Thursday, March 17, 2005

Bulanghoy, balinghoy

Inday, bayle ta/ Di ko kay kapuy/ Amon pamahaw bulanghoy/ Amon panihudto bulanghoy nga puto/ Amon panihapon bulanghoy gihapon. (Inday, let us dance/ No, I am tired/ Our breakfast was cassava/ Our lunch was cassava cake/ Our supper was still cassava.)

I learned that folk song many years ago from my Cebuano-speaking friends from whom I also learned street-corner lingo, like `Wa ka kuyapi?’ and how to eat boiled unripe bananas with ginamos (fish paste) which, for me, is a gustatory puzzlement. We kept singing the bulanghoy (cassava) song until the guitar strings broke. It was sang best when we were a little soused and it brought us down to earth and away from all the academic stuff.

That song was swimming in my head the past week after 27 school children in Mabini, Bohol died and more than a hundred were downed shortly after they ate fried cassava snacks sold by vendors. Questions were immediately raised. Was it the cassava root that did it? Was it the way the food was prepared? Cassava contains linamarin. If cassava is improperly prepared, this toxic component could remain. When ingested, linamarin converts to cyanide in the human digestive system.

Or was there something else that got into the food? Like poison, pesticides or harmful bacteria? If something had to take the blame I was hoping it would be one of these. I did not want the starchy root to be mired in stigma. Well, two days ago, the Health Department ruled that it was pesticide, present in the cassava snack, that did it. But investigations will continue.

The day this tragedy I happened, I was eating cassava pitsi-pitsi which I bought in a popular food place in Chinatown. It was in a microwaveable plastic container with a stick-on label that said it tastes best if refrigerated. Bulanghoy, balinghoy or kamoteng kahoy has come a long way from its barrio nilupak beginnings. Making nilupak (by pounding together boiled cassava, young coconut and sugar) is still an excuse for farm folk to soak in the glow of the full moon.

If you laid out before me a variety of desserts that consisted of pastries with vanilla essence and fancy toppings on one side and native goodies (kakanin) on the other side, I’d make a beeline for the latter. The blend of coconut meat and milk with sticky rice or grated starchy roots, caramelized sugar and pandan, sometimes with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and nuts, was concocted in heaven where the majority must be Southeast Asians. The late Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez, food writer, author, teacher, would agree.

I’ve read that cassava is the world’s third most important crop. Cassava (manihot esculenta) originated in Brazil where it is called manioc. The Portuguese colonizers later brought it to Africa.

Cassava is the principal source of nutrition for about 500 million people. The root is a rich source of carbohydrates, protein, minerals and vitamins A, B and C.

The North Americans have it as tapioca (sago to us) for their custard-like tapioca pudding. The Chinese use it for tikoy. From cassava also comes gawgaw (all-purpose starch powder). Filipinos make a variety of cassava delights, among them, cassava bibingka.

Cassava leaves are edible. I have not tried a leafy dish but I found a recipe which has a French name—Feuilles de Manioc—on the Internet. This is a Central African recipe which resembles our own laing magnifique which uses gabi (taro) leaves.

An article in a World Bank site says that ``new knowledge of the biochemistry of the crop has proved that the proteins embedded in the leaves are equal in quality to the protein in egg. Cassava leaves and roots, if properly processed, can therefore provide a balanced diet protecting millions of African children against malnutrition.’’

Cassava is called ``Africa’s food security crop.’’ Incidentally, improperly prepared cassava was the cause of a disease called konzo which was first noticed in Africa in the 1930s. This turned out be low-level cyanide poisoning.

Cassava is a versatile crop and can grow even in poor soil and in between trees and other crops, suppressing weed growth. Its abundant leaves that fall to the ground are good organic matter that enriches the soil.

During the Nigerian civil war when food was scarce, Flora Nwapa, a Nigerian novelist and poet, wrote in praise of this African staple.

``We thank the almighty God/ For giving us cassava/We hail thee cassava/The great cassava
``You grow in poor soils/You grow in rich soils/You grow in gardens/You grow in farms
``You are easy to grow/Children can plant you/Women can plant you/Everybody can plant you
``We must sing for you/Great cassava, we must sing/We must not forget/Thee, the great one.’’

But I must end with a spoiler. A vendor of the cassava snack, who was herself stricken ill and groveling in her hospital bed, with tubes in her nostrils and all, had to be made to cough up answers by the ABS-CBN team led by Karen Davila. Did the poor woman have the choice to say no?

Wasn’t this manner of gathering news discussed at the ``Media Nation 2’’ assembly last month? The network’s news gatekeepers and top guns, among them, Luchi Cruz-Valdez and Maria Ressa (who moved in from CNN), were present there. Emergency room journalism still thrives hereabouts.

I declare loudly that we must appreciate the media’s presence in Mabini. That said, may I also say that if I allowed my words to match the intensity of my disgust on seeing that bedside behavior, I would say things differently.

And so I simply ask the ABS-CBN team, why? Not, why did you do it, which begs for a justification. Why, as in, why were you so insensitive?