Thursday, October 26, 2006

The scent of coconuts

One should indulge in life’s little pleasures even while the world goes berserk and the ugly side of politics is constantly spoiling the landscape of our lives. Food is comfort and we look to so-called comfort food, the food that brings back pleasant memories and feelings, when things go awry.

It was good to savor the flavors and scents of the food of Bicolandia last Monday at the EDSA Shangri-la where the two-week (Oct. 23 to Nov. 3) Gayon Food Feast is now going on. This is being co-promoted by the Department of Tourism’s Bicol Regional Division under Maria O. Ravanilla.

Gayon is short for magayon (Bicol for beautiful) and where the name of the awesome Mayon Volcano of Albay is supposed to have come from. Extend the suffix and you have magayunon or very beautiful; magayunonon means very, very beautiful. You could extend the suffix some more to push the meaning to the extreme.

My verdict? The food was not just masiram (delicious), it was masiramon (really delicious). I say this not because my cousin Didette N. Peralta (who co-owns and runs Legazpi City’s Small Talk Café) was one of the guest cooks but because the flavors did Daragang Magayon (the maiden in Bicol legend) proud. And I judged the spread as it was—somewhat fusion cuisine--not as the home cooked, slow-food fare that purists might pine for. There was pasta pinangat, for example, and Bicol express served on tomato halves. Quite neo-, those. But the real pinangat was there in its coconut-y glory.

I am only half-Bicolana (and half Ilongga) so my judgment would not be that of a true-blue Bicolana. Special guest Honesto General, author of “Coconut Cookery” and an excellent cook, would make a better judgment. I only enjoyed what I ate.

Albay congressman Edcel Lagman who delivered the post-prandial speech had fire in his mouth while speaking about the triumvirate of Bicol cuisine—sili (hot pepper), pili and coconut. These, I suspect, are what bring out the oragon (that X factor) in Bicolanos. But more than the other two, I think it is the coconut that really defines Bicol cuisine. Pili nut sweets (for desert) could be absent, and the sili’s fire could be toned down, but the coconut has to be there in the right amount.

Speaking of coconuts, a new book on the wonder tree of all time was recently launched. “Coconut: The Philippines’ Money Tree” by Dr. Renato M. Labadan tells all there is to know—about the coconut. Root, fruit, flower, palm, juice, oil, trunk, husk, shell—and how Filipinos could squeeze and use all of its parts in order to earn from this tree of trees.

Last year, I wrote about Dr. Conrado Dayrit, his coco-discoveries and his book “The Truth About Coconut Oil: The Drugstore in a Bottle”. The book focused on virgin coconut oil (VCO) which is claiming its rightful place as food ingredient and medicine after the decades of badmouthing and blacklisting done by the West in order to promote its own oils.

Labadan’s coffeetable-type book weighs more than two kilos (the case included), or the weight of about two coconuts. It didn’t have to be this heavy and this big, if you ask me. It contains a lot of photographs and information on how the coconut could work wonders for this country and its people. It’s easy to read but, as I said, too heavy to hold on one’s lap.

Here’s peek. Labadan traces the original home of the coconut and then concludes that the weight of evidence points to Southeast Asia. He then goes on to the beginning of the development of a viable industry during the Spanish colonial times.

And what is the original coconut? Alas, no one coconut can claim “genetical purity” because of cross-pollination and hybridization. Labadan does classify the many different types now in existence, the makapuno included.

While many are going loco over coco virgin oil or VCO as food and medicine, little is known about coconut nectar. Labadan introduces the recently discovered uses of this sap. No, it is not the coconut water from the fruit. Coconut nectar is the concentrated sap from the inflorescence or the coconut “flower”. I know the tuba comes from this inflorescence, but the nectar that Labadan talks about is a discovery of Dr. Gerino Macias who invented an apparatus similar to that of a honeybee that processes honey. The resulting viscose coconut nectar is touted to be some kind of wonder food and cure-all too, like the VCO.

The fruit is, of course, the crowning glory of this money tree. The meat or the “white solid endosperm” of the fruit is the part that is most used as food. (The ubod, the nectar and the tuba come from other parts.) By itself, this edible part of the fruit can build an industry, as in the case of VCO, cooking oil, copra, nata de coco, and now, coco-diesel for vehicles.

Now fiber nets from the husk are the rage especially for environmental purposes, that is, to prevent erosion. Recently Justino Arboleda won the BBC’s World Challenge prize and the Global 100 Eco-Tech Award for his coconet.

Labadan does not forget to take up the controversial, coco-levy funds collected in billions from poor coconut farmers during the Marcos regime that, until now, has not been fully accounted for.

There’s more to this book than just the tree, its fruit and its many parts. A whole chapter is devoted to the coconut farmer and another chapter on the coconut industry and the major players. And more importantly how they coconut industry could be improved.

Labadan ( is an agriculturist. He finished at the University of the Philippines and Cornell University in the US. This 1970 TOYM awardee also has a master’s degree in business administration from the Ateneo University.