Month: January 2017
A round of applause to the rooster. No, make it a thunderous pyrotechnic display as his year has come again in the Chinese calendar. If there’s an animal that has conquered Asia, it is undoubtedly from the rooster’s lineage. From China to Southeast Asia and India, our feathered friend has been the favored culinary animal captivating the most palates and among the least discriminated in beliefs. It is prepared through every cooking method, almost all of its parts used as food, and can we forget its eggs as important component of savory dishes and desserts? We cannot say the same thing for the pig – leave out large areas of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and pockets of Indochina and India please. Or for cattle – big chunks of India will become blank. Fish, maybe. It is a traditional accompaniment to rice. But as incomes rise, so does access to more affluent dishes as those of chicken.
Mealtimes have been domesticated by the chicken. Think of how many home-grown fast food companies are there which sell fried chicken as their flagship product. Demand for chicken is continuously rising. Technology is always on the lookout for ways to efficiently hatch and grow the dream chicken, and urban legends about the horrors of chicken breeding have been cropping up: chickens without heads and only body, whatever. Chicken and folklore walk hand in hand. Traditionally the chicken has been a symbolic animal to the Chinese and this has resulted in its inclusion in their calendar, one of 12 potent animals dictating the lives of believers. Other aspects of life have been domesticated as well. Cockfighting days are much awaited week events for Filipino, Balinese, and Pakistani men. Fortunes can be lost or found in the cockpit, at times the cause of despair or joy for the men and the whole family.
The rooster has already been crowing early on in the lives of Asian people. The earliest evidence of human interaction with the chicken is found in northern China dating to around 10,000 years ago. That’s about the time when the whole world was beginning a new lifestyle, from just hunting animals, gathering wild food plants, and picking available shellfish around them to caring for selected plants and animals to produce more food. This archaeological site showed evidence too that people were by then using earthenware pots and planting millet, a less popular grain crop today. Archaeologists and geneticists have found old chicken bones here and got a sample of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, from the bones. The DNA is a long molecule carrying the blueprint of animals, plants, and microbes that is passed on to their descendants. The next generations of organisms look like their parents and ancestors because they have received copies of the DNA. Animals of the same kind (for example, a group of grey herons) have DNAs that vary slightly, as compared to a set with different but related animals (for example a group composed of grey herons, little egrets, and cattle egrets) that have related DNAs but with more variations from each other.
What the scientists saw after analysis was astonishing – the DNA from the old chicken bones showed that it differed only slightly from the DNA of our present chickens. So much related that it was placed in the same genus, Gallus, as the poultry in our fast food restaurants today. The oldest evidence of chickens in the lives of human beings having been found in China is not really surprising if I tell you that the wild chicken, or jungle fowl, is still living in the forests of Southeast Asia. More active and quick, the jungle fowl is smaller compared to the chicken we know. This means that the homeland of chickens was most likely in Asia, and the ancestors of the first farmed chickens were not hard to come by.
The first Chinese people living in villages, out in a brave new world, then started caring for the chicken much as the chicken began caring for their sustenance and world view around 10,000 years ago. Despite northern China holding the oldest chicken records, research suggests that the beginnings of chicken and human encounters may have taken place at several different areas in South and Southeast Asia too. From here it is an easy step for chickens and humans to bring their lasting relationship to the big archipelagoes surrounding Asia, the remote Pacific islands, and other regions of the globe.
Gong Xi Fa Cai!
Text and photos by Skippy
The mountains of Negros Island are almost no-man’s land. Years of conflict between insurgent communist forces and government soldiers have kept visitors and development at bay. Yet in this beautiful part of the Visayas in the central Philippines, forests are still standing, the air is pure, and villagers still cling to their traditions and beliefs. It was here where I met a middle-aged woman who talked about her life and family.
At one point in our chat, she mentioned that a strange thing happened during one of her pregnancies. She felt that her womb began to shrink and seemed empty in her seventh month. That night she saw a human-like being with horns staring at her. Her husband could not see this and thought she was going crazy or buang (pronounced “boo-ahng,”). Garbed in white robe, the apparition has no philtrum or vertical groove between its upper lip and nose. She said she’s being called to live in the kingdom of the Visayan nature spirits or engkantos. She believed these spirits took away the baby in her womb. A car without a rear end appeared and she was then forcefully shoved into it.
Her eyes were overwhelmed by what they saw when she arrived at their kingdom: there was a big multi-storey mansion with beautiful furniture and bright lights. All around were astounding objects that human beings can only dream of. She was invited to a meal but she refused. Remembering that to eat engkanto food would seal her fate to be resident of this kingdom forever, she immediately thought of ways to excuse herself from ingesting food of this spirit world.
The engkantos offered her milk, but upon accepting it she mixed in salt before drinking. This made the engkantos angry and she was slapped on the cheek. She told me that engkantos don’t like salt and it is an effective weapon against them. They were offended.
After that hard slap she suddenly found herself on a rocky ledge at the top of a high waterfall. She was so scared because she may have fallen off if the slap would have been stronger. This waterfall was the entrance to the kingdom. She was expelled.
Now she had to return home. Given a chance to continue human life, she was longing to be with her family. At her house she saw people crying and mourning. She peered into the coffin. It was her! Burial will take place soon! Immediately she reclaimed her body. She was thankful that she’s alive. What seemed to her a quick visit to the land of the engkantos had been time-warped. People around told her that she had been away for two days.
Text and photos by Skippy
Intramuros, the historic core of Manila, was once the education and science center of the colonial Philippines. Featured in this post is Colegio de Santa Rosa, an exclusive school for girls. Like their present counterparts, students of the early 1940s here were happily performing the usual school activities, studying in the library, going on a field trip, attending masses in church, and celebrating prom night on the eve of World War II.
