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Rethinking the influence of herbs in modern Filipino culture

The herbs sound foreign, but to the writer, they couldn’t be any more mundane and familiar

Illustrations by Lee Caces

I go to Quiapo Church, instead of the market, to look for some herbs I need for cooking. There I can find, particularly on a Friday, stalls of herbolarios selling anything like musky alagaw leaves for our lutong palos na hito; luxuriant kulitis for laoyang pata; bracing bawang na mura for pugtong gurame; pungent damong maria for pinatalbog na dalag at bakule; piquant sambong for daeng na kandule at tigiti; tangy talinum for sinuwam na tulya; and robust alukbati for ginataang kuhol. The season sometimes makes available zesty dayap for sinubukang paros; fruity usbong ng bayabas for pustreng alimasag; citric talbos ng mangga or kamias for pangat na ayungin; and sour green usbong ng sampalok for pinaupong manok.

And right across the church is the Quiapo Muslim Center where I sometimes chance upon talbos ng kape, yes, coffee tops for salad; robust talbos ng balinghoy for hipon sa gata; aromatic luyang dilaw for ginataang biya; sultry langkawas for paksiw na banak; and limey tanglad stalks for tiniim na itik. I also get from a Maguindanao trader fermented tapey wrapped in alum or al’m leaves for my source of starter mold. At times, crisp pansipansitan is obtainable for ensaladang itlog na maalat; smelly wansoy for bibingkang mabantot; fresh green pandang mabango for alpahor; as well as pads of neatly folded dahong banban for sumang inantala.

I grew up eating the fresh catch from Laguna de Bai served in these varied ways by my mother who is from Anguno and my father from Pateros who taught me how to appreciate and make my own burong mustasa. But then, they did not have to go to Quiapo for these herbs. They cooked with whatever their own or their neighbors’ yard would provide.

For Filipinos, herbs are not mere gugulayin or sahog sa laoya but more importantly, they are halamang gamut or potent vegetal presence that heals.

I am also thrilled, but somehow in a different way, when I round the corner in the produce section at Rustan’s in Rockwell, to find that Zacky’s Farm in Tagaytay has had a recent delivery of herbs like dill, basil, oregano, mint, and tarragon. I also have the surge of happy hormones when I see fresh Japanese shungiku for our nabemono in the Saturday market in Salcedo Village and chives and Italian parsley in Mercato Centrale in Global City, or perhaps cap off a long drive to Toscana’s, Antonio’s, or Sonya’s Garden in Tagaytay with pots of tarragon, mint, and sweet basil for herb tea.

However, it is of no surprise to me that I find the Pinoy herbs I need for cooking not in these usual markets that sell them as produce but in ambulant herbolarios that prescribe them as medication. It is a very clear indication of how we treat our herbs. For Filipinos, herbs are not mere gugulayin or sahog sa laoya but more importantly, they are halamang gamut or potent vegetal presence that heals. Herbs are also called halamang gubat or damong ligaw as they are usually not cultivated but found in the wild, and as such, they have katas na mabisa that is teeming and pulsating with life’s potency and vigor. Herbs are endowed with virtues enshrined in their alamat as they spring forth from a fallen hero’s commendable character or from his reformed vices.

Spanish Fray Pedro San Buenaventura, and the Tagalog printers Tomas Pinpin and Domingo Loag will record this indigenous valuation of herb currency of word exchange in their monumental work, the Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala of 1613. To have and cook herbs is to look for them in the wild, cqimita ca nang oray at lotoin mo. To cut a leaf, corta vna hoja in Spanish, is rendered in old Tagalog as cumitil ca nang isang dahon. It is like cutting off a leaf pulse from life itself. Perhaps cqimita and cumitil losing their currency in this present day and age is reflective of our changing recognition and valuation of herbs.

Frequently citrus, lemongrass, and other redolent herbs are tossed on burning coal or placed on or near a dead person’s body to repress the odor of death. It is probable, however, that herbs were thought to have magic power beyond their repellent or deodorizing virtues. They certainly are objects of fear to the death demons.

The 1613 Vocabulario mentions quilites (kulitis, amaranth) as a favorite yerva they eat as gugulayin or sahog sa laoya (from Spanish, la olla, referring to the pot as much as to the dish). They eat it in hot caldo or sabao with their boiled rice, sabauan mo iyang canin mo. It is called oray and a favorite among the Tagalog tingue of Sierra Madre. The Tagalog of Morong and Pililla call them halom and enjoy mixing them in their pot dish, haloman ang laoya. They also find savory the potat leaves they eat fresh with grilled fish, just like how the Yakan relish the fragrant bawing or sulasi with fish, or the Maranao will never enjoy fried fish without their sakurab scallions minced as aromatic palapa condiment.

Herbs are eaten fresh as gayat (cut into strips) or folded like a cone balisongsong to wrap a cocktail of herbs like the betel chew. They are also wilted over fire known as laib in coastal Tagalog and laob among the Tagalog tingue. Heated leaves of herbs are also used as tapal or topical plasters as medicine. They also make alay or offering of dahon or odorous herbs as they wrap in leaves what was offered to an anito which is dedicated to just this purpose, and should never be opened nor touched by mortals. Frequently citrus, lemongrass, and other redolent herbs are tossed on burning coal or placed on or near a dead person’s body to repress the odor of death. It is probable, however, that herbs were thought to have magic power beyond their repellent or deodorizing virtues. They certainly are objects of fear to the death demons.

Somehow, I will always remember my mother giving me a warm banyos or healing bath with her aromatic herbal brew, after suob or fumigating me with the penetrating smoke from a braserillo of a burning cacophony of herbs she believed would save me from binat, when I was a sickly young boy. She would whisper some oraciones as she mashed a few herbs with panocha in an almires to squeeze out the healing juice through a piece of white cloth. She would ask me to pinch my nose and close my eyes while she force-fed to my mouth a tablespoon of the sap she had extracted from her herbs. After which, she would serve me a bowl of hot laoya soup with green papaya and kulitis she made refreshingly sour with calamansi. Finally, she would rub my back with warm coconut oil soaked with sampaguita and pandan and kiss my forehead before tucking me into bed.

In a way, my mother holds current this tacit knowledge on herbs she imbibed from her mother and from her mother’s mother and the ascendants before them as recorded for us, so propitiously, by the 1613 Tagalog Vocabulario. I hope I have not lost their currency.

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