Nostalgia sets in as the monsoon season runs its course. Paddy fields become alive and the first rice seedlings slowly color the expansive mirrors of water with green. Forests and grasslands become lush and indulge the senses with the aroma of damp earth and vegetation. During August when the rains peak in many parts of Asia, the intricate story of nature in the well-watered tropics is being performed to a greater degree.
A chapter of this story lies within the soil. In technology as well as belief, the sacred earth has been ascribed an important role. Where would we be anyway without the soil? The first stone age people gathered roots, stems, bulbs, and small animals from it, and later agricultural know-how has fashioned the precious earth into simple gardens of sweet potato, taro, yam, and fruiting vines, then eventually into elaborate rice fields and crop farms feeding international trade. In folklore a person after his or her life’s end is received by the soil, and countless forms of belief have developed about the bliss of an eternal life beyond the grave or the horrors of the dead returning from the earthy tomb.
We are made to believe, at least by traditional Filipino folklore, that particular land and water formations are also inhabited by the supernatural. Great care is advised in visiting lakes, rivers, the sea, caves, hills, and forests. Waters are known to get their quota of lives per year, especially those of non-locals. Mountains are inhabited by spirits that lead visitors astray, or kidnap them in exchange for trunks of the banana tree.
Termite mounds are seen as the abode of unseen beings called nuno that can inflict illness if not acknowledged according to ritual. The nuno constitutes part of the various beings called lamang-lupa (inhabitants of the soil). This is why there is always caution in roaming the wilds and in getting something from it.
Mythological or otherwise, the termite mound is still home to one of man’s household nemesis. Nature’s good guys of wood decomposition had become man’s bad guys of architectural destruction. Vermins of the netherworld, the termite became the target of a war when man entered into settled life, roughly the same time when the human species started the back-breaking task of agriculture.
The termite however, is not to be underestimated. Aside from carrying out its clandestine operation of bringing the house down more successfully than the plans of our politicians, a subfamily of this witty creature can also cultivate mushrooms to make ends meet.
Mushrooms called Termitomyces are tended by this subfamily of termites. In the Philippines these fungi appear during August and are seen poking from termite mounds after a period of thunderstorms. The relationship between these mushrooms and the termites is best seen as a symbiosis. Termites subsist on plant parts and wood which is basically made up of cellulose and lignin. This termite subfamily however, cannot digest these two organic compounds and have to rely on the mushrooms to do work for them.
The termites make it easy for the mushrooms to thrive by making a fungus comb on which the Termitomyces can grow and get nutrients from surroundings, including the insects’ poop. I chanced upon a surrealist diorama of it in the National Museum of Science and Nature Tokyo. When the wood has been partly decomposed, the termites begin to feed on the detritus. Termitomyces spores too will be munched unaltered by the termites and later will be passed out to begin another life cycle. Now who’s smarter? Our ancestors began to farm less than ten thousand years ago; the termites’ forefathers were already farming mushrooms several millions of years ago!
Mushrooms harvested on termite mounds are not the only edible fungi of the monsoon season. Counterparts can also be found emerging from decaying banana trunks or growing on old bamboo. These wild mushrooms, freshly picked in a wet early morning after a downpour, are cherished in Filipino rural cuisine.
A simple thick mungbean soup will be made special with moringa or chilli leaves and slivers of Termitomyces. Dinengdeng and bulanglang, quintessential soupy vegetable dishes of north and south Luzon island, respectively, will have their countryside flavors heightened by mushrooms. The coconut-growing regions will be bathing the fungus in rich coconut milk, or may just have the mushrooms wrapped in banana leaves to be roasted.
A hot soupy dish of vegetables, mushrooms, and fish to go with rice will make a basic yet perfect meal for a rainy day. Now imagine enjoying this in a hut beside wide paddy fields, the early evening meal lit only by a lamp protecting a small flickering flame. The otherwise momentous calm is only broken by the din of pelting raindrops and croaking frogs. A thunderstorm is again on the way. During August while villages thankful for the coming of water celebrate with fiestas and parade saints on boats, lowly mushrooms such as Termitomyces herald the apex of the northern hemisphere monsoon and take part in the great cycle of life in the Asian tropics.
Text and photos by Jack G. L. Medrana
Like Us in Facebook
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