Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Christmas Feature

The famous traditional roasted pig - the Litsong Baboy.
The big 'handaan' of Christmas in my youth

Batch 65
Toronto, Canada

IN modern Canada, Christmas becomes a secular celebration just like any other Christian feast days. 

Everybody would be asking: Will there be snow on Christmas Day? Would it be white?

With these questions, my memories would go back in time when I was a small kid of five. I grew up with cats and dogs as my playmates until age five; they were a present to me from my eldest sister.

After a little while, a brother was also asked to stay because my grandfather wanted a boy he could take along in his walk around the town. But before these brother and sister came, I was the one who accompanied my grandfather to relatives whose houses were massively impressive in their floorings of narra and windows of “capiz”.
The Ubeng Halaya ... yummy always
I recall that most of the time, Lolo, as I called him, played “mahjong” with them, and of course had the usual chats. To Lolo, everyone was a close relative. He made sure that he kept ties with them. As you know, they were spread all over Tarlac and Pampanga. 

It was a different story with my grandmother. Her relatives were the rich and famous, but because the eldest of the clan lived with us -- my great grandmother -- it was these beautiful rich people who came to visit us.

Christmas was their favorite time for visits; we had clan reunions on both sides, held as always at our place, the smallest house in the poblacion but owning big yard to park cars and with many trees with cool shade.

Lolo was a food enthusiast. Any exotic food would always be on our table. People sought my grandfather when they had good catch of wild birds, or if they found eggs of “bayawak”, which as a rare occasion because this animal would bury its eggs and had to be spied on when checking their eggs for hatches. With me here in Canada, I would never taste those eggs again.

Lolo made his own ham and his own vinegar as well. I have diabetes now because all the goodies – sweets and all -- went first to my Lolo, a chance for me to taste them all   before being sold in the market.

This was the background of good and lavish food on the table. 

Lolo was known in town for liking good food. He was not a handy man but if there’s anything needed, he knew who to call.

So with this background, a big Christmas party for both sides of the family was no problem. As a child of five, everything I saw was frenzy during the Christmas season -- so many cooks, so many people around preparing for the lunch party.

As early as three days before the big event, there would be imported cooks and kitchen help. As a child, I was made to help with the small onions – (too much of them) to peel them for “litson (roasted suckling pig) sauce.

Those Tagalog onions had made me a cry baby, so I did not like big parties because of them.

One time, there was a clan reunion, and I saw
three of these litson roasting. We, the three small kids sitting nearby, had waited patiently for the crispy ears and tails.

I cannot forget where Lolo sourced the person who prepared watermelons that were peeled whole and cut whole. All you have to do was use fork to pick a piece. They were like big red balloons arrange in one table.

I am now on the last lap of my life journey but I had never seen like that. Maybe the technique used was like that of extracting the flesh of a young coconut (buko) from inside the shell, with the vendor using a pliant knife (a carved carabao horn, actually) to bring it out.

Biko at Latik ...
The crème de leche or “leche plan” was prepared about two or three days before the celebration in the usual way of doing a “bibingka” -- fire under and fire on top. It would take years to do it, what with all the natural ingredients of carabao’s milk, lime zest and vanilla.

My Lola’s best friend cooked candies from pastilles, pulboron, yema to small turnips turned into flowerette sweets. Candies made from gourd were also served and purple yam sweets were concocted into candies from “halaya,” and “kalamay”. 

The difference between the “halaya” and the “kalamay na ube” is the “latik”, which you always find on top of the bite pieces, arranged in beautiful oval serving dishes. The “halaya” was special because it was served with home-made ice cream from the fruits of trees around our house. I could not remember how I ate but I grieved that I did not learn the elaborate way my relatives cooked and served the food.

The only thing I learned to do well, maybe because I love it, was the “halaya”. Here in Canada, it cost me a fortune to buy the raw purple yam. I cooked it the traditional way on our first Christmas here, reminiscing that this goodie was part of Christmas celebration meal back home. These days, I would just buy some -- ready-to-eat -- and to my dismay, it would not taste as good as the one that I would make. It could pass, anyway.

The soup was beef bones with veggies. The beef bones had bone marrows and the soup was simmering on top of a stove with big chunk of wood that burned slowly. It was a whole-day affair. Food was aplenty, as if you had cooked all the stuff in the Filipino recipes of “Aling Charing” -- morcon, menudo, kilawin, tinumis, elaborate tortas, etc. 

I am getting hungry as I write this. Of course there were also different varieties of fish prepared elaborately, like “relyenong bangus” and “betute” (crispy fried frog with stuffing of pre-cooked meat that tasted like the stuffing for relyenong bangus).

The food was just one part, what as important on this occasion was the pleasure of everyone seeing each other at least once a year. All those who were doing the kitchen were mostly relatives from far away places like Concepcion, Tarlac and nearby barrios of Arayat and Sta Ana, Pampanga.

As a child, I just listened to stories and stored them away in my head. Housemaids who were trustworthy became family, and even when they became grandmothers themselves, they were always around to help Lolo and Lola.

The party was a reunion of not only by the rich side of the family who were being served but also by the poorer ones who have enjoyed preparing the food with laughter and banter, and serving them to the rich. The dining room sat about 16 at a time and I did not know how many times it was refilled for a new set of diners.

Our favorite Kalamay
It was lunch. People came; there were those in the yard, there were those in the living room and there were those being served at the dining table and those in the kitchen table (the ordinary table for eight people).

The truth is, this kind of celebration happened every Christmas while my great grandmother was still around. When I was nine years old, she died, thus ending all these grand parties. Great grandmother had financed all these gatherings. She was the one giving all the monies for these parties. She was the channel of lavish food on the table, coming from a daughter who was a multi-millionaire -- the owner of JRU (Jose Rizal University).

Above was the finale celebration, the Christmas family reunion lunch.

But Christmas celebration in my hometown Arayat, Pampanga, started with the mass called “Simbang Gabi”.  Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. 

December 16 was the start of town’s celebration of Christmas but the plaza would be busy from the month of November because our patron saint’s feast day was Nov 25, and all fiesta celebrations would run until after the New Year. 

Food again was aplenty from November 1 as it was usually harvest time and the fresh “pinipig” would always be available at early mornings. The whole day you can smell newly-cooked peanuts with plenty of garlic, sweet potato with banana cue being cooked endlessly during the day.  A nearby store would be selling a special “halu-halo” with magnolia ice cream and “halaya”. 

But the start of the Christmas with early morning mass brought with it other goodies. The morning was cold with mass starting at 4am and ends at 5am. It would still
be dark but the smell of “kakanin” like “bibingka” and “puto” and the matching dark tea would entice you to buy for an early breakfast. 

In Arayat only and not in any other towns in Pampanga would we have a “puto” delicacy called “panara”. It was cooked so crunchy. The filling was made of minced chicken meat and green papaya cooked in spicy flavor. Deep-fried, it gave you a crispy browned bun – a yummy thing for a cold morning to go with a cup of steaming tsa-a.

Christmas to a child like me, who stood in awe before all the elaborate procession of the saints in big carriages of lights and flowers, was not only a religious celebration but a celebration as well of relationships, of being connected to another through the smell of food – an experience that I would never forget. 

Places had their own peculiar smell and on Christmas Day, my town would smell like freshly-cooked dishes that invited you to partake with on it. In every bite, you take within your spirit the pleasure of the one who fashioned it and the satisfaction etched on every face of those who consumed.

Merry Christmas!

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