Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Snake Soup for a Senior Isinay’s Soul

ONE OF THE advantages of being a senior citizen, I guess, is that you get some lucky moments that seemed elusive if not impossible to have when you were younger.
I had one such luck in early January this year when, not yet knowing that 2013 is the Chinese Year of the Water Snake, I happened to partake of – and to taste for the very first time in my life – a steaming bowl of snake soup.
Yes, you read that one right. Snake soup!
Soup as in hot soup that you ladle with a spoon then onto your taaw  (Isinay for mouth), or one that you sip straight from a kumaw (bowl).
Not only that. It was snake soup that, because it turned out to be meaty (or one that a noodle soup ad once called “sopas na kinakain”), also doubled as pulutan  and went well with – you guessed it right – Ginebra San Miguel.
Certainly not an ordinary one, friends and readers of Isinay Bird would say.

ANYWAY, here’s the story:
As is my wont when I go home to Dupax to, among other things, refresh and recharge my kinship with the people, the food, the culture, and the language of my birthplace, I once again took a much-needed long walk to my farm upstream of town.
As usual, I was with Boni Calacala, a son of my mom’s friend that (after I recovered a few years back from slight myocardial infarction) my mom insists should accompany me whenever I go out on field or walks far from our house in Domang.
We were only about a couple of kilometers away from our destination when Boni stopped and without any word quickly found a pami^bi (a long stick for beating) then galloped towards a payaw (ricefield) that had recently been prepared for planting.

Before I knew it, Boni was already showing his hunter's prize -- a cobra that was definitely more than a meter long."Amma-i mot tiye!" Boni excitedly said in Isinay, referring to the size of the snake and suggesting that it was already big enough for our meal in case my farm-manager cousin and his neighbors would not be around when we reached our destination.
An all-around free-lance farm-help, Boni used to carry a baris (slingshot) for long walks like this – mainly for birds. But this was the first time, he said, that he forgot his bird-sniping tool. By hindsight, I wonder if he was ever able to corner that snake had he brought his ubiquitous slingshot on this trip.
The place where we found the snake is called Langka. It was on the hills beside this farmland that I had happy moments as a kid munching boiled or roasted corn while watching monkeys race among the burnt bikal and charred tree trunks in my Ilocano grandparents’ uma. It was also further up the hills here that as an adolescent I once caught a suckling of a wildpig (alingo in Ilocano, bavuy si eyas  in Isinay) that I took home to keep as pet along with Mama’s pigs.
I will soon piece together my boyhood memories of this particular place but suffice it for now that I recall it was near this spot when, one summer time we were having noonday rest in a hut under a then tall bitnong tree, a dog of Tata Inggo Batacan was barking and barking non-stop at a grassy dike. Then a few moments  later the dog whined much like a dog in pain. The dog didn’t come back to the hut after repeated whistle calls. When his master went to look, the poor thing was already dead – with merely small, almost imperceptible punctures on its neck.

But back to our story:
I had been walking since dark that morning and didn’t have my usual mug of coffee and a bite of pandesal before I left my mother’s house. But after bagging the snake, it seemed Boni (who said he hadn’t also taken anything for breakfast yet) quickened his pace and, even as I wanted to take more photos of the river and ricefield scenery on the way, I similarly felt my legs negotiate the last stretch of our 10-km hike much lighter and faster than they did many times before.
To cut the story short, upon seeing us approach, Ikko Oreña and wife Osang Bombongan (owners of the house adjacent to my farm) stopped what they were doing, led us into their multipurpose kitchen, and soon treated me and my hiking buddy to hot coffee while discussing how best to cook the iraw (Isinay for snake). I did welcome the coffee as it was also cold in this part of upstream Dupax that used to be near the logging concession of the F.C. Adduru in the early 1960s.
While Osang helped Boni dress then cook the snake, Ikko sent one of his sons to go pick green tamarind, probably to make the special delicacy more mouth-watering. He also brought out a lot of ginger that later all went into the big kaldero along with what was left of the snake that Boni skinned, decapitated, disembowelled, washed in spring water, and later chopped into bite-size lengths.

Using corn grits, Ikko also called his chickens to gather around. While deciding which abeyuwan (Isinay for pullet) to catch, he articulated that the snake that Boni caught was indeed a cobra (immanuy in Isinay, karasaen in Ilocano) and of the tastier and not-fish-smelling type. “Saan a nalangsi,” he said, adding that the reticulated python (beklat in Ilocano, ine^eyaddang in Isinay) is definitely the nalangsi (Ilocano for smelly) type and once you held its meat, it would take a while to remove the stench from your fingers.
Ikko is an Ilocano who has learned to speak fluent Isinay because of his Isinay wife. A hunter and labuyo-trapper when not busy in his farm, Ikko has unknowingly become my consultant insofar as birds, insects, wild plants, forest trees, hunting, Ilongots, upland farming, and yes, snakes, are concerned.

Each time I go visit my farm in Sinagat, I always learn new things from him, the latest of which is how to know when a gabi/taro patch has a resident turtle. Yes, he is a wildlife expert of the barefoot kind who could give DENR wildlife scientists a run for their government salary when it comes to familiarity with the habits and habitats of local wildlife.
I DO HAVE tons of snake-related memories to tell. But to end this particular snake sutsur (story) for now:
As always, my hosts Osang and Ikko made sure that they forego one of their free-ranging chickens. This time I guessed they were concerned that I would be so squeamish as to shun the snake’s meat for lunch.
I was thankful for their hospitality as usual and made it a point to give them the barely touched plastic jar of Maxwell coffee brought home for Christmas by my New Jersey-based daughter and son-in-law.
When lunch of fuelwood-cooked jasmine rice and genuinely organic chicken tinola was served, however, I only picked the chicken’s etoy (Isinay for liver) and batijlungan (gizzard) and focused my gourmet attention on what was left of the snake’s meat and soup.

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