Silay and Bacolod, the Philippines
October 30, 2011 / October 31, 2015 /November 5, 2016 / December 2, 2017
When people asked what my hometown had to offer, I could only think of one thing: FOOD! Bacolod, though not lacking in other cultural attractions, would always be known, foremost, as a foodie city. Much of the fame came with the iconic chicken inasal (roast chicken), a staple in Bacolod’s food trail. A visit to the city was never complete without a stop at the strip of inasal restaurants in Manokan Country. But how was it a cut above the usual chicken barbecue? Perhaps the difference lay in the secret marinade consisting, in part, of a bright red condiment. But you didn’t hear that from me.
To each her own and Mom owned isol: chicken tail or just plain chicken butt – buli in my language. Small but fleshy and juicy like a mini Minaj. At home, we would always save that one and only isol for Mom. In Manokan Country, I could have my fill of luscious butt. Curiously, we always went to the same restaurant – Aida’s. My brother swore their award-winning inasal was the best of the lot. We never bothered with the others; we just took his word for it.
Kare-kare, although not an Ilonggo dish by any stretch, was an all-time fave. Mom cooked the seafood version with tuna chunks, which I could never find in any restaurant. Most served the usual oxtail and offal, a few had prawns. Still nomnom-worthy in any form for the peanut sauce and banana flower, both my favorite ingredients. Sorry Kapampangans, but I found the creamiest kare-kare ever in Bacolod. The peanut sauce was so thick I could’ve spread it on bread like peanut butter. What was heaven for the palate was hell for the ankles, though. Hours later, I could feel the grip of uric acid on my joints.
Still, this creamy kare-kare deserved repeat orders at Pendy’s, an institution in Bacolod’s food scene. Even the servers were old guards like Larry and Mike who had been serving their loyal clientele for decades. When Ki uploaded our photo on Facebook, a friend posted his regards to one of the servers, identifying Mike by name. Familiarity, in this case, did not breed contempt but customer satisfaction.
Although the restaurant interior was rather plain, the upturned wooden ventanilla as a room divider lent an interesting counterpoint. Who would’ve thought?
The pièce de résistance of Ilonggo cuisine for me would always be KBL, so named for its major ingredients: kadios, baboy, langka – translated as black-eyed beans, pork, and jackfruit – with some leafy greens and sour batwan thrown in. Finding kadios (also called pigeon pea) in Manila was no better than waiting for Godot, and the restaurant version was always watered down. I could only have it in Bacolod. When I was a kid, I devoured Mom’s KBL until my belly was almost bursting and I was close to barfing. It was love with every mouthful.
On one of my homecoming trips, I wanted to share authentic KBL with my friends, but both large restos and small karinderia either ran out or didn’t serve it. Until we had our eureka moment at Imay’s. But woohoo quickly turned to boohoo. Alas, the soup was pale and I could count the kadios with my fingers!
KBL, apparently, was not regular restaurant fare. I came to believe that a proper KBL could only be home-coooked. The closest I could get to Mom’s recipe was at a relative’s house. She showed hospitality with her consistently delectable dinner spreads. With just the right amount of ingredients, each spoonful was rich in both flavor and childhood memories. Burp, craving satisfied. I could only wish this missing pièce de résistance would find its way to restaurant menus and buffet tables on a regular, at least in Bacolod.
As for seafood, we would get our fix at another of my brother’s choice, Aboy’s in Singcang, one of those restos that always ran out of KBL. They made it up with buttery baked scallops and garlicky rellenong kasag (stuffed crab) downed with buko juice straight from the humongous fruit.
The freshest seafood, though, could be had at the city next door. Even from the cultural center of Silay, Tama Plaza was still a long way across a sugarcane plantation. The complex of bamboo restaurants sat on stilts jutting out to Guimaras Strait, a narrow strip of sea teeming with tropical marine species. It was the place to be for seafood. Fish was so fresh it went from sea to belly in a jiffy.
My family had our last meal here before heading to the airport nearby. Fish dish aside, we had our fill of talaba (oyster), notorious for wreaking havoc on tummies. Despite our flight in a couple of hours, we threw caution to the sea breeze and polished off all the shells. Happy to report none in our group dropped bombs on the plane. Otherwise, it would’ve been a terror attack of another kind.
No talk of Bacolod, the country’s sugar capital, would be complete without its famous sweets. But this time I avoided the modern iterations in fancy cafés and cakeshops. I wanted throwback. What could better capture the sweetness of my childhood than the traditional sweets that gnawed away my milk teeth?
Sucking on buko or melon ice pops in plastic was a good place to start. They evoked those innocent summers of picking fights using sticks of ice. Beyond mass-produced pasalubong staples piyaya and barquillos, Negros had more going with less touristy sweets. Mom would support these cottage industries by buying them at the public market or from street vendors on our way to the farm. All of which were served us in a large bilao (winnowing tray) during our homecoming trip to La Castellana.
Typical Negrenses, we indulged our sweet tooth and sampled every item of varying degrees of sweetness from the simple baye-baye, a small cake of coconut and rice (sweetness level 5) to the classic suman sa ibus, steamed rice cake wrapped in a long strip of palm leaf and unwrapped in mummy fashion (sweetness level 1, requiring a dip onto brown sugar).
For me, the best food trip was one taken on memory lane. Although I relished the excitement of tasting new and foreign flavors, I also took comfort in partaking of the past. They were not called comfort food for nothing. Memories came alive again, if only in my taste buds.