As I write this here in Surigao, my father prepares a fish curry locally called espesyo. He has salted a whole slab of fish and left it in the fridge last night. This morning, he prepares to cook it in rice powder, coconut milk, curry, and a lot of local herbs that would give the dish its distinct green color when served.
We grew up to this dish, cooked and served during Lent by our late paternal grandmother who, while already living for years in the city, continued to follow this Lenten tradition in our hometown in Del Carmen in Siargao Islands.
Our lola never failed to cook this dish, which has an interesting mix not only of salty and slightly pungent tastes but of the powdery texture of the rice paste and the succulent white meat of the fish. In local dialect, espesyo means saucy.
Formerly named after Numancia in Spain, Del Carmen is an ancient town whose claim to fame is that it is the site of the first parish established in the Philippines. Some time in the early ‘90s, the church there celebrated its quadricentennial, a historic event that drew practically no attention from the national media.
All that remains of the Spanish past are ruins of the old church walls and the forgotten watchtower on top of some forested hill elsewhere that my uncles wanted me to draw based on their stories.
Recent typhoons have also taken their toll on the century-old ancestral houses in the poblacion, which could have made Del Carmen a more attractive heritage town than it is today.
Our family has a house there right beside the public plaza, at the back of the Rizal monument. But it was originally a small wooden house with no significant architectural features.
Still, being the background for Rizal’s monument (which was relocated there a few years ago), we felt we should remodel it to fit the general style of Spanish colonial architecture. To augment the cost, we plan to rent it out to travelers. So on vacation, you could stay there and wake up to see Jose Rizal right below the window.
It was from this background that my father’s family came. Ancient buildings may not have been lucky to survive the regular visits of tropical storms but traditions such as cooking and religious practices have been well preserved, thanks to the insular isolation of Siargao.
Even when she was starting to be infirmed by osteoporosis and arthritis, my lola never failed to go to her novenas in her veil and big red scapular. When Lent comes, she would painstakingly prepare the espesyo, a complex and rather elaborate dish.
When times were hard, and it was so most of the time, she would just buy a smaller fish, and all of us in her big family (my grandparents had nine kids) who would come to visit them after the procession on Good Friday, would partake of the fish on a single plate.
It was perhaps part of the ritual of semi-fasting that we should never have enough of it. And the fact that my lola would only cook it during Lent, much as we wished to have it all year round.
Nobody else in the family was known to have cooked it the way she did. I do not even know how my father learned to cook the espesyo himself. I did not remember him cook it before, not even during Lent after our lola passed away.
But today, he is at the kitchen trying his hand on it. I’d like to think that it is for us, who come home less often now. Or more likely it is in honor of his mother, our Lola Biyay, who we would have greeted this Mother’s Day.