Someone on Facebook recently posted a photo of canapés that had been served at a lavish Manila book launch. Unexpectedly, the topping was the larvae of red weaver ants. The photo showed dainty morsels of white toast onto which had been spooned a tiny pile of ant larvae, pale and translucent. But the diner, who had probably been hoping to taste something like caviar, found them disappointing. The taste was bland and underwhelming. Eating grasshoppers in Mexico was more thrilling the diner said.
Gastronomic adventure, along with the boom in cheap world travel, has become one of the great hallmarks of our age and is frequently extolled as a virtue. “Good food and good eating” says celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, “are about risk.” Yet there is something deeply troubling about this. Maybe because the sentiment takes the luxury of choice for granted. Or so very easily forgets, to adopt an old aphorism, that one person’s chic canapé is another person’s survival food.
Fourteen million people or 3.5 million families go hungry in our country. The poor are forced to live directly off their environment. In rural areas, this means whatever can be planted, pulled out, or caught from fields, rivers, streams — mole crickets, frogs, snails, salagubang (beetles), tamilok (or shipworm, a bivalve mollusk that lives in rotting trees), tiny gurami fish, alugbati (vine spinach), labong (bamboo shoots), the tops and flowers of kamote (sweet potato) and patola (sponge gourd), and puso ng saging (banana hearts). While these foods usually cost nothing, they can be hard to obtain. The poor don’t consider ant larvae as a prized exotic delicacy. Red weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) are canopy ants that build leaf nests high up in tall trees. To obtain their larvae, known in Northern Luzon as abuos, the poor man must climb to the top of the tree holding both a stick and a net. He must then shake the nest with his stick, and catch the falling larvae in his net, all the while keeping his balance. The ants are aggressive and attack the intruder with bites that leave painful, angry, red swellings on the skin. But the larvae mean the difference between a meal and going hungry. “If I didn’t persevere [in getting abuos], we would have nothing to eat” says one desperate gatherer.
For the laboring, low-waged poor, food choices are dictated by what is cheap. A few pesos can buy a skewer or two of congealed cubes of chicken blood, or a handful of chicken heads, combs and wattles, or a bit of pig’s intestine or ear, grilled over coals, ihaw. In a Batangas market, Mely’s food stall advertises one ulam (viand) and rice, plus a free cup of hot broth, for P45. On offer is pig’s lung cooked in vinegar, monggo sopas, and labong (bamboo shoots) stewed in coconut milk and chili). Flies abound.
In the ridge top city of Tagaytay in Cavite, a place overburdened by high-priced gastronomic pretension, Tatay Tony’s is a small gotohan on a woefully dusty stretch of Aguinaldo Highway. Frequented by jeepney and truck drivers, Tony’s serves up goto Batangas, a soupy stew of laman loob ng baka, or the inner organs of cow, usually intestines, skin, lungs, and heart. The offal is boiled with ginger; patis (fish sauce) is added at the last moment. The meat is served scissored-up and floating in a thin, speckled, fortifying broth with an unmistakable uric edge. A bowl costs P35. Rice is an extra P5 and the helping is generous.
Sooner or later, some peasant food goes up-market. Co-opted by the middle and upper classes, the poor man’s food finds its way into posh restaurants and onto bourgeois plates. One only needs to see menus from the Lorenzo J. Cruz restaurants in Manila, such as Abe’s or Café Adriatico, that specialize in food from rural Pampanga, and which feature kamaru (mole crickets), frogs, pig’s ears and jowls, and bagoong, a salty fish roe or shrimp paste, to know this to be true.
But before arriving at the conclusion that poverty and resourcefulness results in palatable culinary innovation and profit, or an authentic regional or national cuisine, consider this: Pagpag, a Tagalog verb translated in English as “to shake off” has, I recently learned, found new, ironic meaning. The urban poor use the term to refer to discarded food remains — the leavings, scrapings and bones of thrown out meals, the tira-tira, that have ended in the trash.
Every day 1200 metric tons of food goes to waste in Manila, the biggest offenders being restaurants and fast-food chains, according to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute. A number of documentaries by GMA and ABS-CBN news that can be viewed on YouTube, show poor families subsisting on pagpag from the garbage. Trash bags and dumpsters outside restaurants are picked through in the search for tira-tira. Acceptable finds are the bits of food that still have their plastic wrappings or have stayed in their Styrofoam boxes. Chicken bones with scraps of meat still clinging to them are carefully washed in water and re-cooked, usually boiled. The water is then thrown out and the scraps are sautéed, gisa, in vinegar, toyo (soy sauce), and vet-sin. Any surplus of re-cooked pagpag is sold for a few pesos per bag.
Food from the garbage is likely to be spoiled and contaminated. By eating this food, the poor, and young children are particularly vulnerable, run the risk of serious illness and even death from diarrhea, food poisoning, salmonella, and botulism. But the alternative is to go hungry.
Our country’s poor have been reduced to an undignified, hopeless and impossible life of foraging and scavenging. Between the bored and jaded rich who sample the cuisine of the poor and the multitudes of impoverished scavengers is a chasm of brutal inequality.