‘Oh my gulay!’
“Oh my gulay!” is an expression I often hear from those who believe “OMG” goes against the Third Commandment; it may not be blasphemy, but it does make reference to God in vain.
“Oh my gulay!” is Taglish and relatively new compared to older expressions that refer to nature, farm animals or fish, like balat-sibuyas (thin- or onion-skinned) and its opposite, balat-kalabaw, which refers to the thick, dark and ugly hide of the carabao, the principal beast of burden in the Philippines before the tractor came along in the last century.
Thanks to a Facebook post by Tippi de la Rosa, former agriculture attaché in our Tokyo Embassy, I was reminded that not all history comes from libraries and archives. Some of it can be extracted from the simplest things, like everyday expressions or folk songs we learn in the cradle.
All Filipinos know the folk song “Bahay Kubo,” which got its title, as papal encyclicals do, from its opening words: “Bahay kubo/ kahit munti/ Ang halaman doon/ ay sari-sari.” The song is not about a small nipa hut but the vegetables that grow all around it, so it should be better known as “Oh My Gulay.”
The catalog runs: “Singkamas at talong/ sigarilyas at mani/ sitaw, bataw, patani.” The second part of the song lists more: “Kundol, patola/ upo’t kalabasa/ at saka mayroon pa/ labanos, mustasa/ sibuyas, kamatis/ bawang at luya/ sa paligid-ligid ay puno ng linga.”
If you take the trouble to look up each of the vegetables that end up on our tables in soups and sweets, you will come up with the following:
Singkamas (Pachyrhizus erosus), known in Mexico as jicama and in other places as Mexican yam bean or Mexican turnip; talong (Solanum melongena), eggplant or aubergine; sigarilyas (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), winged bean, dragon bean, Goa bean or Manila bean; mani (Arachis hypogaea), peanut, groundnut, monkey nut or goober; sitaw (Phaseolus vulgaris) or green bean; bataw (Lablab purpureus) or hyacinth bean; patani (Phaseolus lunatus), lima bean, butter bean or Madagascar bean; kundol (Benincasa hispida), wax gourd, ash gourd, white gourd, winter gourd, ash pumpkin, winter melon or Chinese preserving melon; patola, whose scientific and common name is luffa; upo (Lagenaria siceraria), calabash, white-flowered gourd, bottle gourd, long melon, New Guinea bean and Tasmania bean; kalabasa, cucurbits or pumpkin; labanos (whose common name sounds like the scientific name Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. Sativus) or radish in English; mustasa (Brassica juncea), mustard, brown mustard, Indian mustard, Chinese mustard, oriental mustard or vegetable mustard; sibuyas (Allium cepa) or onion; kamatis (Solanum lycopersicum) — the English tomato came from the Mexican Nahuatl tomatl; bawang (Allium sativum or garlic); luya (Zingiber officinale) or ginger, from the original Sanskrit that describes it as “looks like a horn”; and, last but not least, linga (Sesamum indicum) or sesame.
What most people do not know about the above vegetables is that most of them were not indigenous to the Philippines. These were actually “immigrants” that literally took root in the archipelago, thanks to the three centuries of Spanish colonization via Mexico that our textbooks always cast as the Dark Ages in our history, in contrast to the “Benevolent Assimilation” under the USA.
What would kare-kare be like without peanuts? Without “mani lang iyan” to describe something easy, we would only have sisiw (chick).
Patola can be eaten or, when dried, used to scrub grime off skin. Without patola, Pinoys would still be libag-free with pumice stone or panghilod, which used to be a staple in our bathrooms like the tabo or dipper. Without patola, how would we describe fake or ineffective police (“pulis patola”)? Without kalabasa, we would have lost the familiar euphemism used to refer to failing grades in school and be left with itlog (egg) for the zero score in an exam, or kamote (sweet potato) or nangamote — a reference to bad grades and angry teachers who advised dunces that they were better off planting kamote.
It is not enough to go through life seeing things; one must notice them as well. “Oh my gulay” can be a discourse into our history and culture.
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