Our quest for the best laing continues with three recent samplings.
Cookie found Manay Isha’s Bicolano delicacies at one of the Power Plant Mall food fairs. Their laing is available in regular and spicy varieties, frozen and foil-wrapped.
This pack lasted a week—we would take out a small serving, steam and eat with rice. Very good, keeps well.
We were ravenous after the PHL-Chinese Taipei rugby match at Rizal Memorial so we proceeded to one of our all-time favorite joints, Aristocrat on Roxas Boulevard in Malate. Naturally we had the 3-piece chicken barbecue with java rice. We noticed they had laing on their extensive menu so we ordered it. It was all right, but we noticed that we ate most of it while The Chronicler of Boredom and Brewhuh23 just had a few bites. If you really need a laing fix, it’ll do. But the chicken barbecue with java rice—brilliant. And the adobo flying saucers.
Last Saturday we had lunch at Ige’s house in Cavite City. Ige’s niece-in-law Lotlot is from Bicol, and she prepared this excellent laing (and sinigang na hipon, plus barbecue chicken, grilled fish and grilled fresh clams).
Afterwards we went to Asiong’s, a Cavite dining institution since 1960. Proprietor Sonny Lua had prepared haleyang sampalok, which we’ve wanted to try since we read Ige Ramos’s essay, winner of the 2012 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award.
Excerpt from Ige’s essay:
Cooking haleyang sampalok is not an easy task, and consequently is now a dying art. Starting early each morning, Aling Crisanta sets up a tungko, comprising of three adobe stones arranged in a tripod. On this improvised stove is placed a 36-inch diameter carajay, an over-sized steel wok, half-filled with water. The carajay is then primed by boiling some water in it. Once the water reaches boiling point it is cleaned with a brush fashioned from the petioles of coconut leaves. As soon the water in the carajay evaporates, the slurry mixture of tamarind pulp, grated panocha (palm sugar) and gata (coconut milk) is placed on it. More firewood is continuously added to ensure a constant, even, heat.
Once the slurry starts to boil, it is gently mixed with a short pole, known as a sagwan, and similar to a boat’s paddle, it has a broad blade at the end. When the haleya attains the desired thickness, the kakang gata (coconut cream) is added, along with additional panocha. At this point, the heat is reduced and the mixture paddled for several more hours until reaching the consistency of sticky caramel. As it thickens—lumalaban, the effort of paddling the haleya becomes more cumbersome, and Aling Crisanta requests the assistance of one of her daughters, since it is important not to allow the mixture to settle at the bottom of the pan for fear that it might burn and taste mapait or bitter.
By sheer folk alchemy or long-established belief, doubtless proof that the haleya is ready is when the paddle is stuck in the center of the carajay, and stands on its own. At this point, the haleyang sampalok will have achieved a glistening golden-brown color, with a silky, caramel texture.
You know an essay on food is successful if you can taste the dish described even if you’ve never eaten it. We tried it last Saturday and it is exactly as Ige said. Our haleyang sampalok was newly-cooked and hot; we ate it with fresh pan de sal from the bakery down the street. Delicious. As the haleya cooled it got thicker and easier to eat with a spoon. Although one tablespoon should satisfy your dessert craving. (Let’s sell this at a weekend market! And Sonny’s pancit pusit!)