If urban centers have their famed and fabled street foods, our countryside has roadside foods, the ones that are cooked, and sold, along the highways. Like street foods, the roadside eats are not just windows to the culinary cultures of their places, but also serve as indicators of their economies.
Those of us who grew up here should remember how the pinasugbo was sold by the roadsides of Crossing Pulupandan, and puto along the stretches of Manapla. The Pulupandan pinasugbo has all but disappeared, but the Manapla puto has gone on to become something of an icon, another symbol of how the Negrense culinary culture can take its resources – rice and coconut in this instance – and create something outstanding and delicious. In fact, the Manapla puto now has other versions, such as the cheesy, which has become as popular as the original. There are also ube and buco pandan variants of the puto, both of which I understand were developed by the latter generations of Manapla puto makers.
But back to the roadsides. These days, you’ll find the food tables in the countrysides usually selling the season’s crops of the area: corn, at this time, which comes as boiled or broiled.
Of course we have corn and corn being sold in our streets, but most often, the ones that are sold in the countryside have the inimitable edge of the freshly-plucked, something which most of us urbanites no longer recognize. They are usually sweeter, juicier, softer than the ones we have here; its not the kind of sweet and juicy that we get from those genetically-modified yellow corn, but the kind of sweet and juicy only the authentically fresh can give.
In some intersections, such as in Crossing Ma-ao, Bago city one can find other fresh produce such as steamed camote – I once had extraordinarily sweet purple-colored camote there. Every once in a while, down along the highways of Bago poblacion one can buy live catfish just caught from the rivers, or even rice quails known locally as pitaw just caught from the neighboring rice fields.
Up North, between Calatrava and San Carlos, I found a couple setting shop on the edge of the mountain, the sea to their backs, preparing, cooking, and selling hot bibingka straight from their make-shift ovens. The bibingka is a logical food product in these parts: it is surrounded by coconut trees, and rice is grown abundantly. It must have been my over active imagination, but the bibingka here tasted of the mountains, rough and rugged, with the sweet-creamy coconut milk and young coconut strips serving as counterpoint to the flavor of rice.
In Calatrava , another roadside food is the salvaro bread, a sweet bun with whispers of coconut in them. It is made in an oven made from hollow blocks and fired by dried coconut husks.
The salvaro should be the quintessential Pinoy roadside food. This one in Calatrava is made by the couple Ma. Paz and Romeo Mandalupe, who has been making it for the last 40 years, from the recipe handed down from Ma. Paz’ mother, who got it from her own mother as well.
Over time, salvaro making has remained the same, except for one major revision: they now use yeast instead of tuba as their grandmothers used to do.
You can say this is a true mom and pop operation, with the couple doing most of the work, and a son helping out. They start cooking at 11 a.m., and at around 12 when we dropped by, all of the day’s production which total to around 200 pieces have already been bought.
We had to beg for just a few pieces to try them, to see what’s all the fuss about. It is sweet bread, alright, but the strong hints of coconut in the salvaro gives it an identity all its own, an identity that, I guess, makes it the bread of Calatrava which has shorelines planted to coconuts, and no other place.*