This is the fourth in a series of articles of Tom Firme’s many visits to the iconic Sunday tiangge.
In the early sixties, Manila was sprawling. A new capital city was cobbled from the fringe barrios of Caloocan, Novaliches, Marikina, San Juan and Manila itself. Government buildings and monuments sprouted in Quezon City, and the Housing Projects soon followed. In 1966, our growing family moved to Project 6 at Road 7, fondly called Newsmen’s Row by its residents. From my window, I could see the carabaos or water buffalo tilling the soil. Bordering the open rice field and along the creek were rows of the giant of tall grasses, bamboo. You did not have to look outside; you could hear the creaking of the poles and the hissing ruffle of leaves in the gentle wind.
My father once told me that the softest part of the bamboo cane came from the rhino like horn shooting out from the edges of a bamboo cluster. The gatherer chopped it off and peeled the green layers to get to the soft white center. Bamboo shoot cuts were plentiful then. Once in a while, it is available in Sidcor.
Today, the once dominant ‘kawayan’ or bamboo thickets have been reduced to thin dwarf plots. Bamboo harvesters are forced to venture farther out into ravines and rocky tracts. There still is hope for the species. CS First Green Agri Industrial Corporation has been transforming otherwise non agriculture land with bamboo orchards. In the province of Pangasinan, a 300-hectare bamboo plantation is growing rows of this giant grass. The agri-business plans to expand to 30,000 hectares by the next decade.
Small Fry: Alamang and Dulong
Baby shrimp and Silver fish fry were traditionally harvested from the sea shore by children. The older and taller sibling would hold one open end of the funnel shaped net on the waist deep side of the shore. The shorter one would hold the other end on ankle-deep water. Together these sun darkened kids would trawl the cove, turn around, exchange sides, and pass repeatedly until the net filled up with fingerlings. That was a scene back in the sixties, before the fishing villages transformed into beach front playgrounds.
The marginal fry fisher family is a rare sight now. Today, the fry is grown in a brine laboratory for the food manufacturers and some are available at Sidcor.
Carabao or water buffalo were plentiful in the 60’s. They wandered everywhere. My dad had a major accident once with a carabao on a busy highway. The car’s front end was bent out of shape and the carabao was lifeless on its side with its legs stiff with rigor mortis. That was not a happy recollection.
Carabaos tilling the soil are rare sights now. The diesel tractor has replaced the grass grazing beast in many farms.
Today’s carabaos are in dairy farms. One huge complex in Bulacan has thousands of carabaos to manufacture a gourmet ice cream. My all-time favorite is Mantecado. The Arce family developed this frozen dessert from a Cuban recipe that’s like French Vanilla but more yellow with nutmeg, custard, and water buffalo milk. I have two liters of Buko Pandan Dessert in Carabao cream by Nathaniel’s that’s frozen and waiting to be opened.
Carabeef is lean, protein rich and less fatty than cattle.
All these game meats were available at the Sunday market. I still have to see an endemic black or pied pig in the forest. Most of the wildlife had been domesticated and are corralled backyard farms.
The Giant Clam has yet to be sold in Sidcor. It is against environmental law to disturb this sea mollusk. The smaller clams, mussels, and snails near the shore are always available in the Sunday market. For the sea creatures with life spans beyond a hundred years, you have to dive deeper and farther away. It is a crime to harvest and market the turtles, all corals, and the giga clam.
There was a time when the taklobo was sold in Manila during – wait for it– the sixties.
Many houses then, had an outdoor feature of stone and cement called the Grotto. It resembled the sanctuary in Lourdes, France where in 1858 the peasant girl, Bernadette Soubrious had a vision of Mary, who declared in French patois that she was the Immaculate Conception. The replica garden grotto in Catholic homes had a statue of the Virgin Mary, a pool of water, flowers, plants and usually several large half clam shells cantilevered into the rocks. My preschool mind always imagined finding a large pearl inside.
One early morning in Project 6, my mom got back from the palengke or wet market. She had just purchased a giant clam that was a foot wide. She opened it up, cut the slimy muscle into bite sized cubes, added vinegar, onion, hot peppers, and kalamansi or Philippine lime, a native fruit that had recently caught the attention of gourmet cooking. I watched my mother mix the Kilawin Taklobo and plated the dish on the separated half shells. I was given only one piece to taste. Before I could get another, she says, “This is Madame Imelda Marcos’ favorite.” She then sealed the marinated rare piece with foil, dressed up, and left for Malacañang Palace.
Fast forward to May of 2014. I woke up early for a whole day visit to experience Senor Antoni Gaudi’s life work -Sagrada Familia – in Barcelona. On display at the entrance was a holy water vessel wherein faithful would dip their second and third fingers prior to the sign of the cross ritual. Listening to the prerecorded audio of the tour on a headset, I found myself in front of the re purposed shell of an old creature, a 36-inch wide taklobo from the Philippine sea.
Meanwhile, China is asserting ownership of the South China Sea. Their maritime militia is in the Spratley Islands on a low intensity invasion. Their dredger fleet filled the delicate reef areas with sand. In less than a year, artificial airport strips of concrete could be seen on Google maps. Before the epic land reclamation, they sent thousands of fishing vessels to strip the areas of corals and clams. The Philippine coast guard boarded one such vessel –its deck full of the oldest marine creatures, mainly turtle, coral, and the taklobo. The Chinese captain and crew were jailed for their crime against nature. The other 999 boats got away.
Like Atlantis, the island airports will submerge. In this lifetime, the only ruling party of China will end. The taklobo will populate the China sea once more.
There are patches of hope within the Philippine waters. Giant clam farms are developing in Davao. Remote island families and tourism corporations are big on marine conservation. My friend Heidi, of Club Paradise in Malcapuya Island boasts of a 48-inch-wide higanteng taklobo in a spot that should remain classified. A citizen of the Tagbanua Nation, an island caretaker we fondly called ‘Omar Sharif’, is the guardian of the sea garden sanctuary at Calumbuyan Island. When free diving there, make sure you don’t get your hand or foot stuck on a living clamp. It would be a shame to kill the mollusk just to save you. On one nameless remote island, a clam as big as your head can be harvested. That taste of marinated clam brought me back to my mom’s kitchen in Project Six.
By the turn of the century, Omar Sharif’s great great grandchild could be supplying Taklobo in Sidcor.
About the author. Based in Vancouver BC, Tom Firme emigrated together with his family from the Philippines to Canada in the summer of 1993. He has an undergraduate degree in Architecture and a graduate degree in Urban and Regional Planning, both from the University of the Philippines. He is married to the former Ingrid Roxas and they have four adult children living in New York, Manila, and the twins in Vancouver.
Mr. Firme was gainfully employed until the pandemic changed everything. This article is a sharing of his personal life stories. Every chance he is in the Philippines, a visit to Sidcor is a must but this year the early morning breakfast on March 15 at the capital city’s longest running tiangge was not an option. The novel corona virus of 2019 was spreading fast. He has more articles to share on the pre-pandemic, one-stop market where you will find clothes, toys, food, plants, pets and community. Who knows if his visit last March 8, 2020 would be the final Sunday of that normal?