Rustic cuisine from the Aeta of Negros
Malay, Aklan – A fresh anahaw leaf in hand, 62-year-old Marita Mahinay sits in front of an open wood fire and warms up her makeshift cooking pot. It’s the first day of a festival that celebrates the different faces of Aeta culture in the Philippines, and she is gamely whipping up a meal from ingredients found in the forest.
An ethnic Ata from Cadiz in Negros island, Marita is preparing the native dish with her 33-year-old son Danilo. Into the leaf goes slivers of tender ubod from the rattan plant, tiny river shells called banag, and fermented fish locally known as bunog.
After pouring water into the mix, the mother-and-son tandem wraps the package tightly before placing it in the fire. To prevent the leaf from getting burned, wood resin called bulitik is added to the medium flame. She tells the crowd gathered under the tree that they will know it’s cooked when the aroma of the fish and ubod stew begins to waft out.
When it’s done, she proudly shares the meager dish with the onlookers. Everyone agreed that the broth was flavorful and the fish surprisingly fresh, even though its appearance was not exactly appealing.
“Biro niyo ang karunungan na ‘yan,” enthused Joycie Dorado-Alegre, head of the subcommission on cultural minorities of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA). “Napakaganda ng balot at ‘yun ang ginamit pagluto, parang ibon.”
Speaking at the conclusion of the festival, she summed up the tasty treat: “Maalat-alat ang buno, at sa sabaw naghalo-halo ang lasa. Walang sobra na lasa, katamtaman ang timpla.”
But she cautioned the Ata cooks, “huwag lang lagyan ng MSG. Ang uso ngayon ay organic, walang artificial.”
--All photos by YASMIN ARQUIZA, Slide show produced by ROEHL NIÑO BAUTISTA
Food from the forest
The cooking demonstration was just one of the activities in the two-day Dimgo ke Eata Ribo (Dream of all Eata) festival held here, which gathered some 200 Ati mostly from various villages in the western Visayas region, including Negros and Guimaras.
This is the third festival organized by facilitator Jenne de Beer, who said the events are meant to draw government attention to the plight of the Aeta, one of the most marginalized indigenous communities in the country. He gets assistance from the Non-Timber Forest Products-Task Force (NTFP-TF), an organization working on livelihood and environmental concerns in upland communities, as well as local groups.
The Aeta are known by many names—Ati in the Western Visayas region, Ata in parts of Mindanao, Agta in Luzon, and Batak in Palawan.
During last year’s Aeta festival in Tarlac, the Agta of Quezon also displayed their native cuisine, according to an NTFP-TF newsletter. There was agakat, a root crop from a climbing plant that takes the place of rice in their diet; bayoko, a type of shellfish that is boiled and cleaned thoroughly before it is made into adobo or bopis; and ubod ng pugahan, the tip of a palm tree used in meat and vegetable stews.
The Aeta villagers also showed the lowlanders how to make and set a trap in the forest, how to build a fire without using matches or a lighter, and how to cook food inside bamboo receptacles.
A book of indigenous recipes
Modesta Francisco, another Ata from Cadiz in Negros, said they still rely very much on their forest environment for their daily needs. “May ara kami lasang. Kanami sa kahoy kag busay,” (We have forests with lots of rivers and trees) she said.
In the neighboring island of Panay, one of the traditional sources of meat is the land turtle, known as biyo-ok in the Ati language. Rachel Mateo, tribal secretary of the Nagpana Minorities Association in Barotac Viejo in Iloilo, said the animal used to be abundant in their locality but its numbers have dwindled due to the growing number of migrants and the destruction of its forest habitat.
The NCCA’s Alegre hopes to promote greater appreciation for the Aeta way of life by initiating projects that will showcase aspects of their unique culture. After watching the cooking demonstration, her immediate thought was to come up with a book that will document the recipes of the Aeta communities.
She excitedly recalls talking to some Aeta youth and coming up with four recipes in just 15 minutes. “May binakol na tatlong klase, niluluto sa kawayan,” she said.
At the end of the festival, she exhorted Aeta mothers to teach the recipes to their children and write them down. Alegre encouraged them to take pride in their culinary tradition despite the hardships of life, ending poetically, “The other face of poverty is beauty.” – KG, GMA News