At the foot of the world-famous Taal Volcano, Ka Lusing’s parents and grandparents had been born. “We were a very poor family”, Ka Lusing says humbly. Her face was bright and unpretentious. “We ate very simple food- -for breakfast, Rice and Vegetables cooked in simple dishes.
It had been a pleasant journey. Datu Puti ordered his men to make the soundings. “We land here”, said the sturdy, seafaring leader to Datu Sumangsil, next in command. The Budyong (landing) call on a shell horn prevailed the morning air. There was no resistance. Almost at once from the Tal-an wooded coast nearby, a group of people appeared. They were dark brown, friendly and warm. The men wore coarse wraps from waist to thigh. Soon they were on the boat side like playful children eager to talk and barter.
The time: around 1300’s. The place: the coastal village of Taal, province of Batangas in the Philippines.
Our friend, Luisa Ramos (fondly called Ka Lusing by friends), 80-year-old candle vendor from Taal says;
“The name Taal was derived from the Tal-an trees that grew profusely at the mouth of the Pansipit River where the Datus first made their landing”
The Datus left Borneo (island in Indonesia) for a more peaceful settlement because the Sultan (chief) there was very cruel. The early people of the Philippines called Itas were believed to be already roaming this land a long, long time ago. And as early as the 9th century, these early Filipino people were already having trade relations with China, Vietnam (then called Tsampa), Malaysia and Indonesia. They traded pearls, spices, brass, metals, etc. In 1300’s, the Datus from Borneo came to settle in Taal, Batangas.
Ka Lusing never studied any written history book. She says, “Our ancestors- – old men in our village- -simply chanted the adventures and glories of the Datus. That’s how we came to know about the history of our land and people. (In written Philippine history today, what Ka Lusing is referring to is an oral epic called Maragtas – – recited in poetic verses.) The people from Indonesia and Malaysia taught the Filipinos a more advanced way of agriculture. “They taught us how to plant Camote (sweet potatoes), Gabi (taro), Kamoteng Kahoy (cassava) and varieties of fruits and vegetables”, says Ka Lusing. And for the following centuries, this formed the basis of the Philippine traditional diet, together with the staple food, rice.
Village people in Taal were mostly engaged in farming Palay (rice), Sugar cane, Corn, Peanuts, Coconuts, Turnips and Mangoes in large scales. And in smaller scales, they planted, Guavas, Chicos, Pineapples, Sintures (oranges), Lanzones and Jackfruits. Other places in the Philippines are known for Abaca, Rubber, Tin and Gold. When the Spanish colonists came in 1500’s, the Philippines were already a throbbing ancient civilization, with rich agriculture, existing laws and moral codes. The Philippines was ‘discovered’ by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator, in 1521. He named the island after Philip, the King of Spain.
At the foot of the world-famous Taal Volcano, Ka Lusing’s parents and grandparents had been born. “We were a very poor family”, Ka Lusing says humbly. Her face was bright and unpretentious. “We ate very simple food- -for breakfast, Rice and Vegetables cooked in simple dishes like Pinakbet (Squash, Kibal (long beans), Okra, Ampalaya (bitter melon) and Eggplant sautéed in garlic, onions and tomatoes)”, she says. “Sometimes we would have sautéed Patani (lima beans), with Sigarillas (winged beans), Bataw and Puso (banana heart). Or else Patola and Upo. My father had one cow and one carabao. Every morning we drank fresh cow’s milk or carabao’s milk. Leftover milk was made into Pastillas (milk candies) or Kesong Puti (white cheese)” she continues. Ka Lusing says all vegetables were grown in their own garden- harvested and cooked fresh from the garden. Mid-morning snacks (called merienda) included boiled Camote (sweet potatoes), boiled Cassava dipped in sugar and grated coconut, boiled Peanuts or Bananas.
