Cultural heritage in rice
When people speak of preserving heritage these days it often concerns a structure that is threatened by destruction or alteration all in the name of progress. Contrary to popular belief, heritage is not just for the rich and educated; it also manifests itself in our daily lives on our palate. Nobody will argue that food is heritage, that food reflects our history and culture like no other and should be nurtured, preserved and protected with the same vigor that we lobby for buildings and, in the case of the Torre de Manila, the preservation of a vista or view of the Rizal monument.
The view of Taal from the Tagaytay ridge is patrimony of the nation but we are too late to have stopped people from building properties that obstruct the view for the public. On my way to Pampanga last week, I noticed that the view of Arayat that launched a hundred Amorsolo paintings is now marred by billboards. Is it asking too much to regulate size and location of billboards? Can we not keep them on the left side of NLEX when you are travelling north? This way the view of Arayat and the Central Luzon plain is preserved and advertising can continue on the opposite side.
On my last trip to the United States, I was amused that Customs officers searched Pinoy luggage for chicharon with the same enthusiasm they had for drugs. From previous trips I knew that US Customs looked for fresh fruit and produce but chicharon is already cooked so why bother? “Magic Sarap” was also considered contraband, the same with chicken-flavored instant Lucky Me noodles. They let beef flavor in though.
Pinoys cannot cook a sinigang from scratch anymore because it is easier to use a bouillon cube or instant sinigang mix. When the palate has grown accustomed to fast food then part of our culinary heritage is endangered. Nobody cooks rice in a clay pot anymore, and with rice cookers you have perfect rice all the time. Two e-mail reactions to my recent column on rice gives us food for thought. Dr. Ellen Cutiongco, a retired teacher, wrote:
“Measuring cooking water for rice made me recall a terrible experience. I put my open palm under the water and pressed it on the rice. I did it so hard that, ooops!, the bottom of our clay pot collapsed. A mean tsinelas landed on my buttocks for meddling with an adult duty. Sayang ang palayok!
“One day during the early part of the Japanese Occupation, I joined my aunt in the rice field to gather whatever fully laden rice stalk heads were spared by the harvesters’ tools. Instead of just picking up the stalks from below, I just walked ahead of the harvesters and secretly cut off the stalks with my Grade I scissors. This angered them so much they banished me under a tree to sleep on my big-rimmed hat. That was my first and last day on the job.
“The first time I tasted milagrosa rice was when my husband’s pupil in San Beda gifted his favorite teacher, Mr. Cutiongco, with a cavan of milagrosa rice. Such heavenly taste! The family ate it every day until it was gone. I’ve never had the chance to taste it again since then.”
Another regular reader, Mrs. Nery Chan, shared this:
“The Japanese way of measuring water for rice is the same as the Chinese way of measuring water. I use the rice cooker but do not use the accompanying cup that allows you to measure the water. I use the finger-style, my husband uses the palm-style. When I see that the ‘bigas’ is not newly milled, I add a little more water; if it looks newly milled, I decrease the water. Our maids like their cooked rice grains to be ‘jumping’—dry and separate so when they cook for their own, they use less water. I guess this is what you call ‘buhaghag?’
“My late father-in-law liked his rice grains to be separate when cooked. For such cases, we steam the rice. After washing the rice grains, we put them in a bowl and place this bowl on a rack. There is gently boiling water under the rack. We then steam the rice till it’s cooked, about half an hour or so. The condensation from the lid provides the water for cooking the rice. The result is separate grains; this is also the original rice for cooking Chinese-style fried rice. In many places in Hong Kong and China, rice is steamed rather than boiled, like what happens when you use the rice cooker.
“For people managing canteens for workers in factories, a premeasured amount of rice is placed in each stainless-steel bowl; these bowls are then stacked on a steamer and allowed to cook. This way, there is no ‘tutung’; each worker gets the same amount of rice and best of all, there is less work because then you don’t have to portion the cooked rice into bowls anymore. The cooked viand is just ladled on top of each bowl of steamed rice.
“When you mentioned rice-rationing and having to eat rice-corn combination, you must have been referring to the period after martial law, around 1973. We also experienced that. The cooked rice looked halfway between lugaw and rice, very heavy, sticky and not a lot of whole grains visible. I think this period did not last too long, thank God. In Dumaguete to this day, there are still many who prefer the white corn to rice; your stomach stays full longer. My sister-in-law who married a guy in Dumaguete says she actually likes the white corn ‘rice’ and still alternates between rice and white corn. ”
Heritage is in our palate and should be preserved before we lose it completely.
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