Wednesday, November 03, 2004

When in Negros, the order is sutukil

BACOLOD CITY -- The order for repast hereabouts sounds too near to the military than the alimentary -- “sutukil.”

Such an order spells out the staple culinary delights enjoyed by Negrenses: sugba (broiled seafood), tula (fish-based soured soup), and kilaw (raw seafood or fishmeat morsels wallowing in palm vinegar, julienned ginger, hot pepper shreds and shallot slivers livened up at times with coconut cream).

An assortment of fish species and shoal dwelling critters, say crabs, lobsters and bivalves like diwal and scallops caught off the waters or mudflats girding Negros island provide ample rounds of “ammunition” for sutukil recipes.

Unlike continental cuisine, Negrense yummies rely on scant condiments to conduct a symphony of flavors in their cookery. Sugba is a theme on simplicity -- seafood fresh off the brine tossed onto the grill, dished out half-done to retain broad hints of saline sweetness, to be rounded out with a dipping sauce of sinamak (nipa palm vinegar, chopped chillies, garlic cloves, shallots, and ginger).

Tula echoes the terse poetry of sugba. It’s whipped up with scant ingredients, say, just a sprig of spring onions tossed in the pot with slices of freshly caught fish. The fish-based soup is allowed to boil for less than five minutes, dished out scalding hot in a bowl as prelude to a hearty meal. No cloying butter sweetness that can fritter away hints of the sea, no motley spices that can drown the all-its-own character of a freshly caught fish -- just plain soup stock enlivened by a glossary of sea-imparted subtleties.

The Negrense tula takes pride in a secret souring agent that melds the earthy tartness of semi-ripe guavas and the lime-like tang of citronella (tanglad, commonly known as lemon grass). While the everyday Tagalog sinigang makes use of the usual tamarind shoots or fruits (for meat-based sigang) or sour cucumber tree fruits (kamias) to acidify fish sinigang, the local tula isn’t complete without the quaint sourer called batuan.

Batuan (Garcinia binucao) trees are distributed throughout the Philippines and Vietnam. Among Tagalogs, it is called binukaw while Ilocanos know the fruit as balakut. Batuan is a close relative of mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), both growing in low-altitude forests, both of sub-globose fruits, each a multi-sectioned pod of sour seeds.

While Negrenses prize the cherry tomato-sized, olive-colored, juicy berries as a special condiment in their dishes, neither binukaw nor balakut has made it as a must ingredient in both Tagalog or Ilocano cookery. Thus, the batuan tree (it can grow up to 25 meters tall with a maximum bole diameter of 40 cm.) which bears reddish to creamy white flowers is becoming rare and may already be an endangered species.

In a chat with this writer, Negros-based project coordinator David G. Castor for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) endemic tree species conservation scheme noted that batuan stands thrive in an elevation of 200 feet above sea level, making this not-so-known specie vulnerable to shifting swidden cultivation or kaingin and illegal logging.

“As the tree and its fruits is hardly known outside Negros, we may surmise that batuan is slowly becoming endemic to the island’s forests, thanks to local aborigines who brought down the fruits to the lowland markets and coaxed food-loving Negrenses to give the batuan a try in their dishes,” Castor added.

The steady demand for the quaint tula condiment ensures the survival of batuan stands in Negros island’s forests. As each fruit can fetch a peso in local markets, the humble batuan becomes a cherished tree, prized for its yield in fruits. Why, batuan peel, pulp and seeds also turn up in other Negrense dishes, infusing a tartness also evoking lemon balm (an oriental herb, also known as “elixir of life”) and not-too-ripe guavas.

And contrary to the violent-sounding sutukil order for repast hereabouts, batuan-spiked tula concocted in Negrense households and at local tulahan stalls allow a vanishing tree specie to survive, even thrive.

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