By the time our discussion shifted to lunch food, Ka Lusing felt a little uneasy. With a shy smile, she sheepishly told us, “You know, I feel so embarrassed talking to you about our food. These are poor peasants’ food. You should instead talk to the descendants of the residents of Casa Agoncillo or Casa Punzalan or other Casas (houses of rich, prominent families in Taal). They eat “good food”- -much, much better than our food”, the old woman says in humble innocence. “My grandmother once worked as a servant at the house of Donya Gliceria Marcela Agoncillo (wife of Don Felipe Agoncillo, the prominent lady in Philippine history known as the one who sewed the first Philippine flag in the 1800’s). Donya Marcela always entertained prominent guests and they would serve different Spanish meat dishes and delicacies. My grandmother and the other servants and their families were usually not allowed to eat or take home food from the banquet table. That’s why these are dishes and ingredients that I only heard about and never tasted in my life”, Ka Lusing honestly says.
We told Ka Lusing we are not interested in Donya Marcela’s meat dishes. We are interested in her simple vegetable dishes because although they are peasants’ food, they are actually nutritious and healthy. We told her we want to encourage people in the world to actually eat such nutritious vegetable diet – – that’s why we are writing about it. Only then did she feel a bit at ease and continued on. “For lunch, we always had Rice and usually Bulanglang (a vegetable soup made form green papaya, eggplant, squash, patani, malunggay leaves, kibal, boiled in tomatoes, onions and garlic), Balatong (mongo beans sautéed in onion, tomatoes and garlic), and Habitchuelas (dried white beans boiled in tomatoes and cooked with potatoes). Sometimes we would have Sinigang (soured vegetable soup made with Tamarind pulp, Gabi (taro), Sitaw (long beans), Radish, Kangkong leaves or Mustard leaves, tomatoes, onions and Large Green Chilies). Other times we would have Pinangat or Sinaing (vegetables cooked in kalamyas) and a variety of Ginat-an (vegetables such as jackfruit and camansi(breadfruit) cooked in coconut milk, ginger and salt). Afternoon snacks include Camote, Saba (a variety of cooking bananas), Cassava and Peanuts. And dinner is much the same as lunch”.
At the antique stone steps of the Taal Basilica- -a marvelous, massive structure- – Ka Lusing sells candles to churchgoers everyday. Her mother had been a candle vendor here too until her death. This church, known to be the biggest church in the Orient, was first built by the Spanish priest Diego Espina in 1575 and was destroyed when the volcano erupted in 1755. It was the Spaniards who introduced the Catholic religion to the Filipinos. From them, the Filipinos acquired fervent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Ka Lusing never married and instead her devotion was simply focused on the miraculous Virgin Mary of Caysasay and the Baby Jesus. She also worships San Martin, the patron saint of Taal. Every week, she buys candles from her small earnings and lights them as an offering to the Virgin Mary. This is her Panata (religious vow). Filipinos in general, like Ka Lusing are deeply religious, warm, friendly and hospitable.
The re-construction of the church in 1856 is a saga of love and sacrifice. Ka Lusing remembers her grandparents telling stories about how the whole townfolk of Taal took part in it. “Stone slabs were dug up in Barrio Cawit, known as Batong Cawit (stones from Cawit). And they were painstakingly carried by men fold going on an uphill climb to the church site”, Ka Lusing says.
“In the afternoon after finishing their household work, the women carried sand in their apron from the seashore. Children carried sand in their little handkerchief”
Slowly the church was built with no cement but only lime holding the bricks and stones.
Actually, the endless interesting stories of Taal could go on- -our dear friend Ka Lusing is a very rich repository! For us, having come to know this historical little town of Batangas, which was once the proud ancient capital of its trade and culture- -is truly a pleasant journey. No wonder Datu Puti and his men decided to settle there! On clear December days, Ka Lusing says the water in the Taal Lake is placid. And when the water is placid, flying birds and clouds are mirrored in the blue waters. She says no one has ever succeeded to fathom the lake in the past, and no one ever will. Whether she is echoing wise, prophetic words from her ancestors, we do not know. All we know is that although no one can fathom what a sincere, humble and devoted soul this poor, old woman is, it is somehow mirrored in her eyes.