Haven on a Hill

Havenhill image“Havenhill” is the name of the house that my husband and I built in 1987-88. A three-level structure in a 500-square meter property, Havenhill is our haven from the rat race, yet it is but 15 kilometers from Ortigas Center, where I used to work, in the bustling metropolis called Metro Manila. It is located in a beautiful, tranquil village perched on a hillside.

Our terrain is hilly, like that of Baguio; the climate is cool, like that of Tagaytay. The environment is clean, green, and serene. But the place is not eerily quiet. Everyday we wake up to our kind of reveille, brought about by crowing roosters and chirping birds. Throughout the day, we listen to a gurgling brook and the rustling leaves. We tune in to the neighborhood choir of dogs, chickens, geckos, and birds.

All these against a backdrop of rolling hills and lush vegetation, of fauna and flora that others only read about: long-legged tikling (Philippine rail bird) whose graceful movements gave birth to Tinikling, the national dance; bayawak (monitor lizard), tukô (gecko), sawá (python); and different varieties of birds, in radiant plumage, each with its signature melodic repertoire.

Some trees in our backyard include narra (the national tree, prized for its hardwood), banaba (with purplish flowers and whose leaves are used as a diuretic), and pacquiling (whose leaves our grandparents used to scour hardwood floorboards and window sills; thus pacquiling is sometimes also called isis, Tagalog for “scour”). Fruit-bearing trees include avocado, guava, mango, papaya, santol, chico, balimbing (carambola or star fruit), guayabano (soursop), macopa (Curacao apple), langkâ (jackfruit), dayap (lime), kamias, and bananas (that we cultivate not for fruit but for leaves to be used to line the pan for Torta and to wrap Tamales, Inihaw na Bangus, and picnic Adobo).

Plants for the kitchen include yerba buena (Cuban oregano), kutsay (Chinese chives), luya (ginger), dilaw (turmeric), pandan (fragrant screwpine to flavor our daily rice), tanglad (lemongrass), siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili), achuete (annatto), and rosemary.

Ornamental plants to re-create our past: palms and maidenhair ferns; champaca, ilang-ilang, jasmin, santan, camia, cosmos, rosal, heliconia, dama de noche (literally “lady of the night” which blossoms only in the evening), pitimini (petite or mini tea rose), and arbors of rambling bougainvillea and yellow bells. No fancy orchids, just good old-fashioned mariposa, cattleya, tiger, and the purple, pendulous, fragrant sanggumay that blossoms just once a year, in February, March, or April.

When the sun sets—my favorite time of day—we retire to the symphony of crickets and frogs, and a solitary gecko sounding taps.

♪♫♪ “Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.” ♪♫♪

Fireflies dart through the trees and, sometimes, into the bedroom. There’s a nip in the air—this time of year, pleasant and cool from the hanging amihan (Northeast monsoon)—and it reeks with the heady fragrance of dama de noche. Twilight, it seems, was made for this haven on a hill.

A Tale of Two Kitchens

Like most kitchens in the typical urban Filipino home, the Havenhill kitchen is actually made up of two kitchens. The so-called “dirty” kitchen outside the main house is where I do most of my cooking. It is also where the kitchen helpers do the basic—messy—food preparation: cleaning the seafood, dressing the chicken, pounding the shrimp heads, chopping the vegetables, or barbecuing the meat. It is a holdover from the outdoor prep-area of the provincial fiesta, where cooking and food preparation are done in the yard, camp-style.

The “clean” kitchen on the other hand is where I cook using modern appliances—blender, mixer, oven, toaster, microwave, rice cooker, coffee maker. In other words, the “dirty” kitchen is low-tech; the “clean” kitchen, high-tech.

Teflon pans and Pyrex dishes are kept in the “clean” kitchen. The “dirty” kitchen holds the indigenous implements of the traditional Filipino kitchen. Made of clay, stone, or wood, these implements still retain a rustic charm, valued not just for their pleasing forms but for their timeless functionality as well. A number of these are worth mentioning here.

Palayok is a black, sometimes red, clay pot traditionally used for stewing, boiling soups, and cooking rice; I use it for Adobo and Paksiw. Kamao (rhymes with “cow”) is an earthenware crock for making buro (fermented rice and fish). The tachô is a two-handled copper pan traditionally used to cook jams and jellies; I use it for cooking Jaleang Ube, Pastillas, and other similar sweet treats; it is also perfect for deep-frying chicken or chips.

Kawalì is a versatile carbon-steel wok with a round bottom; I have several of it, in different sizes that I use for just about everything else: stir-frying, deep-frying, braising, or sautéing. Bigger than a kawalì, usually with two handles, is the talyasi; I use it when company’s coming. Biggest of them all, sans handles, is a kawà, I use it when it’s fiesta time, the whole town’s a-coming!

The almirez (also called dikdikan) is a marble mortar-and-pestle, indispensable for crushing garlic and spices as well as for extracting juice from shrimp heads. The kudkuran—coconut grater—is a small low bench made of sampalok wood, at one end of which is an iron grater with sharp corrugated teeth. The user straddles the seat—thus it is also sometimes called kabayo (horse)—and scrapes the coconut flesh against the grater. The chocolatera is a brass pot for cooking chocolate; it is paired with a wooden batidor to whip the chocolate to a nice froth.

