On to sweet nothingness
TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag (The Freeman) - August 23, 2013 - 12:00am

BLURB: I cannot forgive the nameless idiots who started the trend toward making certain food sweeter than they were meant to be. First the humba. Then pan de sal. Believe it or not, there is now even sweetened hipon. What next, sweet ginamos?


At a red light, a delivery van of a popular baker sidled up in the next lane. On its side was a giant picture of a popular type of bread. The bread looked delightful and the prominence with which it occupied space suggested it was one of the baker's best-sellers.

The bread was the ubiquitous pan de sal. But I have tasted the pan de sal of this particular baker and it did not appeal to me. In fact I do not like it. Despite the appealing picture presented on the side of the van, I know exactly how it tasted. And it tasted sweet.

Not sweet as in sweet. But there is no mistaking the trace of sweetness in a bread that, as its name unequivocally declares, is supposed to be salty. Not salty as in salty, but with a trace of saltiness that distinguishes it clearly from other breads. That's why it's called pan de sal.

Pan de sal means bread with salt. How can anyone mistake what the name means? Worse, how can one take liberties with a bread that has become not only the favorite of generations but, to a certain extent, come to symbolize the nation. If they call pan de sal the "pambansang tinapay" I would have no reason to object.

Don't get me wrong. I love sweets. I love chocolates. I love candies. I love things that are supposed to be sweet. What I hate is when food that isn't supposed to be sweet is made sweet and I do not know what has driven the Filipino to develop a love affair with misplaced sweetness.

Aside from pan de sal, some Filipino cooks have tampered with the taste of some all-time favorites of mine. Take the venerable humba, a staple in many Filipino homes. Before the advent of malls, when Sundays still meant eating home after Mass, the humba usually formed part of any mother's formidable home-cooked menu.

I can still remember the heavenly taste of my late mother's humba, which she insisted on cooking in an earthen pot that she lined with some leaves I was too young (she died when I was nine) to identify. The fat of the humba would shake in all its tender glory at the slightest movement but would miraculously keep its shape.

The humba absorbed much of the marinade used to make it tender, leaving only very little of the resulting thick sauce which you had to scrape from the bottom of the earthen pot to let drip onto hot steamed rice or, as I personally preferred, hot "kan-on mais" or steamed corn grits.

With much of the moisture gone, the best way to eat old-fashioned humba was to take it gingerly in its entirety -- meaning the square-shaped cut of pork and fat -- and knead it onto the rice or "kan-on mais" for a meal that one could literally die for.

This old-fashioned humba, as distinguished from the disrespectful versions of today, was never sweet to the taste. If the secret recipes of old, including that of my mom, included a dash of sugar, it certainly must have been in amounts so subtle they did not advertise their presence and overpower the eventual taste.

Today's humba, however, has become too sweet one could almost sweeten coffee with it. I cannot forgive the nameless idiots who started the trend toward making certain food sweeter than they were meant to be. First the humba. Then pan de sal. Believe it or not, there is now even sweetened hipon. What next, sweet ginamos?

And yet, incredibly, while they are sweetening those that were never meant to be sweet, they are also making less sweet those that are meant to be sweet. What a topsy-turvy world it has become for me to discover that "binignit" has become bland and almost tasteless from the lack of sweetness.

Whoever heard of "binignit nga tab-ang?" Binignit is supposed to be very sweet. Precisely why brown sugar is used is to make sure the sweetness is raw and real and hits you like a good whack from a sugarcane reed. Scrimp on sugar and binignit is no better than "tinughong" or watery porridge made from leftover rice.

And then there is the halo-halo, again with less sugar in it than halo-halo is supposed to have. Maybe because the makers have gone berserk with too many ingredients that they eventually forgot to put the one thing that brings everything together. No matter how many things you throw in, forget sugar and halo-halo is nothing.

If we are what we eat, then maybe the reason why this country has no clear direction is because we are stuffing things into our mouths without caring what they are or are expected to taste like. It's as if someone gives us a mango and tells us it's a banana, and we are expected to nod in agreement out of politeness.

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