PLEASE NOTE: On NOvember 8, 2013, Guiuan Town was the first area where Typhoon Haiyan-Yolanda made landfall, thereby sustaining the maximum amount of winds in the country. This beautiful town was 90% destroyed, leaving many dead and the survivors homeless and with no source of income. We lost all contact with my friends there once the storm made landfall. After 5 days of distressful thoughts, I finally managed to get word about my friends, and now we are in full contact again. They have all made it out safely, and are now relocated in an area hundreds of kilometers away in the northwestern part of Samar Island. Their lives are changed forever, but at least they are alive. Please remember the victims of Typhoon Haiyan-Yolanda, and continue to help them in whatever way you can.
Why is it that torrential downpours always bring out the journal-bug in me? It's 2 pm on a Saturday afternoon, and I'm at home under the shelter of a tin-roof shack in Guiuan, Philippines doing my laundry. This has turned out to be a long, drawn out process, as it's all done by hand, and can take hours to complete.
Although the first step of scrubbing the laundry is done, I now have to sit and let the clothes soak in the soap suds. But as I sit here, waiting for the right time to move on to the next step, it starts to rain.
This isn't out of the ordinary of course, it's pretty much rained every day since I've been here. Apparently, this far flung southeastern province of Eastern Samar is well known throughout the Philippine islands for it's regularly cool breezes and afternoon showers.
This is a lot like my home in Hawai'i, where early morning showers pass through and soak the ground with fresh dew, and light afternoon showers briefly precede the evening rain that falls throughout the night. And just like Hawai'i, this regular cycle of rain keeps the surrounding areas bright green and full of life here in the provincial town of Guiuan.
Of course, besides the rain, there are many other things that remind me of Hawaii. Here are just a few:
Coconut Trees: Beach Scene Staples
The coconut trees were expected. As soon as the plane prepared for landing and began it's descent into Tacloban airport, I could see the familiar stately palm trees, bending and swaying in the wind. These trees are tropical beach scene staples.
Kalo: The "Tamed" Heart of Hawaiian Culture Grows Wild in Guiuan
During the van ride from Tacloban City to Guiuan, I was surprised to see the heart shaped leaves of kalo, or taro, growing alongside the road. Unlike Hawai'i, however, where kalo is farmed and cultivated in large patches called lo'i, the kalo here grew haphazardly, seemingly wild.
Lemongrass: More Herb Than Citrus
And after my friend picked me up at the DupTours bus terminal in the middle of the night and drove me to the house where I would be staying for the next few weeks, I could see alongside the pathway that led up to the house bunches of grass that looked vaguely familiar. My curiosity stirred, I plucked a leaf, broke it and inhaled it's scent. My memory had served me right, it was lemongrass.
Ingredients For Childhood Memories
All of these elements were key ingredients from my childhood in Hawaii; bubbly and frothy cream freshly squeezed from grated coconuts, added to stewing taro leaves, called luau, to make my dad's signature dish, squid luau, or a sprig of lemongrass, freshly plucked by hand and tied into a knot, thrown into a pot of boiling fish-head soup to give the broth a tangy citrus zing.
But of all the things that I have found intriguingly familiar during my visit here, it's my experience eating a local shellfish called tarukog and a root vegetable named palauan that stands out in my mind the most so far.
An Introduction to Traditional Waray Customs
It started off with a friendly visit to an elderly Waray man named Kuya Leon, as in "Lion", who lives in a traditional Waray house made out of locally felled trees, tightly woven coconut leaves and pandanus mats.
It was raining, of course, and as we approached his house, we could see smoke billowing from the cooking fire and hear the sound of his family chatting away in their native language, Waray-Waray.
My friend called out the local greeting, "Maupay!" This let the people know that there was a visitor approaching their doorstep.
Almost immediately, a voice from inside called out in return, "Maupay man!" This meant that the householder, Kuya Leon, was welcoming us to come in.
We ducked into what the Filipinos affectionately call 'the dirty kitchen', a simple structure usually attached to the side of or sitting adjacent to the main house. We shook ourselves off from the pouring rain outside, and sat down.
