As I write this I am on Day 8 of the Master Cleanse yet again. I started a few days after the New Year and I am staying faithful to it if only because I really indulged decadently over the holidays. This is my attempt at a balancing “yin” to all the “yang” that Christmas and New Year proved to be.
I was on Day 3 when I left for my hometown, Ormoc, to do my rounds around the district. It is torture being here while on the Master Cleanse, as I am tempted and assaulted with good food at practically every turn. Yes, the food here is so good — maybe because these are flavors and tastes I grew up with, cooked in kitchens whose owners I actually know, but maybe also because they are simply consistent when it comes to providing that kind of pleasurable experience I desire to have with every meal I have. Lunch and dinner are highlights of my day; I like good food, I look forward to having good food. It can be as simple as fried chicken or linung-ag na saging na saba with ginamos (boiled bananas with fish paste, similar to bagoong balayan) to more elaborate Spanish dishes like stews and casseroles and ribs and roasts that require hours of preparation. The charm of being in my hometown, I think, is the fact that between each member of our family, we know exactly where to look for our every craving.
So, because I cannot comfort myself with all that good food at the moment, let me do you (and me) a favor by running through a list of all that is good and delicious this part of the world. I may not be able to enjoy it just yet but I can find surely find immense pleasure in the memory of it, alongside the promise that it will not be too long until I am able to enjoy them in full, uninterrupted, the next time I am here. That will be very soon.
Mango tarts. Whenever I go to Palompon, I look forward to eating the tarts sold at the local market. No brands, but whichever stall you get them from, they are good. Mayor Ramon Onate and his wife Lourd always prepare a wonderful spread but I zero in on three: the imbao, the ginamos and the sisi. I buy sisi and ginamos elsewhere but the one they serve in their home is the best I have ever tried. I think Lourd pours vinegar on it and mixes in more spices and condiments to make it extra special. Give me sisi or ginamos with rice, just that, and Royal Tru Orange as a drink (as a break from all the splendid saltiness), and I am happy.
Ormoc’s Best Original Cassava Cake by Flores. Room temperature, warmed a bit in the microwave or eaten cold straight from the ref, this is delicious. Through the years, this has become a favorite pasalubong item.
Azot Sia’s Machang. Sticky rice cooked Chinese-style, filled with meat, mushrooms and nuts and then wrapped in leaves. This is delicious and my dad loves bringing several of these when he goes to Manila.
Rica’s Icebox Cake and Cheesecake. I am very lucky to have a chef for a sister-in-law because not only does she cook well she also bakes wonderful pastries. She can make pineapple jam and jelly from the lovely pineapples that abound here and among her bestsellers are the Icebox Cake and different kinds of cheesecake. Oh, and one of the reasons I am on the Master Cleanse is because I ate a mound of her shortbread cookies over Christmas.
Cinnamon Rolls from Sofia’s Bakeshop. My husband never resists getting a bag of these cinnamon rolls when he passes this bakeshop by the highway. The dough is dense and soft and you tend to eat more than you should because it is never too sweet.
Tita Marie Cimafranca’s Homemade Corned Beef. My sister gets dreamy-eyed when she speaks of Tita Marie’s corned beef, and with good reason. This is available by special order only but it is so good that even if I have not tasted it in a very long time, my mouth waters at the thought of it. I was probably in elementary school then, and was amazed that there was corned beef other than the ones I knew that came in cans.
Tita Fe Pongos’s Homemade Ham and Empanaditas. She is famous for these but I do not remember Tita Fe making anything that was not good. Her sliced ham is as good as ham should be and her empanaditas are a delight: little packets that you fry to a golden crisp and eat as soon as it is no longer piping hot on the inside, the pleasure so great that your shoulders inadvertently come up and little “ooh”s and “ahh”s escape through your lips.
Tita Precy Pongos’ Fresh Lumpia. Growing up I thought everyone in Ormoc knew how to make great fresh lumpia, with the wrapper so soft and thin and flawless, and the sauce with just the right amount of garlic and sweet. I say that because every household that threw a party seemed to have the exact same recipe. It wasn’t until I was much bigger that I realized everyone had the same source — Tita Precy. This lumpia is legendary here.
Big Roy’s. Their Chicken in a Basket is my absolute favorite, especially when it is freshly cooked. I do not know what kind of magic is in there but whatever they put in there, it is better than just wonderful. Whenever I am in Ormoc I can eat that for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day that I am here, I kid you not, and in fact, I have done that many times — just the chicken with limitless amounts of rice, or by itself, newly cooked or not. Either way you have it, it is good, in that way that makes you want to have it over and over and over again. Big Roy’s Pork Belly Bounty is exactly that — a bounty, a very delightful one at that. Pork belly will always be celebrated, it will never lose its charm, and this one is a fine example of that. While there you may want to try the baboy sulop and lamb adobo — they are just as popular as the first two I mentioned. Their apple pie is pedigreed also, and is a recipe from the grand matriarch of the Serafica clan.
Michael Berndt’s Shinken and Salami. Michael, a German, came to Ormoc, fell in love and had a family, made his business flourish, and then made ham and sausages and other cured meat — in that order. Michael knows his meat, and is passionate about making everything himself, from the seasoning to the curing and the smoking and the slicing (for this he uses a professional machine). My dream is for him to open a deli; it would be the first of its kind in our city.
Sal’s Cheeseburger and Camaron Relleno. This is a restaurant that has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. They have good home-cooked fare, that is well-loved and popular, but my favorites are their camaron relleno, a version of which I grew up knowing as stuffed shrimps cooked by Manang Kessin, our long-time cook. Their camaron relleno is chubby and sturdily delicious, with a sweet and sour sauce that keeps you wanting more and more. I am not much of a burger person but their cheeseburger is stellar, and is most requested by returning guests from near and far places.
Cheese Cupcakes of Tita Inday Larrazabal. I may have never met a cheese cupcake I did not make friends with, and there have been many sophisticated versions that I tasted (after all, you attract what you think of). But like a first love that never dies, I keep coming back to this one. Tita Inday makes these homey cupcakes in a way that only she can. It is dense and sweet with bits of grated cheese on top that are toasted on some parts more than the other and all together it makes for a very happy thing. I wish she would market this nationwide. It is one of those things you wish you could keep as a delicious secret except that you can’t, and you shouldn’t, because doing so would just be the height of selfishness. My cousin Kay, when she was pregnant, craved this endlessly and my sister would send her a package filled with these by boat to Cebu, the old-fashioned way.
(To be continued)