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UMINGAN, Pangasinan — Every morning or noon, just after heavy rainfall, schoolboys, teenagers and male adults roam the rice fields and river banks. There is neither shade from the sweltering heat but they mind it, the least.
For their concentration is glued onto something.
Evening comes; the same folks with the same enthusiasm tote basins half-filled with water and position these near lights where strange insects buzz around. The lights could be anywhere in basketball courts, at their backyards, in front of their houses and at barangay rural streets.
All are bent on running their prey to the ground.
Welcome to a world of local inhabitants from Nueva Viscaya, the Ilocos and Pangasinan who stalk termites, beetles and field rats following their long-held tradition of indigenous gastronomic delight of eating exotic food.
How many times was it deemed that one man’s meat maybe another man’s poison – and vice versa, or, glanced at another angle, what is sauce for a goose may not be sauce for the gander.
But such observation does not always hold water from the stretches of Nueva Viscaya, the Ilocos, Pangasinan and the highlands where indigenous inhabitants still affirm their food sovereignty and relationship with their traditional foods which cannot be separated from their cultures, social life, dialects, identity and spirituality.
Indigenous foods matter. They are an example of food system based on native born knowledge and innovation over the span of multiple generations which help to sustain communities in far-flung barangays, particularly during trying times.
Indigenous food systems in the Philippines exist as a testament to the endurance of local people, and even experts from the United Nations (UN) offer the argument these are more important than ever.
Herald Express, traversing these places last week, discovered their food sovereignty as collective, inter-generational rights based on traditional knowledge and practices and the land, water, animals, plants, seeds, insects and the natural cycles that sustain these.
First days of heavy rains that signal onset of rainy season signal revival of a “rooted-in, place-based experiences with the natural world” of the Nueva Viscayans, the Iloko, Pangasinense and highlanders where essential foundation of a lifeway, traditional knowledge and wellbeing, rests.
Take the case of termites. These flying ants emerge from their dens only during the first rainy days of May. Out in the open, termites instinctively head for a light source as a safety signal. But it is the cause of their death.
Weak flyers, they keep buzzing around a light source, like a bulb or lighted candle. Such situation is where termites are caught.
Macarion Caday, in his early thirty’s and staying at Sarrat Municiplaity, Ilocos Norte, showed how termites were caught. A basin, half-filled with water is placed as near as possible to the termites swarming around the light. These are immediate drowned. Termites captured easily fills up a basin’s brim.
How termites are cooked: Caday demonstrated the usual way of cooking termites. First, termites are placed in a wok and appropriate water and vinegar added. It is covered until the heat vaporizes the water and vinegar.
Then cooking lard and the usual spices (garlic, ground pepper, salt) are added until the termites were fried crisply.
Transferring the fried termites into a big bowl, Caday tasted what he cooked and exclaimed, “Ayna apo, naraman!” Caday offered it this Herald Express columnist who found the friedtermites bordering on “tangy” and delectable, halfway between the taste of the famous native delicacy, ‘chicharon.”
Termites, as called in Ilocos as “labbo-labbogan, Tagalogs call it “anay” or “gamu-gamu.” In Kankana-ey, it is “liyek” or “niyek.”
Ibalois, call it “sigmot” or “ashepo;” In Ifugao, it is known as “liyoh.” Many in the Ilocos poetically describe termites “anay nga adda payak na.”
Other Nueva Viscayans present that day Caday demonstrated how termites were cooked confided a “no-kidding advice” to city residents in Cordillera and the lowlands who think termites are an irritant and pest in their lives: “Ayna, apo, makan ata; diskarte la ti panagluto na!”
Their advice holds solid ground. A study previously conducted by the Food and Nutrition research Institute (FNRI) found out 100 grams of cooked termites contain 8.3 grams of carbohydrates; protein, 6.5; ash, 2.2; fats, 1.2; and 113 milligrams of phosphorus; iron, 96.2; Vitamin A, 85; calcium, 31; niacin, 1.3; riboflavin, 0.89, and thiamin, 0.04.
In Umingan, Pangasinan, Herald Express witnessed folks gathering beetles, called “sibaweng” in Pangasinense, or “abal-abal,” and also dubbed “ab-abbeng.” Tagalogs call it “salagubang.”
Umingan folks invited Herald Express’s columnist along the banks of Banila River that lazily meanders along the municipality, in search of red-brown beetles along sandy soilsand on rice fields left to fallow or rest, for next season’s planting.
Interestingly, the Umingan folks gathered leaves of what they called “biday, a kind of plant and barks of the “manzanita.” These, they utilized as “pam-paangot,” to lure the beetles out from their lairs. Astonishingly, the beetles were attracted by the peculiar smell of the biday and manzanita.
Overhead, flocks of birds, descended nearby, attracted, too, bythe beetles being lured by the Umingan folks and hoping to get a share of the beetles as food.
Beetles lured usually cling to the reeds where these are caught by hand and placed in containers.
After the wings and legs are clipped off, the beetles can be cooked in three styles, as adobo, paksiw or fried. Wenceslao Talita, from Umingan, fried the beetles and Daily Laborer partook of the food, together with the family and friends of Talita.
Nutrition experts also discovered that for 100 grams of abal-abal, these contain 6 mg. of iron, 13.4 grams protein, 22.6 grams calcium, 1.4 grams fat and 2.9 grams carbohydrates.
Beetles are considered by nutritionists as one among the rich source of protein. Wine drinkers in Pangasinan love to partake of the cooked beetle as finger food.
It was also at Pangasinan where daily Laborer watched folks swarm over dry rice fields looking for a four-legged creature – the field rats.
Wielding stout sticks, they flushed the rats from their hiding places, chased them down and with brief strokes of the sticks, immobilized the rats which were then gathered.
Along the river bank, the folks, after looking for the holes where the rats were holed up, drenched the holes, forcing the drowning rats to come out and be beaten down.
In their houses, the rats were skinned and gutted. Many Pangasinense folks prefer their field rats fried.
However, in Nueva Viscaya, Daily Laborer watched how the folks prepared rats to be eaten. First, it was boiled in water with guava leaves. Then it was cooked as adobo. After which the adobo rats were fried.
The Nueva Viscayans and the Pangasinense tried offering Daily Laborer to partake of the cooked rats. Unfortunately, he did not have the courage to try it.
The mere thought of eating a rat may send many scurrying to throw up. However, Dondon Agilem, from Nueva Viscaya summed it up by saying, “Filipinos, daring as they are, would go for the thrill, rather than the taste.”
In the case of eating rats, the Nueva Viscayans and the Pangasinense differ on how they describe the taste of a cookedrat. “The Nueva Viscayans describe it as, “Ayna Ludi, naramandiay ba-o!”
On the other hand the Pangasinense insist, “Ayna, Ludi, naimasdiay ba-o!”
The Iloko, on the other foot, declare, “Ayna Ludi, na-nanam diay ba-o!”
Indigenous foods, like termites, beetles, field rats and others demonstrate the local populace’s innovation, adaptability andbiodiversity in the face of major challenges like food scarcity and even climate change, according to Sevello Olampan, from Ilocos Norte.
Filipina compatriot Darlene Mendoza Wiedemann, who made a study titled “Food Sovereignty and Sustainability: A Philippine Case Study of the Philippines,” and Submitted to the University of San Francisco, USA, looked at food sovereignty as “the right of local populace to a healthy and culturally appropriate food through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their own food as well as agricultural system.”