Inangs Kitchen - Drawing by Manuel D. Baldemor, from Gilda Cordero Fernando's "Philippine Food & Life"
A rustic kitchen similar to my grandmother in Sabitan, Malolos, Bulacan. (Drawing by Manuel D. Baldemor, from Gilda Cordero Fernando’s “Philippine Food & Life”)

Some native implements I keep for rustic décor, but truly for nostalgic reasons—they were mainstays in my grandmothers’ kitchens. The kalan is a bulbous clay stove, shaped to bear a wood-fire in its belly. The gilingan is a heavy granite millstone used to grind rice into flour (galapong). The tapayan is an earthenware vat that kept our drinking water cool. Having them close to me brings me back to my childhood years in Malolos, when the living was easy and I was fortunate to have had two nurturing grandmothers.

The Havenhill kitchen is a busy one, coming to life as soon as my husband and I come home from the market (although lately it’s just the former who goes to the market so I could catch up on a few more hours of sleep 🙂 I know I have Spanish blood in me (my paternal ancestors came from Valencia; my maternal ancestors, from Mexico). But cooking reaffirms that and brings out my Mediterranean passion (and temper). My voice rises as the drama of the cooking performance begins, especially as I check that every ingredient is prepared according to my standards. Typically in Havenhill, the level of cooking tension escalates as the sautéing begins. Watch out, the heat’s on!

Family Meals

A Chinese rule of thumb suggests serving one main course less than the number of diners. My husband, son, and I make three and following this guideline, I usually serve two main courses.

A typical weekend lunch for instance would be Inihaw na Baboy and Lumpiang Sariwa, Nilagang Manok and Boquillos, or Ukoy and Batchoy. But what’s for lunch is usually what’s for dinner, too. No more cooking in the afternoon for me—it’s siesta time.

The Chinese rule of thumb is a cinch to follow even on weekdays when I work. On such nights, there are also two choices for dinner: Take it or Leave it.

But in the 1950s, our families used to have three full meals—named according to the time of day they’re taken—breakfast or almusal, also called agahan for umaga (morning; from the root word aga meaning early); lunch or tanghalian for tanghali (noontime), and supper or hapunan for hapon (afternoon, usually taken right after the Angelus at 6 o’clock). When one pigs out, enough say for a whole day, the meal is called altanghap, portmanteau of almusal, tanghalian, and hapunan. Snacks fall in between—mid-morning (also called segunda almuerzo, or second breakfast) and mid-afternoon (also called merienda, minandal, or mirindal).

My husband’s breakfast took after his grandfather’s rice and viand. Mine, light or none at all, took after my grandmother’s buttered bread: pan de sal (breakfast roll), boling (called bonete in Pasig), or pan Americano (loaf bread, called “tasty” in Metro Manila). I still trim the crusts off my loaf bread, just like Mamang did—she used a fine serrated knife, which I sometimes also do if I want really neat edges, but regular kitchen shears work just as well if I’m in a rush. Mamang also used a serrated knife to slice her pan de sal, she never used her bare hands to do so, that was too rustic. I took after her in this department as well. From Mamang, I also learned to sprinkle sugar on my buttered bread. But it was from her cousin  that I learned to dunk my buttered bread in milky coffee; her coffee had more milk than coffee—it might have been called lait au café.

My husband’s family and mine not only ate the same food but also cooked them the same way—Adobo, Paksiw, Nilaga, Sinigang, among others. However, if it were fish sinigang, Pasig’s would likely be Kanduli sa Miso, Malolos’ would be Bangus sa Bayabas. Basic sinigang, in Pasig and Malolos, would typically be soured with green, unripe sampalok (tamarind) but Pasig—and Pasig alone—uses unripe watermelon.

His family’s cuisine is robust, centering on beef dishes with rich tomato-based sauces: Morcon, Mechado, Asado, Menudo, Pochero. On the other hand, my family’s cuisine was lighter and simpler: Lumpia, Nilaga, Tinola, Pakbet, Paksiw, Pesang Dalag. Havenhill cuisine is a fusion of both worlds—indeed, of the best and the worst in both.

From our families we learned that food is a blessing from above. To us, it is totally unacceptable, almost like sacrilege, to make the food wait or to waste it. When dinner is announced, there is no excuse for tardiness. Hot food is thus a serious business. Dishes are choreographed for completion at the moment the family sits at the table. The rice must be piping hot; the “ulam” (viand, or dish that goes with the rice) must nearly—but not quite—burn in the mouth. Children are admonished to eat not just what’s in the plate but everything edible in it—it is rude and wasteful to leave even a single grain of rice in one’s plate. Conversation during meals must be pleasant, anything unpleasant will have to wait after the meal and dealt with away from the dining table.

Precious moments, prized flavors and aromas—all come alive in the kitchen and the family dinner table. This is as true today in Havenhill as it was in Pasig and Malolos of yore. ☙