By Sol Vanzi
When barrio Pulanglupa was a very rural community of fishermen, farmers, salt makers, and jeepney builders, interesting flora and fauna of all kinds regularly appeared on our dining table.
Most were gathered from fish ponds, mangrove swamps, rivers, and rice paddies around our homes while others were brought back by menfolk from hunting forays in the mountains and lakes of Laguna, Rizal, and Batangas. So, we grew up familiar with tapang usa (deer jerky) and adobong baboy damo (wild boar), paired with atsarang dampalit (pickled wild watercress).
My appetite for exotic edibles came to an abrupt halt when I witnessed my uncle cutting the liver and heart from what appeared to be a child hanging spread-eagled from the ceiling. It turned out to be a skinned monkey shot in the forest.
Our barrio’s gang of hunters loved to trade stories while drinking gin and munching on their catch. One of the stories concerned giant bats that ate fruit and lived in caves. The bats smelled and tasted like piss, so the men never bothered to go after them.
Kantutay or lantana flower
Like our elders, we kids loved to hunt and forage. We were taught at an early age what plants were edible and which ones to avoid. Thus, we often played all day, surviving on wild fruits and seafood. To this day, I can still taste the sweet aratiles, tart kantutay, and nutty niyog-niyogan of my childhood.
But the highlight of our hunts was the search for a predator, which was also a sought-after main course.
Almost every household kept a couple of free-range ducks and chickens for eggs. They were free to roam in everybody’s backyards and came home to roost at sunset. Whenever one failed to come home, the owner suspected only one culprit—a bayawak (monitor lizard).
Our small community, when on bayawak alert, was an exciting place for kids. We formed groups to search all over for traces of the missing fowl, which gave us clues on the whereabouts of the reptile.
As soon as bloody feathers were found, the children were told to leave the area, leaving the menfolk to corner the bayawak in a small area around its lair. Armed with bolos and spears, the men always caught the bayawak, which they immediately skinned and gutted.
Bayawak’s prized eggs
Reserved for the men were the bayawak eggs found in its belly. All had soft shells and were encased in one long sac, appearing like uncut white longganisa. Children and women were not allowed to eat bayawak eggs, which were believed to increase virility.
One of the mysteries was why the bayawak eggs (shells and all) remained soft even after prolonged boiling. The men explained that it was one of the reasons they were magical.
The bayawak carcass, weighing several kilos, was always cooked into a form of adobo and tasted like free-range chicken. At the end of the day, women and children feasted on bayawak adobo, while the men shared endless rounds of gin with pineapple juice to wash down soft reptile eggs.
Rabbit stew, anyone?
During an assignment at Mount Apo to write about the Philippine eagle for the Reader’s Digest in the ‘80s, my husband Vic gave up his homemade salami sandwich to add flavor to the rabbit stew I had cooked for him and Dr. Robert Kennedy of the Philippine Eagle Conservation project.
Dampalit or watercress
We were many miles away from the nearest market or store and wanted to celebrate a successful three-day stay at the facility. As the designated cook, I had to make do with whatever was available in the mountains and streams. I found wild lime trees, fiddlehead fern (pako), ginger, turmeric, and watercress (alusiman). Dr. Kennedy’s staff contributed rabbit meat from the livestock raised to feed the eagles.
Vic’s salami slices enriched the rabbit stew, which was spiced with ginger and turmeric, mellowed with lime peel, and tenderized by longsimmering in beer (which we packed everywhere we went). A salad of fern and watercress completed the very memorable meal.