Satur C. Ocampo | Green and delicious

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Neuroscientist Custer Deocaris’ decision to return to his home country, under the DOST “balik-scientist” program, is good news. His having launched a campaign to convince fellow Fili-pinos to eat brown rice and more vegetables — specifically indigenous greens — is, for me, doubly welcome news.

Surely, Deocaris’ campaign isn’t new. Vegetarian advocates, vegetarian eateries, and vegetarian menus in restaurants abound in this country. Still, his initiative should be encouraged — no matter that he has patterned his campaign, dubbed as “Luntiang Lunes,” after the “Meatless Monday” project that the John Hopkins and Columbia University Schools of Public Health began in 2003 in the United States.

“Luntiang Lunes” recommends meatless meals on Mondays. The idea is to encourage Pinoys to eat more native vegetables and brown rice, at least once a week. The “balik scientist” has ob-served that Filipinos are “voracious meat eaters” and tend to consume imported greens. This may largely be blamed on changing lifestyle in the cities, and partly on trade liberalization that has caused the influx of foreign agricultural produce that have displaced our own produce from the markets.

He has chosen to put up his first vegetarian kiosk at the Philippine Heart Center because the state-run specialist hospital maintains an organic garden that grows indigenous Philippine vegetables and other plants.

I haven’t met Deocaris, nor have I checked his kiosk at the PHC to try out his “low-salt, meatless dishes.” But his pitching for 10 of our indigenous veggies triggered the onrush of pleasant memories of my childhood. I used to eat a lot of the greens he recommends — and still love to eat them.

Deocaris, a product of the Philippine Science High School, fears that some Pinoys seem to have forgotten, ignore or shun these vegetables, wrongly deeming them as food only for the poor. He cites these greens: alugbati, ampalaya, himbabao, kulitis, labong, malunggay, pako, saluyot, talinum, and upo.

I am familiar with all these health-boosting vegetables, save for himbabao. Most of them grow fast untended in any available plot of soil. But some easily wilt, and often are not available in the public markets.

I grew up in a bamboo-and-nipa house amidst ricefields in sitio Dampul, Barangay Sta. Monica, Sta. Rita, Pampanga. That house was demolished after the land on which it stood was sold by the owner. A sturdier farmhouse now stands in the adjacent lot, where my Inang stays, and where she celebrated her 100th birthday last November.

Along with my 11 siblings, I was nourished to adulthood in Dampul with meals consisting of food we raised, foraged and caught ourselves: hand-pounded rice, plenty of vegetables, plus various flying/swimming/hopping/crawling creatures in the field.

(Now 72, I still enjoy similarly simple meals, which have held up my health. Credit must go to my wife who is a creative full-time cook for two. I’m the dishwasher.)

For breakfast, we had any, or combination, of these: boiled egg, grilled fresh dalag or hito, fried dried fish, or paksiw na bangus, with fresh tomatoes and grilled or boiled eggplants. We had fresh carabao milk that we either poured on the steaming rice, or stirred into our “coffee” of black-roasted rice or corn grains.

For lunch: a soup dish that included any combination of these vegetables: sitaw, pechay, kangkong, kulitis, malunggay, labanos, gabi or green papaya cooked with fish, chicken, pork, or beef. (But my favorite veggie dish is tipe — stringbeans and their tops sauteed with diced shrimps and minced pork.)

For supper: any of the following: ginisang munggo, inihaw na hito, pesang dalag, snail-and-ginger soup, bola-bola (finely chopped frog meat shaped into balls and dropped in broth with patola and miswa) or tortang tugak (fried frog with finely chopped meat, onion and alagaw leaves inserted into the abdomen). Morsels of grilled hito went well with fresh mustard leaves, or chopped tomatoes and onions.

On rainy days, we caught sackfuls of talangka from the neighboring town, Guagua, with an eel or two as bonus. Right away we steamed some of the tiny crabs for the next meal, while reserving the best ones for salted burong talangka (mostly the females), to be eaten after a day or two. Then, with our bare fingers, we squeezed the fresh meat and orangey fat from the rest, to be cooked and preserved in glass jars for the days ahead.

Between rice harvests and planting, we children had fun catching durun (locusts) in the wide fields. Shorn of their wings and legs, these tasted good, fried or sautéed as adobo. Then when the fields had been plowed and watered, we dug in the mud for the kamaru (edible earwigs), which, cooked the same way as the locusts, tasted even more delicious.

In my youth, the ricefields yielded plentiful fish, snails, and frogs that landed on our daily plates. Alas, this is no longer true today. Continued pesticide and chemical fertilizer use has wiped out these sources of protein in our meals.

The planting of vegetables is no longer an important source of my family’s income. But consuming them continues to be indispensable to this farmboy’s daily fare.

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