By LYN V. RAMO
BAGUIO CITY –One’s spirituality affects food preparation, according to an Igorot elder who constantly shares culinary expertise producing what he terms as sacred “etag.”
His ingredients are prayers and the yearning to share with loved ones the delicacy he patiently prepares. Patience is barely a catchword in the kitchen these days. In this era of food machines and fast-food shops churning out stomach-filling but not-so-nutritious stuff, patience in the kitchen, and the energy and material time required to do traditional food fare, is nearly out of the picture.
Not in the case of one town executive who still prefers to make his own “etag” or preserved pork. Clarifying that the Igorot “etag” should not be smoked and may not even require sun-drying, Councilor Henry Kipas of nearby La Trinidad keeps saying there are no exact figures involved in the preparation of etag.
“Only patience pays, because only the meat could tell whether it is ready or is still consumable,” Kipas clarified debunking a local university’s efforts to document and study how the local foodstuff can be prepared hygienically and marketed in commercial quantities.
“Etag” as a cultural fare from the Mountain Province, is not even considered for commercial trade, according to the councilor who traces his roots to Sagada, Mountain Province.
If one is to practice the culture of the Kankanaey Igorots of Mountain Province, the making of the “etag,” mistaken as salted smoked pork from native hogs, intertwines with the life cycle of people, according to Kipas.
Kipas enlightened visiting artists during the opening of the 2nd Tam-awan International Arts Festival on May 13 with his talk and demonstration in preparation of the delicacy, which he considers sacred.
The birth of a baby into the family is so important to warrant the serving of the “etag.” Kipas said the moment the woman learns of the conception, the family starts preparing the delicacy.
“By the time of the announcement and dedication of the baby, the etag should be golden and ready to be served to the lactating mother,” he claims adding that the traditional pinikpikan with etag when concocted correctly produces a rich soup that stimulates the production of breastmilk.
Dr. Ruth Batani of the Benguet State University (BSU), in an earlier press forum on the “etag” said the delicacy is served first during a child’s baptism, some kept for his or her wedding day and other similarly important occasions.
Kipas said the mere presence of special visitors warrant the serving of the sacred “etag,” lest it develops moldy dark color from its perfect golden and aromatic state.
“This food cannot be kept away by greed,” he said. Although households do not display it, it cannot be kept for long, especially if loved ones come to visit. This displays the deep spirituality attached in the food preparation.
While there are efforts to establish some standards in its preparation, traditional “etag” makers like Kipas insists that the meat should dictate the duration of the preparation.
Usually the traditional etag-maker needs a generous amount of salt enough to push the moisture out of the meat, preferably fresh, not necessarily from a native hog.
To do this, Kipas allots at least two days to ensure that no water stays with the meat, adding salt and allowing the liquid to drip on paper from time to time.
When no more water blots the paper, Kipas hangs the meat either inside the room or outside under the hot sun for several days until the meat turns golden all over.
“Any white portion indicates that the etag is not yet done,” Kipas said. The meat would tell you if it is ready.
To appease hygienic concerns, boiling the “etag” is necessary before adding it to the pinikpikan. Pinikpikan, another Igorot food fare utilizing culls if not native chicken or ducks, requires no other ingredient besides the sacred “etag.”
The study group from BSU and Resources Research and Development Consortium (Harrdec), which just finished the first phase of research on the viability of the “etag” as a commercial product said bacterial or microbial infestation would terminate the effort to preserve the meat.
For Kipas, the careful selection and handling of the pork will assure a clean turnout.
True enough, the sample Kipas showed around during his cooking demonstration for Tam-awan Village visitors exuded an enticing aroma of salted meat.
There was no foul smell that usually discourages first-time food tasters in the audience.
He does not publicly share his prayers, but tells his audience that a certain level of relationship with one’s God spells the difference in the preparation of “etag.”
Invoking the unseen spirits and praying for the realization of one’s petitions as he or she prepares the “etag” is a personal encounter with the unseen.
This also explains the indefinite length of time that the “etag” could keep under normal circumstances. As he puts it, if one tends not to share the “etag,” especially to loved ones, it begins to lose its golden appearance and spoilage sets in.
Not for sale
A gift does not have any commercial value he explains, not giving any commercial value to his “masterpiece.”
In Sagada, where Kipas hails, the “etag” finds a special place in every home, not seen displayed, but served and shared from one house to another.
At present, some gourmet places serve it with the pinikpikan, according to Baguio-based journalists who frequent Sagada.
One feature writer confides that she used to get her “etag” free from generous neighbors even in Sagada’s urban center.
Some claim to have noticed “etag” in carbonara, a type of pasta cooked with commercial ham, but the Igorots of the Cordillera use it to enhance boiled bukel or fuker (sun-dried legumes), green leafy vegetables and other soupy dishes, besides pinikpikan.
For the Cordillerans, etag, kiniing, inasin, and many other names they use for preserved pork, has carried deep cultural attachment and whether there are food-churning machines or not in urban or rural town centers, the satisfying fill on the stomach still depends on the deep spiritual value that each of the delicacies connote.
In major urban cities here and abroad, ask a Cordilleran what he or she misses and the answer comes quick, with “etag” among the favorites that include the sound of gongs, the burning feathers in preparing pinikpikan and the daily rainbows on the Cordillera horizon.
Chinese dry-cured hams have been recorded in texts since before the Song dynasty and used in myriad dishes. Several types exist in Qing dynasty cuisine and are used in dishes of stewing hams.