By Betty Samson
My childhood memories include family trips to the town of Baliwag, Bulacan. My father grew up in a big house there, built in 1917 with his parents, brothers and sisters, where the family managed vast tracts of ricelands in two provinces.
But those glory days are over now. The old ancestral house is gone, and so is everybody else including my father.
My trips back to Baliwag now become nostalgic, as I see the old sights we used to see when we were kids. But the town has boomed fast. Gone is the sleepy air of the quiet provincial life; Baliwag has turned into a bee hive, full of young people whose energy gives the town its life.
But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed with this town and it’s their native products. When I go to the barangay (a mini town) of Tibag where the old house used to be, I buy and bring home their snackfoods which Baliwag is known for. These are the sweet beans, butong pakwan (watermelon seeds), pop beans, chicharon (deep fried pig skin), green peas, cornik (deep fried corn kernels), white pumpkin seeds, and banana chips. When you buy these same products in Manila they are old. It’s because the urban Filipino would rather snack on potato chips and chocolate wafers. The native snacks, sitting on the shelves for weeks, maybe even months, lose their crispiness and become stale as they wait to be purchased.
So when I’m in Baliwag I buy these snack foods there and bring them home fresh and crunchy to the teeth.
Speaking of teeth, a nemesis of your pearly whites are the butong pakwan (watermelon seeds) and the cornik (corn kernels). The black watermelon seeds are somewhat damp so they’re easy to crack open with your front teeth. They’re salty but not enough to burn your lips. But they’re dangerously addicting. When we were kids (up to today as adults) we could polish a kilo of these seeds while watching TV, working with only one hand.
The result? I have a slightly grooved right front tooth. Just a tiny groove – where I used to lodge a watermelon seed before I crack it open when I press it with a lower tooth (which has a tiny groove too). Ah, a childhood souvenir of those good ol’ days.
The cornik are equally addicting with its salty-garlicky taste and crunchy texture. But they’re the enemies of teeth with dental fillings. I’ve lost a filling more than once as I happily crunched away to stave off a salty craving.
During my years as an editor of a popular local magazine, my editorial staff discovered the comfort of having something to crack and chew on with their mouths while their eyes proofread endless manuscripts. I was tasked to drive to Baliwag every weekend to buy bags of these snackfood items which my staff crunched on all week. One day, I heard a joke among our advertising and marketing department. Among them, I had been dubbed the “butong pakwan pusher.”
Another food indigenous to Bulacan is the buro (rice fermented with fish or mustard leaves). It’s an acquired taste, however. It has a carefully balanced vinegary-salty-oniony-garlicky taste with a mushy texture that the natives of Bulacan eat with deep fried mudfish (hito). When we were kids, however, having acquired the taste at a young age, we piled it on plain rice and ate everything with a relish. The buro can also combine with certain fresh fruits and vegetable dishes, depending on your familiarity with its sourish taste.
Another product from Baliwag is the putok – an upgraded version of the common pan de sal, a sweetish small bun traditionally eaten in the mornings with coffee. But the pan de sal is lightweight with plenty of air pockets in the bread, the butt of jokes among the local folk because any time the cost of the bread rises, they say all you are paying for is a lot of air. By contrast, the putok is packed, like wholewheat bread. And because “putok” means in the vernacular “to burst,” the bun carries a crack on the surface, giving the impression that the bread is so packed with dough it bursts in the oven while baking.
The putok buns I buy in Tibag are soft, packed, warm in color and buttery. A jumbo size is as filling as a meal. Putok is a traditional bread too but the common version bakeries produce in Manila don’t compare.
Once, I was given a putok bought from a local bakery. The bun had a slightly toasty top, the signature crack was there on the surface, it was sprinkled with sugar and you could see that the bread inside the crack was white. I took one bite — it was sweet, and my tongue couldn’t find the familiar buttery taste. The bread jammed in my throat. I couldn’t swallow it.This was not the putok I knew.
Bulacan is known for more products such as their delicious types of rice cakes but the items I mentioned above are my favorites because they’re the “comfort foods” of my past.