2020 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award: The bitter, the better 


Shulamite Maiden Pormentira 

(Honorable Mention in the 2020 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award)


A familiar aroma welcomed me and my mother in my grandparents’ home in California. My uncle was in the kitchen scooping us a heaping bowl of pinapaitan. This was our first day as immigrants. My mother was committed to residing here for good while I was already planning my return to the Philippines to finish my studies. That first sniff and sip of the bitter soup made me feel like I was still in my hometown, Baguio City.

Nov. 2020 marks my first year since I finally moved to California for good after college. I am now scooping myself a ladle-full of this hot and bitter dish and pouring it over leftover rice. The heat and oil of the soup softens and breaks down the grains of rice as it warms up the entire bowl, ready to eat. Somehow, the homesickness is undoubtedly fought off by the lingering taste in my mouth.

My Ilocana mother often cooked soup dishes to compliment the cold Baguio weather. The pinapaitan or papaitan is one of those Ilocano dishes which I savor regardless of weather. Mother would wake me up at six in the morning, seven the latest, on a Saturday to go to the talipapa (satellite market) behind Baguio Medical Center. Although a bit groggy at times, I did not mind our regular Saturday morning endeavor. Arriving after 8 a.m. in the talipapa meant going meatless for a week or two! We had to be there for the newly butchered cow, pig, and goat amongst other fresh produce. Our checklist was as follows: beef shank for bulalo, beef sirloin for tapa, pork belly and ribs for adobo, sinigang (sour soup), or nilaga (boiled), goat ribs, feet, and head for sinampalukan (tamarind stew), goat thigh and shoulder for caldereta (tomato sauce stew), and the elusive combination of goat innards and papait (bile). The latter was what we and the other shoppers scrambled for. Goat’s meat was always the first to be sold out. If we were lucky, we’d get to bring home an extra bag of papait. The fresh papait is the bitterness I’m longing for, which groceries overseas lack.

“Neighbors, who are usually relatives, would get together to gather and butcher the goats in the fields,” as my mother remembers how goat-based dishes are prepared in their province of Pangasinan. The men bring the newly butchered goat to the pulpogan (torching station) to hang and manually torch over coal or wood fire until burn marks on the skin are visible. This adds flavor to the meat when cooked. Afterwards, the goat is washed and patted with walis tingting (a broom made from the midribs of palm leaves) to make sure that fur and char is completely washed off. The goat’s parts go towards sinampalukan and caldereta. No part of the goat is wasted! The innards and papait are for the pinapaitan. This is the internal organ where the bitter bile comes from and is what we call the bittering ingredient. This dish has an unappealing smell to some people, but “not if the butchering is done right,” as elders say. Bayanihan, communal cooperation, is vital.

There is such an appeal to the pinapaitan’s preparation as my mother still remembers how her grandmother used to call them to watch the process even as a child. And as my mom learned and did with her elders, I also learned and did with her even with the advent of modernization. I start by handing her chopped onions, garlic, ginger, and innards respectively for sautéing. She continues to stir until water comes out from the innards. Goat stock is added for the soup itself, its savory kick, and to cook the ingredients all the way through. Bring to a boil and add the papait (Repeat). Add the long green chilis on the last simmer. Slow cooking is the key. Sometimes, we add tamarind leaves as my father prefers. The soup is best served hot with rice or over gin and tales. As for me, a side of extra papait please! After all, what is pinapaitan if not bitter?

Uncertain of the date when I can return to my hometown, the bitterness I feel — homesickness rather — can still be soothed with a bowl of soup. The bitter dish eases my bitter feelings. I have only cooked the -pinapaitan twice in my lifetime, and always with my mother’s guidance. One day I will muster up the courage and skill to lead the cooking process and tell the stories. The struggle of early Saturday mornings, the noise of the talipapa, the marvel of heritage stories, the hard work of the cook, and the large pot that holds a dish that our family and neighbors can share and a sense of community — this is when I know I’m home. This is when I know it’s all better.

THE DOREEN Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award (DGF Award) recently announced the winners of the 2020 competition. The subject matter was “Livestock,” which, in the Philippines refers to cattle, pigs, goats, carabaos, and horses. The DGF Award is now in its 19th year. Named after the late dean of food writers, Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, it was founded to encourage writers to contribute to Philippine food literature. The winning essays of the first 15 years have been published in two books — Savor the Word and Sangkap.