“Three words. In three words I can explain why our food will never see world domination.”
Lee, the only non-Filipino in my audience, pretended to listen; she and my mom were bonding over a bowl of spaghetti. She watched as my mom topped the noodles with an oily, lumpy, yellow-orange paste spooned straight out of a jar.
“Taba ng talangka.” I said. “There, three words. Literal translation, the fat of the crab. But that, actually, is not fat; it’s the roe. See, even we are confused!”
“It’s not crab roe, “ my mom said, adding to Lee’s confusion. “What I mean is, this is not from crabs. No, not those blue crabs, or whatever you call those crabs your Uncle Dado brings from Scotia. It’s from small crabs, but not baby crabs.”
She held up an imaginary crustacean between her thumb and index finger.
“Talangka are small, no more than 2 inches, and we catch them from rivers in the Philippines. You don’t see small shore crabs here. So this,” her hand shook a bit, “this is special.”
Taba ng talangka. I enunciated each word, demonstrating to Lee how the tongue should freeze mid-mouth on the ‘ba and the ‘ka. Accent on those last syllables, I coaxed, but it was the ng she struggled with. “It’s nang, dearie, as in bang! bang! – except you let the sound bounce a bit on the roof of your mouth, like an echo.”
Bang! Bang-nnnggg! You’re dead!
My mom stood frozen before the customs officer at Pearson, as if he had pulled out a gun and pointed it at her heart. Her heart happened to be right there in her maroon suitcase, sealed in a small jar, swathed in printed scarves and an old blouse.
“So what’s in there?”
“Sir, I did NOT bring food!”
The customs officer opened her suitcase. “I didn’t ask if you brought food…” She felt the cold nozzle on her chest as he dug through the clothes. The steel instrument peeled off layers – skin, muscles, wall – until it struck glass.
He fished out the small jar and examined its contents. In it was some curd, a ghastly pale orange in color, and it was swimming in oil. His head jerked back, “What is this?”
“Eto na naman kami,” my mom muttered under her breath.
Here we go again. When did that begin to be the sound of despair?
Here we go again! Nena felt a rush of excitement as soon as the skies cleared and the buzz of Japanese planes receded to the west. Her brother, Dado, leapt ahead of her; six other kids followed. “Race to the river!” Nena felt the back of her knees; it was moist with sweat from crouching too long under a pile of felled coconut trees.
While the boys splashed noisily in the water, Nena walked to a shallow edge and resumed the day’s hunt. With a piece of coconut shell, she scoured the riverbank for the little creatures that bore in the sand. Of course, she needed at least a hundred of these tiny crabs, a basketful, as Dado alone could eat half of that in one sitting. Her brother tended to be wasteful, scraping their flesh with his teeth and discarding the rest – the crunchy shells and legs which she loved and all of which she ate. “The idiot doesn’t know what he’s missing,” she thought.
The past months had been a good season for these small shore crabs. The warplanes had scared off the birds that usually swooped down and flew away with the tiny crustaceans in their beaks. There were fewer chickens and lizards, too, to feed on the hatchlings that swam near the riverbanks, creeks and irrigation canals. Their small town had been spared from Japanese presence and American bombs, but food became more scarce as the conflict neared its end. Neighbors had stopped raising fowl and hog, lest they attract stragglers from the Japanese Imperial Army or members of the People’s Army against the Japanese, the hukbalahaps, who, at times, trooped down the hills of Arayat for a hot meal. Even the trees seemed shellshocked and had stopped bearing fruit; the rice fields were the most vulnerable and simply wasted away. Down at the river, though, there was still some mudfish to be caught, and the talangka proved to be a hardy species. Every summer, despite the feeding frenzy of creatures from land, water and sky, no matter how the war raged in the distance, the crablets continued to reproduce by the thousands.
That afternoon Nena must have gathered a few hundred tiny crabs. She was so pleased with herself that she didn’t mind if the crabs kept crawling and snapping their way out of the baskets. But Dado wasn’t very happy that he had to pick up after her and toss back the escapees one by one, all the way home. Nena couldn’t help but gloat.
More than the crunch of its shell, it was the roe that Nena loved – and this harvest was big enough for steamed crablets AND taba ng talangka. Her mom could plate just enough for herself and her two children, the rest set aside for later that evening, to be dealt with when the dishes were washed and dried, the windows shut and peace descended on the dark outside.
“Yesss! Here we go…!” Nena made sure she rubbed her thumbs vigorously as she washed her hands. She glared at Dado who refused to do as she did. The thumbs had to be their cleanest, she explained, as they would do most of the work, pushing the roe from the crabs’ small, almost hollow shells, making sure not a bit dropped off the bowl and fell into the cracks of the dining table.
Nena watched her mom toss the tiny nuggets into the heat. Smoke rose from the pan like a cloud, a cumulus redolent with annato oil, garlic and vinegar. It had been sometime since the smell of food – the ones that reminded her of fiestas and rice harvests – enveloped their home.
The aroma wafted past the pile of rotting trunks, crossed the now still river; it grazed the rice paddies, then hopscotched over the hills. The dark mountain seemed to suck it all in. Old people often spoke of a crater at the top of Mount Arayat, a mouth they said led to the belly of a sleeping volcano. Nena wasn’t sure if it was the rumble of its hunger she felt, but the ground where their shack stood trembled.
