Though I hate to admit it, I am a chronic breakfast-skipper.
The reason for this is not a distaste for the usual breakfast fare (truth be told, I adore it) but rather, a lack of time. Like most college students, I am a slave to convenience. On the rare days I wake up early enough, I purchase an overpriced latte, and nothing else.
Often, as I miss yet another breakfast or consume a sad excuse for one, I daydream about partaking of an authentic Filipino almusal. I only get the chance to sit down to one when my family vacations in the quaint town of Liliw, Laguna. There, we stay with my grandparents at Tree Farm, where I am required to rise at the crack of dawn.
Still heavy with sleep, I head to the sun-lit dining room for my morning meal. As I step inside, my senses are engaged. I take a whiff of the air perfumed with the aroma of warm pandesal; hear the sizzle of frying garlic; and gaze upon the spread that awaits me.
My drowsiness magically fades. My stomach grumbles loudly. I am ready to eat.
My grandmother, who I fondly call Wowa, is a true testament to Tagalog folks’ reputation of being gracious, gallant hosts. Each morning, she prepares a feast of traditional Pinoy dishes, a practice handed down to her by her parents. As she was born and raised in Liliw, the repertoire consists of choices with a Tagalog heritage, many of which were served at her own lolo and lola’s breakfast table.
Wowa and my cute cousin Ruth at Tree Farm
One such dish is longganisa, a delicacy of the nearby Lucban, deep-fried and served with coconut vinegar. Another is crispy tawilis, a sardine found only in the shores of the Taal Lake. Wowa taught me to temper this fish’s intensely salty flavor with chopped tomatoes and onions.
From Sta. Cruz, she gets kesong puti, a soft white cheese made of carabao’s milk. Most of the time, I stuff the keso inside pandesal. Other times, I mash it into piping hot rice, allowing the steam to slowly melt the cheese.
In typical Pinoy fashion, rice is a big part of the meal. We place mountainous heaps of sinangag, Pinoys’ buttery, garlic-laden version of fried rice, on our plates. I, a total tapsilog groupie, enjoy pairing it with eggs and tapa or fried beef marinated in vinegar. Wowa makes an extraordinarily tender tapa; the perfect complement to a sunny side-up egg, plucked straight from the chicken coop on our farm.
For those wishing to add a hint of sourness to the dish, she prepares a side of pickled vegetables or atchara. Personally, I would rather douse my tapsilog in vinegar and minced sili labuyo, but that’s just me. The beauty of Wowa’s almusal, and perhaps Philippine cuisine as a whole, is that there are no hard and fast rules. Diners have the unlimited license to tinker with their food, especially when it comes to one’s preferred sawsawan or sauce. My grandmother, whose almusal spread always includes a wide array of seasonings, welcomes the idea with open arms.
Let’s move from savory to sweet.
In my opinion, nothing encapsulates the taste of Liliw quite like the town’s doughy delicacies. From the hole-in-the-wall bakeries that dot the town, we purchase a host of breakfast sweets. My absolute favorite is Liliw’s version of hotcakes, a fluffy pancake smeared with margarine and sprinkled with sugar. A close second is balitaw, a donut-like confection coated in a hard muscovado sugar shell.
A close up look at Balitaw
For health buffs that, I presume, balk at the idea of consuming so much sugar, my ever-considerate lola serves some of the region’s lighter treats. One is puto alsa, a large bilao of fluffy white rice cake. Another is bonete, a milky, bell-shaped roll. It is crusty on the outside, doughy on the inside, and the perfect spouse to a hot cup of kape barako. It is known to be the pride of Liliw (apart from their famous tsinelas), and it couldn’t be more deserving of this title.
As can be expected, sitting down to a meal like this takes an infinitely longer amount of time than my rushed breakfasts in the city. Between chatting with my grandparents, heading back to the buffet table for multiple rounds (admittedly, I always do), and sipping hot coffee, almusal can take up the whole morning. However, I don’t mind. My breakfasts at Wowa’s farm may be few and far between, but they are treasured. They give me an opportunity to pause and relax, thinking only of enjoying my family’s company and experiencing a good meal.
That is what a classic Filipino almusal is: an experience. Food is not to be eaten in a mindless hurry. To the contrary, Pinoy breakfast fare is to be enjoyed in a leisurely manner, and every flavor-rich bite is to be savored. Luckily for me, my loving lola makes such great food that lingering at the table for hours, savoring my meal, feels like just a few minutes. Needless to say, I can hardly wait for my next breakfast in Liliw.