Filling Bellies in Belison
The festive season of the town of Belison in Antique started early. It was inaugurated by a talent competition, “Pasundayag Kang Mga Talento: Imbukada,” on August 17, 2019. It drew several performers in different fields from all over Western Visayas at the Belison Municipal Gym.
Its mayor, Christopher Piccio, wants to strengthen the town’s tourism, arts and culture, emphasizing that their Belison National School—with its Special Program in the Arts—was declared Division Center for Culture and the Arts, and there is a bounty of talented people. He also said that the event is the opening salvo of months-long series of talent contests and other events leading to the grand finals on March 8, 2020, and the 15th Guinobatan Festival around that time. It is also a celebration of the town’s 59th foundation anniversary. Thus, this will be a long festive seaon for Antique’s smallest and youngest town.
Formerly a barangay of Patnongon, Belison became an independent town on March 10, 1961. Just north outside the capital town of San Jose de Buenavista, it is a very laidback town, which I often passed by when traveling around the province in the western part of Panay Island. Belison’s hills and mountains are surrounded by bristling patches of rice and sugar cane. On the road, I enjoyed watching them; hypnotic with their leaves quivering in the wind. If you turn westward, you get glimpses of the Cuyo East Pass, appearing in blue shards between houses and clumps of trees.
Harvests from these fields yield the main ingredients for a variety of sweet treats that the Piccios have prepared for us. These were downed with fresh, fresh milk from the town’s dairy farms. Dairy production is an emerging industry here. But rice is still a very important produce here like in the rest of the Philippines, as well as sugar. Antique, together with the neighboring provinces of Iloilo and Negros Occidental in the nearby island of Negros, is an important producer of sugar and its variants, such as the raw or unrefined kind called muscovado—an ingredient for many kinds of kakanin, or snacks, mostly sweet and all made from rice.
The kakanins of Belison are shared culinary heritage with the rest of the province and the country. The cooks and makers of these kakanins are usually women, who prepare them in their homes most of the time.
The puto or rice cake was white and classic with a clean flavor, common around the country and beloved by many. It is my comfort food. It was cooked by Salvacion Hipertor, who also made the tikoy, which was like kalamay wrapped in banana leaves, and the ibos, which is really called suman sa ibos. Ibos is the strip of young buri leaf used to wrap the suman, which is simply glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and flavored with salt and sugar. The suman sa ibos is simply called ibos in Iloilo and Antique.
Suman seems to refer to another thing here. Nora Millondaga cooked the suman, also made of glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and muscovado sugar and served on a bilao or plate lined with banana leaf. In other parts of the country, it is called biko. Nora also prepared the kalamay hati. It has the same ingedients, only the rice is finely ground.
Mary Ann Francisco presented her puto-kutsinta, which is half puto and half kutsinta—a starch cake, another childhood favorite. Kutsinta is often sold with puto, and both are sprinkled with freshly grated coconut meat. She had the black kutsinta, which was flavored and colored by the purple ube. Another starchy snack was the pichi-pichi, made by Jeralyn Francisco. This one came in balls covered with freshly grated coconut meat.
The local favorites—linupi, huwad-huwad and sinakol—were made by Merlyn Matacobo. Belison residents are proud of their linupi, which is one of the best in the province. The linupi nga pilit is made with sticky rice; pilit in the local language is Kiniray-a. The pilit dough is mixed with coconut milk and muscovado and then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Linupi can also be made from cassava.
Ground glutinous rice, coconut milk and muscovado sugar are poured into test tube-shaped receptacles made of banana leaves and then steamed to make huwad-huwad. Huwad means “to pour.”
The sinakol, on the other hand, were cute little domes made of mashed, dry cassava, which was steamed in coconut shells. They had fillings of sweetened coconut meat strips, which we call bukayo in Ilocano and Tagalog. The sinakol came in white and brown from the muscovado sprinklings.
The Karay-a children would fondly remember the butong-butong. Ofelia Quillanora made them for us. I remember childhood in Pangasinan. The most common candy was chunks of raw sugar called tagapulot or pulot. In Belison, and the rest of Panay Island, they have butong-butong—muscovado cooked in kawa over fire, and the thick sugar syrup is pulled several times, aerating it and its dark brown color becoming pale. In Tagalog areas, a dry and crunchy version is called tira-tira and often comes in sticks, and in Ilocano, it is called balikutsa in the shape of snails. The butong-butong is soft and chewy, sticking to the teeth and palate like summer childhood adventures flavoring our memories.