Lolo Dado’s bakasi
When I first read Erik Matti’s now-infamous “poverty porn” comment in reference to the Netflix streetfood feature of Cordova town’s “esoteric eel,” my blood pressure went up as I recalled how my grandfather regarded bakasi as his favorite dish.
My maternal grandfather, Diosdado Sr. or Dado, was raised in Barangay Babag, Lapu-Lapu City. He dreamt of becoming a sailor but there was little money for school.
So he found a way to fulfill his dream without the diploma. He found a job at the port area. He became a kargador and later, a purser of one of the boats of a shipping company. A purser is like the accounting/finance department of a boat. He was so good in managing the limited resources that each meal was like a feast to his fellow workers.
This probably happened in the late 50s. Both of my grandparents were born in the early to mid 40s and married at the ages of 14 and 15.
When he was alive, Lolo Dado shared how he would buy fish in Pasil and then plan the “menu” with the cook. Almost always, it was fish soup with slices of fresh fish that made the broth taste salty-sweet with a kick of ginger and/or sili espada. “We’re blessed with abundant fish in our ocean,” he said.
My Lolo Dado was the most handsome, most considerate, most thoughtful under-the-saya husband of his time. When my Lola Patricia or Patring asked him to quit his job so they could operate a sari-sari store/carinderia/jukebox within Mandaue City Public Market, he did so with a smile on his face.
He said it himself, “Gusto nako malipay ra si Patricia,” which means that he just wanted Patricia to be happy. It was his life mission and I, unconsciously, made my Lolo as the ideal husband material.
The business flourished but my grandmother did not like how the jukebox and the beer, which they served at their store was causing trouble especially to her cousins, who served as waitresses. The jukebox, a coin-operated musical device that plays a song from a record or CD, was attracting men who ordered beer and would get drunk. Lola did not like that. She was a pious Catholic who felt guilty about being an instrument for people to enjoy worldly pleasures.
So the couple closed shop and decided to enter the business of buying and selling seashells and seaweeds such as aninikad (plicate conch), tahong (mussels), imbao (mangrove clam), lato (sea grapes) and guso (seaweed). In my childhood, between the late 80s and the mid 90s, Lolo and Lola would come home a few minutes close to 10 p.m. with a black pail filled with all sorts of things from pork to fruits. The pail was like Mary Poppins’ bag of unlimited whatnots.
My grandparents are the most hardworking people I know.
They woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. every day and went home at 10 p.m. They looked exhausted most of the time but they always had treats for us, their grandchildren. We often waited for the “gasa” (gift) that they had for us. My favorite ones were paper dolls. I still have some of them tucked away somewhere in the ancestral house.
Every night was like a feast. My grandfather was a great cook too, who learned the tricks of preparing food from the sea from the cook he worked with back in his ship days.
In several occasions, my grandfather showed to me and my cousins a handful of “snakes” being cooked in a cauldron with all the ingredients he would use when cooking the traditional tinuwang isda (fish soup). The “snakes” were the bakasi and Lolo swore that it kept him strong and going no matter how exhausting the days at the market were.
We did not come from a privileged and landed clan. But I learned hard work and perseverance from the examples of my grandparents. When the going gets tough, especially when an uncle got embroiled in several cases including the illegal drug trade and murder, my Lolo was the family’s solid figure of strength. During those times, he washed away the pain and anger with a few bottles of Kulafu and Red Horse beer. He cooked more fish soup and the bakasi always made an appearance in the kitchen.
I grew up thinking that my Lolo ate snakes to keep him strong. I was so amazed at the thought that I considered him as the reincarnation of Lapulapu, the conqueror of Magellan, hero of Mactan, the unbeatable warrior. Only one thing was lacking, my grandfather looked more like Magellan than Lapulapu, with his Spanish looks more pronounced than his Filipino ancestry.
But he was my Bisaya Lolo every step of the way. He listened to Visayan songs every Sunday. He never failed to buy a Visayan tabloid that my siblings and I loved – and from where I learned to write poems and essays in the vernacular. He ate bakasi soup at least once every week.
Our family lived in Barangay Calawisan, Lapu-Lapu City, which is close to Cordova town. While Cordova was known for bakasi, Calawisan was known for lato (sea grapes) because the barangay had families growing lato in ponds. So bakasi and lato were the staple food of my childhood.
I never cooked bakasi soup because I was scared of how it looks. But Lolo Dado taught me how to do it. I can still remember how he sliced the ingredients, how the entire house smells like a fisherman’s boat, and how each bowl of bakasi soup satisfies the stomach.
So when Erik Matti described this dish as poverty porn because it showed the story of Nong Entoy, I took it real personal.
Food always comes with a story and the bakasi story is not a narrative of what he wants to appear as a “quintessential Filipino street food that can represent our food to the world.” It is our story from this side of the Philippines; the narrative of our people’s way of life and strong beliefs; a story that did not have the chance to be told in the international scene until the people from Netflix decided to come to our island.
The bakasi is my Lolo Dado’s story of perseverance and resilience.
I am not going to lambast Erik Matti here. Instead, I’ll do what my grandfather always did every time he encountered a dissenting view: invite the person over a meal.
Cebu is an hour away from Manila, Direk. From the Mactan airport, Entoy’s Bakasihan in Barangay Buagsong, Cordova can be reached in less than an hour.
Ali diri, Direk.
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