As my friend looked around, he said that we were in for a treat. Kuya Leon and his son were preparing an afternoon snack called palauan, or giant swamp taro, a root vegetable that is popularly cultivated and eaten throughout the islands of Micronesia and Melanesia.
But in the Philippines, as is the case in Hawai'i, this root crop is not as well known. In fact, my friends explained that it wasn't until they moved here to Easter Samar from another part of the Philippines that they were introduced to this traditional Waray crop. This was a local delicacy. My appetite whet, I observed closely the three general steps that it took to prepare palauan.
STEP ONE: Boil the Palauan Root or 'Corm'
After the plant had been uprooted and cleaned, the first thing they did was boil it in an iron pot sitting over open flames. The young Waray boy stood over it and watched it diligently, adding more water to the pot as it evaporated, and fanning the flames as the coals cooled off.
STEP TWO: Let the Palauan Cool Down
I watched as Kuya Leon took the boiled root and transferred it from the pot to a large colander. Plumes of steam rose from the basket of soft corm. The scent was a strange blend of taro, it's distant cousin, and ulu, or breadfruit. I could already imagine the different ways this root vegetable could be prepared, and wondered how the locals do it here. Do they pound it and add water to it until it becomes a paste and then allow it to bubble and ferment, like how we do with taro when making poi? Maybe they baste it in butter, wrap it in foil, then bake it until soft, like we do with ulu? Or perhaps they have their own unique ways of preparing this intriguing vegetable.
STEP THREE: Peel & Slice the Palauan
To clean the knife he would be using for peeling, Kuya Leon stabbed a banana stump repeatedly until the blade came out clean. Then, as he sat and patiently peeled each individual corm, Kuya told us stories about his palauan crop. He singled out one specific corm, pulled it out of the colander and rolled it around in the palm of his hand, casually displaying it.
"This is the mother," he said in Waray-Waray. "She was 10 years old."
"Wow," I said, after my friend translated for me. Then my friend asked, "But why is she one of the smaller corms?"
Kuya answered matter-of-factually, "Through the years, she grew large, round and bulbous. Many babies came from her." He pointed at some of the larger corms still in the colander, indicating that those were her offspring. "But then, a few years ago, she began to return to her youth, until she shrunk to the size that she is here today."
Kuya finished peeling the mother root, and as he sliced her and placed her on the plate, I could almost see how he handled her delicately and with care. He then told us of why it took long for him to harvest this crop.
The patch of palauan had originally belonged to his grandparents. But they were a stingy couple, he explained. Every morning, his grandfather would leave the house with his cane and hobble around his palauan patch to ensure that no one, not even themselves, got a chance to taste it. It wasn't until Kuya's grandparents passed away recently that the family was able to harvest and enjoy this precious starch.
Adobo "Tarukog" - A Pleasant Surprise
With the palauan boiled, cooled, peeled and sliced, we were ready to taste this uniquely Waray treat. But before I could get a taste in, Kuya Leon's son placed before us another traditional Waray delicacy, it was a bowl of familiar looking mollusks.
"Adobong tarukog," he said, before walking away.
"Tarukog?" I thought to myself, "what kind of bizarre tribal name is that?" But when I looked at it, there was something very familiar about it.
My initial reaction was that these were opihi, precious dome shaped limpets that are native to Hawai'i and that sometimes sell for $500USD per gallon!
However, I did notice a few differences. Whereas we eat the gut sack on the back of the snail, I could see that there were no sacs on the tarukog. Instead, there were teeth-shaped flaps that made the back side of the mussel look like a Venus fly trap.
But when I flipped the tarukog over onto its back and observed its underbelly, the similarities to opihi were strikingly similar. It had the same suction cup mouth and pudgy antennas.
I took a slice of soft, creamy palauan and a spoonful of tarukog, then took a bite. The taste took me right back to the Hawaiian islands, with a unique Southeast Asian twist!
In my search for the inner adobo, who could have guessed that I would discover the uforgettable taste of palauan and tarukog, both treasured and iconized as delicacies by the Waray people, just the same as kalo and opihi, their Hawaiian counterparts, are to the the locals in Hawai'i.
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...