The school field trip took place at the Manila Observatory and Weather Bureau.
Text and photos by Skippy
Everybody seems to be talking about the weather these days. Buzzwords as “climate change” and “global warming” may have been instrumental to this. But environment and politics aside, have we ever wondered how Southeast Asia came up with two different seasons, essentially dividing the region into two opposite climatic realms?
Winds north of the equator blow opposite to winds south of the equator, and because Southeast Asia straddles the equator bisecting the region into Most of Southeast Asia vs. Most of Indonesia as far as seasons are concerned, things get a little tricky. As the winter solstice draws nearer, high pressure is created over the great Asian land mass which drives winds into Southeast Asia until it reaches the equator. This is the source of the amihan, or north wind, that makes temperatures drop and sometimes brings rain to the eastern parts of the Philippines. But Southeast Asian weather is not singular because it straddles both hemispheres.
The northern part (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines) experiences cool, dry weather while the southern part (portions of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore) becomes drenched in rain. This is the effect of different wind patterns in adjacent but opposite sides of the equator.
In May to September which is the southern hemisphere winter, they change directions. Winds blowing from Southeast Asia northward into China bring in wet weather known to many as the southwest monsoon, or habagat in Filipino.
In Asia long ago, people were also seriously talking about the weather. They have to because their lives depended on it. Traders from the Philippines sailed into Malay ports with the north wind and waited for five months before returning home when the monsoons changed. Arab and Indian merchants from the west arrived in Malay ports in July and waited until January to return home.
Now do the logistics: Kareem from south India with his pepper, and Hassan from his Bugis homeland with his sandalwood, should be arriving in Melaka by July. They wait until January for Dao Shu when he arrives with his ceramic wares from the Fujian coast. Kareem, Hassan, and Dao Shu exchange shopping bags with each other. Once satisfied, Kareem and Hassan have to return to their homes by then, while Dao Shu will have to wait until May for the southwest monsoon to bring him back to China.
Text and photos by Skippy
The Peranakans may have already known of cheat days when their culture formed around the 17th century. Otherwise Nyonya Laksa would not be born. These people, whose ancestry can be traced to immigrants from South China and marrying into the local Malay population, started a new cuisine that blends good things from the food of their origin and the tropical cupboard. Nyonya has been synonymous to Peranakan, but particularly refers to the women, while Baba are the Peranakan men. Among the food of their creation is the ubiquitous Nyonya Laksa found in Malaysian and Singaporean roadside restaurants, or hawker stalls as they call it, which can dislodge the multi-storey all-beef burgers or your deep-fried potato fries from the top of the grease list.
“Laksa” is etymologically vague, and may have poetically referred to the quantity of noodles in this dish as its suggested derivation was from the Sanskrit term for “one hundred thousand.” Fancying spaghetti bathed in curry sauce? Or more appropriately, a soupy immersion of thick rice noodles in coconut milk with spicy curry? The coconut milk base is the reason for its other name, laksa lemak – lemak being the Malay word for fat, therefore “fatty laksa.” Chicken and prawn stock goes into the coconut milk. Now let’s see the roster of the curry paste ingredients: dried red chillies, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger-like galangal rhizome, candlenuts (occasionally used in Pacific island cooking), turmeric rhizome, leaves known as daun kesum in Malay, dried shrimp paste called belacan, and cooking oil. Another round of chillies if you prefer, this time fresh ones. To sum up, it’s decadent and aromatic. And well, hot.
A great challenge would be to search for the best Nyonya Laksa. Many hawker stalls in Singapore offer a commercial version when it comes to toppings, usually fish cakes, tofu, a hard boiled egg, cucumber slices, and bean sprouts. The more orthodox (but not necessarily the more expensive) ones will have seafood as add-on – it comes as prawns and blood cockles. An Asian favorite, blood cockles are clams found in muddy shores and have acquired its name because of having a reddish compound which similarly makes our blood red – haemoglobin. Chicken pieces, on the other hand, are a very rare complement. Add another round of sambal chilli with chopped daun kesum and it’s ready for the table.
Like pizzas within Italy and beyond the laksa has undergone geographic variations, but put the blame on which garnishes are locally available that suit taste preferences. Penang will have it sour through tamarind juice and haeko, a pungent black prawn paste. Cucumber, pineapple bits, and mint leaves are the final garnish in this dish called Assam laksa, translated as “sour laksa.” Johor will have fried grated coconut, basil leaves, and turnip alongside the more common toppings. Sarawak will lessen the spiciness but is equally satisfying with coriander leaves, candlenuts, and fried egg joining the regular add-ons.
I begin sampling my bowl of Nyonya laksa, moving the ceramic duck spoon at and to a little bit below soup level in a series to gently mix contents. I scoop a spoonful of the hot broth and slightly blow on it to make the temperature more acceptable. The first sips deliver the rich flavor of the curry-laden coconut milk so strong it conjures up images of the Malay countryside. Hot is an understatement – the dish while steaming hot, is more than that with its generous share of capsaicinoid stings. The attempt to immediately down the whole mélange is inhibited as several of the long, slippery noodles slide off from each snap of the chopsticks. My table is under a big ceiling fan, so important a place because very soon I am feeling perspiration. No table napkins, and I have no wipes either that should have managed the sweat and the tiny mischievous splashes of oily laksa broth. Suddenly I remember the Buddhist saying of valuing each moment greatly, of taking time to feel happiness from even the most mundane things of all.
This holds true with the happiness that is Nyonya Laksa.
Text and photos by Skippy