Looking Back

Our ‘balimbing’ is the Coromandel gooseberry


In the past 10 months at Sophia University in Tokyo, my host professor Takefumi Terada, dean of the faculty of Foreign Studies, has patiently rounded off my culinary education by pushing me out of the Pinoy comfort zone that is familiar with tempura, sushi, sashimi, tonkatsu, ramen,  and karaage chicken. While I am normally adventurous and have tried whale and horse sashimi, my Pinoy upbringing makes me wary of chicken sashimi, as well as the gooey, stinky fermented soybean called “natto.” When confronted with a new dish, I convince myself that we only live once and should taste anything at least once. After all, it is easy to force it down the throat with a cold drink. If it’s truly inedible, you can politely spit it out. Once out of your comfort zone, you may actually like the new and unfamiliar.

Natto I tried once. It’s not bad, but I’m not excited to have it again. In our home I’m the only one who doesn’t eat durian because I prefer marang. It’s not the smell of the durian that sets me off, or the taste, which is quite good; what I find disgusting is the texture. Food to one is indeed poison to another.

The Japanese food that comes closest to Philippine food is from Okinawa, whose people share the Pinoy love for luncheon meat aka Spam. In the Philippines we have Spam for breakfast, straight out of the square can and into the frying pan, sometimes rolled in scrambled egg and served with fried rice. At our favorite izakaya they serve Spam rolled in batter and deep-fried, making it a tonkatsu Spam that Pinoys will like, though I find it a bit too oily.

Among Okinawan food, the dishes that I have learned to like are a fermented tofu that has the taste and consistency of cream cheese and the braised pork liempo called “rafute” that will melt in your mouth, not on your chopsticks. Once the pork fat in between the meat has melted from slow cooking, the dish becomes a cross between our adobo and humba. Chanpuru, the signature dish of Okinawa, is a stir-fry that contains Spam and vegetables like goya (ampalaya). For once in my life I actually liked ampalaya because the Okinawan dish seemed to have squeezed out most of the bitterness from it. Now that I can eat ampalaya, the only thing I have to work on is okra, which I find disgusting because it has fur outside and is slimy inside. But then in a tempura I can eat okra, therefore cooking can transform food we don’t like into something more palatable.

Whenever we eat out I enrich my vocabulary by learning the Japanese names for different fruits, vegetables and meat. This reminded me of the “List of Philippine Agricultural products” compiled by F. Lamson-Scribner for the Bureau of Agriculture in the early 1900s. This engaging list provides the Latin scientific names of familiar fruits and vegetables in the Philippines and some unfamiliar English names as well. For example, calabasang pula (red squash) and calabasang puti (white squash) are on the list. Their difference is not just in color because the red one is a real squash, while the calabasang puti is better known to us as upo. To complicate things, there even is calabasang bilog.

Guyabano is often translated as sour sop because the sweet sop is atis aka sugar apple. My mother used to translate atis as custard apple, which turned out to be anonas. Ampalaya we translate as bitter melon or amargoso in Spanish, but in English it’s supposed to be balsam apple! Duhat is Jambolan plum (from its Latin name Eugenia Jambolana), while the tampoy, a fruit I have never come across except for a reference in Rizal’s juvenile diary, is a relative of the duhat because its Latin name is Eugenia Jambos with a choice of English names: rose apple or jamrosade. Our makopa is Eugenia Malaccensis, whose Cuban name is pomarosa and English name is otaheite apple.

Latin names sometimes result in common names. Phaseolus mungo is the common mungo, mongo or balatong. Latin names can also mislead, as in Averrhoa bilimbi, which doesn’t translate into the balimbing that gives you a sour star-shape treat when sliced, but its cousin, the kamias aka cucumber tree. Balimbing is Averrhoa carambola, which is a good description of both fruit and political turncoat. In English, balimbing is Coromandel gooseberry!

Musa paradisiaca is the scientific name for banana, or platano in Spanish. The reference to paradise comes from the tradition that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in Asia and that the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate of was neither a delicious red apple nor a fig but either a banana or a mango. There are several banana varieties in the Philippines: saguing, latundan (named after a Frenchman Le Tondal), saba, saba iloco, Musa paradisiaca lacatan, tondoc, Musa paradisiaca maxima Batavia, platano de mono (monkey banana), platano colorado (colored banana), platano morado (purple banana), Musa paradisiaca suaveolens (bungulam, whatever that means) and finally Musa paradisiaca Ternatensis aka gloria. Where do “señorita” banana, Chiquita banana, and Cavendish banana come in?

Camoteng cahoy we know as cassava, but it is also known as Adam’s needle. So much to learn, so little time. This obsolete botanical list will definitely raise my Scrabble scores.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , column , coromandel gooseberry , Filipino food , ‘balimbing’

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