My hubby and I visited his family when we arrived in Manila late last week. He cajoled our sister-in-law to do her seafood feast for all of us who are in town. She beamed and accepted the challenge.
Yesterday, after braving the tortuous quagmire that was playing out on EDSA, a major thoroughfare in Manila, we settled on the table that sister-in-law, Josette, had orchestrated.
She said she was up bright and early, and off to the farmers’ market to gather the components of her artistic vision of what the banquet was to be.
When we were all ready to sit and partake of the feast, we could not help but spend a few minutes reveling in the luscious sight.
She laid out large banana leaves on the dining table. Then one by one, the food came in from the grill, the oven, the fryer, the chopping boards. Crisp tart green mangoes sliced and paired with fermented shrimp paste (bagoong). Bitter melon (ampalaya) salad paired with red onions, carrots, jicama dressed in local vinegar and spices with just the right amount of chili for the kick at the tip, not to overpower. Fiddlehead ferns were blanched and became the bed for the Crimson ripe tomatoes and salted eggs.* There was also a salad of popping seaweed (it pops in your mouth!) that had a natural slight salty taste and paired with more fresh greens. There were grilled whole tomatoes and eggplant. There were crisp steamed asparagus.
There was the sawsawan. These are condiments combined uniquely for specific faire. But there are really no rigid rules. You are allowed to interchange them as you please.
There were different kinds of fermented shrimp, fish sauces, seasoned soy sauce, vinegars with pickled whole chilis that could bring tears to the most fearless. On a large white spouted bowl was a yellow milky liquid. It turned out to be mashed unripened tamarind. We were taught to mix it with fermented shrimp paste. It made for a versatile dipping sauce with the right amount of souring, saltiness, and umami.
Then there was the parade of seafood. The fish were said to still be splashing around when they were brought home. The tilapia and catfish (hito in Tagalog) were fried to crispy heads and tips. The milkfish (bangus in Tagalog) were stuffed with tomatoes, onions and spices then grilled outdoors. The crabs, langoustine, and giant shrimp were steamed malasado and claws were cracked for easy meat extraction. The scallops and mussels were topped and baked.
Of course the four-legged camp had to be represented. So, there were clusters of longanisa (sausage), some all the way from Alaminos, Pangasinan, and some supplied by a local artisan. There were mounds of steamed white rice shaped to anchor all the flavors.
And as though all this was not enough, one cousin brought some fresh-made Chinese style lumpia (more like a stuffed soft crepe) complete with the nori (dried seaweed) and vegetables.
Did you notice there were no plates? We ate on the banana leaves. We picked our own little spot and we helped ourselves to whatever lay before us and wherever our noses took us.
Through it all, we washed it all down with sparkling water, dalandan (a native citrus fruit, not quite an orange, not a lime either) juice, buko (young coconut) juice. We had fresh fruits and buko pandan dessert to cap off the meal. Someone put the coffee pot on. A few asked for tea.
As we peeled ourselves away slowly from the table and on to the verandah, some us were handed glasses of brandy. We sat around remembering the sweet crab, the succulent shrimp, and crisp edges of the fish. The day was almost over. It was time to move on, contemplate some work, and head out into the traffic for our next stop.
This post is my ode to a most special meal.
*These are traditionally duck or goose eggs cooked and then brined in a saturated salt solution for 18-21 days.