People from the city down on their luck always say, " we could always go home to the province", which implies that jobs may be scarce, but at least, one can expect three-meals a day. On the eve of the millennium with everyone worrying about the Y2K bug throwing us off into the Dark Ages, I surveyed our backyard, lush and bursting with eggplants, okra, kamote and guavas and felt comforted. The drawback to 20th century conveniences like canned food is that you develop a tendency to be dependent on something that doesn't last. Or for people who are financially strapped, something they couldn't afford.

But things that you grow and nurture through nature's cycle bring not only joy, but also an assurance of your own life's continuance even if you may never again see canned tuna. It's not common for people in our barrio to go backyard hopping, two hours before lunchtime. There maybe a small cache of shrimps caught from the river, or a small milkfish. All one needs is sampalok for that sharp asim, or for a lighter kind of sourness, there is camias and even guava (the kind with red flesh is good). Kamote, that versatile vegetable that lends itself well to both high-brow and plebian dishes, grows just about anywhere and completes a dish of comforting sinigang.

A favorite dish during the rainy season is balatong, monggo in Tagalog. Sauteed in garlic, onions and tomatoes, the only ingredient that one buys is the pork sahog; in this case, we prefer the liempo cut, fried to a crisp. Since we never did like ampalaya (except when it goes with beef in a special hoisin sauce), the only vegetable we put in it are sili leaves which has the right hint of bitterness; a nice counterpoint to the native molasses candy that we have developed a fondness for when eating balatong.

Pangasinan is predominantly Ilokano and it shows in the way most people prepare their greens. The basic way of cooking eggplants, okra, ampalaya and kalabasa is boiling everything in a pot and seasoning it with bagoong (fish paste). For a fuller broth, leftover grilled bangus or any kind of fish is put in. True blue Ilukos call it dinengdeng and by tradition, it is left to steep for a day to get a certain flavor. One can also sauté it in alamang and it becomes pinakbet. Other vegetables that can be added into the dinengdeng pot, not familiar to a few, include squash flowers, parlang (can't find either the Tagalog or the English equivalent), gabi root (or Taro root), string beans, marunggay (not to be confused with malunggay) and this plant which looks like cat's tails (!!!).

The famous saluyot and labong are like Sharon Cuneta and Gabby Concepcion; in the minds of most people, they are never paired with anything else and are a dish in themselves.

Gata or coconut's milk is rarely used in vegetable dishes (unless one is Visayan), but it is the only ingredient I know which makes camansi ( a vegetable similar to the langka and cooked while still unripe) extra special. One may add string beans and even squash and of course, an extra dash of siling labuyo.

Salads are simple. I like the crunchiness of steamed okra dipped in a bagoong and vinegar sauce. Steamed camote tops as an appetizer, prepares the palate for richer dishes ahead. You can even boil it for its juice and transforms into a ritzy drink mixed with squeezed dayap or calamansi and flavored with pandan. The katuray flower, steeped in vinegar as an atsara (chutney) is a crisp complement to fried or grilled pork.

My all time-favorite is malunggay which makes its appearance in a wide array of dishes from simple tinola to even hamburgers as an extender. Once in Seattle, my father came across frozen malunggay in a store being sold for something like 10 dollars. In a world where the supermarket's fresh-foods section may contain a world-full of stuff, the convenience of store-bought food is obvious. But nothing can compare to a dish whose ingredients have been picked by hand, or given free by one's neighbors in a long tradition of not only hospitality, but true human generosity and kindness. Happy eating!


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