Apolinario Mabini’s ‘gatas kalabaw’
From childhood, Filipino students are taught about national symbols like the flag, the anthem and the great seal of the Republic, as well as the national: hero (Jose Rizal), dish (adobo), tree (narra), flower (sampaguita), bird (monkey-eating eagle), and animal (carabao). It comes as a surprise to many that there is no official basis for many of these “national” things. As a matter of fact, there is no law that officially chose Rizal as our national hero. I often suspect that these “national” objects we grew up with were propagated by Socorro Ramos of National Bookstore who sold postcards and posters that made them so. National Bookstore may be the largest bookstore chain in the country, but it is not “national” in the sense that it is owned or sanctioned by the state. National Bookstore, according to Ramos, was named after the brand of her cash register!
The Philippine beast of burden is the carabao, a Hispanicized name that traces its roots in the Malay kerbau, the Tagalog kalabaw and the Visayan karabaw. I didn’t even know that “carabao” refers to the male and that the female is a caraballa. The animal is used in agriculture but is sometimes slaughtered for its meat that is cured into tapang kalabaw or a sweet tocino-like pindang damulag in Pampanga. Carabao milk is an acquired taste and is known as gatas kalabaw in Tagalog or gatas damulag in Kapampangan. Apolinario Mabini was said to have liked gatas kalabaw so much that it led to his death in 1903. Officially, cholera was listed as Mabini’s cause of death but it is also believed that he died from ingesting spoiled or unpasteurized milk. Antonio Luna, before he rose to the rank of general in the Philippine-American War, was a scientist who wrote a paper on the purity of carabao milk—an interest he picked up at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.
Over the years I have picked up stray references on the carabao and its meat from the 1900s, like US health inspectors visiting public markets to catch peddlers passing carabao meat for beef, or carabao attacks on the enemy during the Philippine-American War. Enemy soldiers believed that carabaos did not like their blue uniforms in the same way that bulls see red during a bullfight. Filipinos believed that carabaos knew the smell of their masters and charged at the enemy, annoyed by the smell of Americans many of whom were uncircumcised. All these historical tidbits come to mind when I eat or simply remember the delicious Kapampangan breakfast of fried shrimp with steaming white rice covered with fresh carabao milk, with a dash of rock salt for seasoning. Those from Macabebe prefer to flavor their rice and gatas damulag with sugar, just as we would with breakfast cereal.
In the H. Otley Beyer ethnographic papers is a 1924 report on the Caloocan milk industry by Leocadio Gozum that deals with the sale or marketing of carabao milk:
“The milk is marketed through a middleman who is known locally as a lechero. There are about thirty of these men all told in Caloocan, and they sell from about 490 to 980 liters daily. The lechero is a sort of small capitalist or financier. He advances money to the producers who agree to deliver to him their daily yield of milk in consideration of the advance. He employs one or two collectors, at one peso a day each, who collect the milk early in the morning and deliver it to restaurants and private houses. Sometimes the lechero’s wife, son, or daughter collects and sells the milk. Some farmers market the milk themselves but this is not common.
“No license or privilege tax is necessary to sell milk in Caloocan. When the milk is sold in the market, however, a market charge (cobra) of five centavos is made. If he is caught by the municipal revenue collector peddling milk among houses, he also has to pay a tax. In Manila, however, vendors of milk must obtain a permit to sell milk from the Bureau of Health at a cost of five pesos. Such permits need not be renewed.
“Producers get from 20 to 25 centavos per liter for carabao milk, while the lechero gets 40-50 centavos. The restaurants do not sell the milk in a raw state but make ice cream out of it. All these restaurants are owned and run by Filipinos.”
Carabao milk and its byproducts are considered delicacies today because the milk is not as common as it was in the past.
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