During each of the many sojourns I had in many places outside of Mindanao, I am always caught by surprise not so much by the many obvious differences but more so often by the subtle similarities between the lifestyles and culinary tastes of the people elsewhere in this country and those of Lianga where I have lived most of my life.
In one recent instance, one resident of Antipolo City in Rizal province just outside of Metro Manila dragged me to his kitchen and and made me watch as he started tossing what looked like large chunks of dark, dried meat into a pan of hot oil. As the oil hissed, popped and splattered unto the sides of his gas range, he told me that he was treating me to a dinner of Kapampangan-style pindang damulag or cured carabao meat. "A new taste treat for you," he promised me.
I did not have the heart to tell him that I was not only familiar with pindang in Lianga but also the fact that pork or carabao meat prepared pindang or tapa style happens to be one of my perennial, favorite food treats.
In Lianga, like most rural towns in Surigao del Sur, access to freshly slaughtered pig or carabao meat is relatively easy. But preserving the meat for use days or weeks after slaughter in the old days without refrigeration or ice boxes required salting them and curing them in the sun until most of the moisture had been removed. Variations in the salting and curing process might involve the use of varying amounts of sugar, herbs and spices to impart a distinctive taste to the meat or the pindang can be smoked to further enhance flavor.
My mother is an expert in the preparation of both pork and carabao meat pindang which my siblings and I, when we were still studying in Cebu, used to bring with us back to the city after summer vacations from school. But we always preferred the pork variety because the fat streaks in pork meat made the tapa from it especially tasty and juicy. Paired with boiled or fried rice and eggs fried sunny side up, it made tapsilog, the perfect Pinoy breakfast.
Much of the pindang or tapa available commercially nowadays do not go through the same laborious and time-consuming process that the traditional pindang has to go through. Most of them are heavily saturated with artificial flavors, loaded with preservatives and artificially heat dried if not at all. What one gets is something that rarely approaches the full flavor and delectability of the real thing.
When Mama made pindang, it was hard work. The meat had to be sliced thinly across the grain to enhance tenderness. Tough ligaments and connective tissue had to be surgically excised. After salting and flavoring the meat, it had to be laid out evenly across makeshift trays made of chicken wire mesh and wood which are then hanged on unused clotheslines outside the house. There the sun's heat and the dry breezes would leave the meat dehydrated and dark while at the same time locking in the flavors of the marinade.
This is the pindang which when pan fried or charcoal broiled gives off a distinctive aroma that makes the mouth water, the taste buds sizzle and the heart sing. And the taste is one that is evocative of life in the Filipino countryside - clean, robust, earthy and lingeringly flavorsome.