Taba ng talangka, at first glance, is a disgusting orange paste in a bottle that reminds some people of skid marks on toilet bowls, but just the mention of it makes others swoon at the memory or expectation of its rich taste and bad cholesterol. While most people literally translate taba ng talangka to mean “crab fat” when it is actually “crab roe” or “aligue,” which comes from the female crablet. Talangka is also known as “Asian shore crab in English,” and its hard-to-spell scientific name is Hemigrapsus sanguineus.
I was introduced to these crablets in Pampanga where they were served in their shell as “burong talangka,” which I never learned to eat simply because it seemed like so much trouble to squeeze and suck less than a teaspoon of the crablet meat or juice from its shell. The easier way to enjoy these crablets these days is to have them deep-fried such that you can eat the whole crunchy shell and the roe and flesh inside after dipping it in spiced vinegar.
Just recently I realized that the taba ng talangka in the bottle is not really pure crab roe because I doubt if the male crablets are separated from the female or the “bakla” of their kind before the extraction process. I have never checked talangka for gender before, but I do know that with the bigger crabs we know as alimango or alimasag, you can tell a male from a female by the back side of the shell: the male has a pointed design while a female has a round design. Also, male crabs contain more white meat while the female have more aligue. When I was a child and accompanied my mother to the market, I would always overhear her asking the fishmonger to choose the crabs that had the most aligue. She would also tell him that she would prefer the bakla to the female crabs, if available. The bakla, “in-between” male and female, was the best of both “worlds,” yielding both meat and fat.
Taba ng talangka was delivered to my mother in bottles every August and she would cook the paste with lots of garlic and give it a tang from “dayap,” not kalamansi. I knew this bottled stuff was precious because one whole barrio labored to produce our annual taba ng talangka supply. My mother described to me how people had to squeeze the aligue out of each crablet by hand, often cutting and scraping their skin in the process. One sack of crablets, gathered from rice fields and the shores of rivers, yielded only as much to fill one small Nescafé diamond glass, so this was never to be wasted. Even the spoon used to scoop the liquid gold from the bottle had to be licked clean after eating.
Traditionally, taba ng talangka is served as a siding to grilled or fried fish, but it is best eaten on a bed of freshly cooked rice, seasoned with kalamansi. My mother once used taba ng talangka instead of tomato sauce for seafood pasta, and when my cousins visited me in Tokyo two years ago carrying pasalubong like the Three Magi, I opened the Lapid’s chicharon with laman—and having no atsara to eat it with, I tested fate by having chicharon with taba ng talangka, and washing everything down with Suntory Yamazaki whiskey. The traditional chicharon dip in my grandmother’s home was never vinegar spiced with sili but atsara which provided a sweet contrast to the salty pork skin and fat. But I have found something better: chicharon with laman with a dab of taba ng talangka is literally a bite to die for.
I was told that the talangka are not as easy to find as before, having been overharvested because of the demand for taba ng talangka and also because pesticide has killed them off in their traditional breeding places. The world is different now from the time of my childhood when you knew the seasons from the food that was served: mangoes and siniguelas in summer; suman, bibingka and puto bumbong during Christmas; talangka in August. All these can be had all year round and bought easily off a grocery shelf.
Everyday food for people in the farms and fields that were once described as “native food” have moved from rural papag to the urban mall where the taste of nostalgia is a selling point.
It has been over a decade since my mother passed away, but the talangka is still delivered from Pampanga and is recooked and flavored by my sister, who then packs them in little bottles eagerly awaited in August by friends and relatives.
Talangka is all about the tastes and flavors of childhood for me; it reminds me of home.
But today when I mention talangka it may refer to a small-minded or narrow-minded person. Or it can mean somebody who pulls others in a group down to get ahead. Talangka mentality or the so-called “crab mentality” is used to describe a negative Filipino trait about envious or small-minded people who block other people who are doing well or better than them. This was obviously thought up by someone who has never been to a wet market because when you go to the crab section, you will see these crabs with claws tied up with rubber band or string. If they are let loose, they are kept in a covered basin.
I once asked that the cover be removed to observe the crabs and I saw that they did not pull each other down; they actually climbed on each other to get out. So maybe we should be kind to the talangka and rethink our use of the so-called “crab mentality.”
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