Over the years Ramos has seen some changes in this process. Economic necessity has allowed for the substitution of daing na labahita (salted dried sturgeon fish) for bacalao. Tomato sauce is now used in lieu of fresh tomatoes, or achuete (annatto) for its
Ramos said that bacalao then was cooked only on Good Friday. Lourdes Basa Sta. Maria said the same thing, as Felice Prudente Sta. Maria would write in her essay, Filipino Cod Stew, in “Slow Food: Philippine Culinary Traditions” (Anvil, 2005). Bacalao a la Vizcaina was the reward for the sacrifice of “praying more than usual, stemming laughter, and wearing somber clothing.”
The Sta. Maria family has roots in “San Roque town near La Puerta, Cavite City, gateway of the Manila Galleon trade route,” where the bacalao must have passed through from the Basques in Europe to Mexico to Cavite City. While the Basques used choricero peppers (Capsicum annum), Lourdes Basa Sta. Maria substituted that with bell pepper or canned pimento peppers from Spain.
The family bacalao is described as “chunks of cod” with “golden-orange oil,” where “potatoes fried in olive oil and lots of chickpeas” were served on the side with “cabbage and other green vegetables dressed in olive oil and vinegar.”
While that seems indulgent for an ascetic Holy Week, Digon Vocalan in Angono, Rizal, found an alternative in sardines, cooking it in various ways. Fish was expensive and hard to come by during the week when fishermen stayed home, so the substitute was canned fish.
Vocalan, whose Balaw Balaw restaurant used to host breakfast after the Salubong rites on Easter Sunday, said sardine was used to flavor pancit sotanghon, or rolled in lumpia wrapper, or served as soup by adding water to the already rich flavors of sardine sauce.
My own sardine recipe is from a cousin who adds soy sauce and vinegar to the sauce.