Craaaaack! A bamboo slat broke under the heavy boots of intruders.
Huks! Nena pressed against the table, immediately sensing her mom’s fear: there was hardly any rice left, nothing else for these men to seize but…!
The men cast such large shadows on the wall that Nena was surprised to find that they were no taller than her mom. They were, in fact, as gaunt and bent from the shoulders as the old men she knew. They had come down from Arayat, some of them soldiers long abandoned by their American allies – maybe survivors of the Death March - who now foraged small towns for food and some kindness.
One of the men had his rifle slung casually over his shoulder, while the rest kept their fingers on the trigger. His face bore a long, ugly scar from a Japanese bayonet, but it was his small, deliberate movements that scared Nena. She could tell he was the kumander.
Leaders usually bore the worst battle scars, or more often, the most bitter personal tragedies; theirs is a sorrow so deep and black, it paced like an animal in the hollow of their chests. When she was six, Nena witnessed how the kumander let loose his monster – with such small gesture as tipping a hat – to seal the fate of eleven men, all alleged collaborators.
Every time a man killed, a bit of him died. If that was true, then Kumander Simon was long dead. People talked in whispers about a wife and a daughter, dragged by hooded men along with other wives and children of USAFFE soldiers and guerillas. They said at the precise moment his family was lined up against a wall and shot, his rage could be heard all the way from Bataan. It was then that he made his escape, breaking away from the March that snaked down its craggy hills. Amid the silent cheers of the wounded and weakened, he struck a Japanese guard, using the same bayonet that tore his flesh. He must have struck the enemy one hundred, two hundred times, before he disappeared into the forest. Now and then he would emerge from the dark, cold and without a soul.
Kumander Simon took off his buri hat and bowed to her mom. “Did your daughter help you make that?”
Nena eased away from the table. Her mom’s and her own 9-year old frame parted like curtains. And there it was, still warm and glistening with oil, the jar her mom ever so carefully filled with the day’s harvest, the gold her small hands mined for hours, the fat - no, the roe! – of small shore crabs.
“And to the bin they all went. You’d think my mom would stop after her third attempt…”
“So what got it through Customs this time, your, ah, taba ng talangka?” Lee asked, surprised at how easily the foreign words came out.
“Luck.” My mom shrugged; the pasta was now thoroughly coated in roe.
“Of course it helped that this time the jar was vacuum-sealed in a friend’s factory.” I said.
“Do you think they care if it’s vacuum-sealed or not?” my mom shot back. “They toss out these things, things they don’t know or understand. But sometimes you get lucky… they look at you – and they look you in the eye, which isn’t often – and then they suddenly seem to understand. They see an old lady and they see this jar with weird stuff in it. So God knows what they really see that makes them… kinder. Maybe it’s because we are all immigrants here in Canada. They see the same thing in their mothers’ eyes.”
She reached across the table for a thick wedge of lime. “It’s best to use kalamansi, the small round Philippine lime, but in a pinch, any lime will do… a little squeeze to take away the fishiness of the roe. Here,” laying the plate in front of Lee, “Try it. You’ve never had pasta sauce like this.”
Lee twirled the spaghetti around her fork, making sure the noodles picked up every morsel of roe from her plate. “Won’t you have any?” When she looked up, my mom had already walked to the stove.
“I prefer it simple, with just a drizzle of lime, on hot steaming rice.”
“Did your daughter help you make this?”
Kumander Simon asked again as he reached for the crab roe. Meanwhile, his men had found the can of rice among the firewood. They also took the salt her mom kept in a small jar. Now they waited for their kumander to hand over the night’s precious loot.
Nena couldn’t help it; she let out a soft cry.
Kumander Simon turned and looked her in the eye. “Did you help your inang make this?”
Nena threw herself behind her mom. His cold stare had softened but still it terrified her, even more so when it settled on her tiny hands, the thumbs stained with roe.
“It’s hard work gathering these little creatures. You can spend the whole day by the river, not noticing the time pass. Before you know it, the war is over and you’re spared of its horrors.”
Kumander Simon placed the jar back on the table. “I certainly wouldn’t mind a little of that crab roe, on a bowl of steaming rice. But not tonight,” he signalled his men to leave. “Perhaps in better times… if I’m lucky.”
My mom knew I didn’t care much for this stuff. To anyone born in North America, it’s just too exotic, too rich and its smell rather off-putting. But it wasn’t everyday that taba ng talangka would find its way to our home, less so survive the rough handlings at airports, the scrutiny at Customs, and worse, my indifference at the table. So I thought I’d indulge her.
I helped myself to a bowl. When I turned around, spoon in mouth, I caught a glint in my mom’s eyes.
Suddenly, I felt the sharp citric flavor of kalamansi kick in, only to dissolve and open up to what could be the taste of the ocean. The brine softened as it lingered on the palate. Then I noted a taste of moss – or was it fiddlehead – the kind one picked along riverbeds. That too receded, as if rocks and pebbles filtered out the ocean and the river, filtered out Time even, hushing everything – wars, childbirths, journeys, deaths, – down to a narrow and quiet stream.
The reflection of a child’s face blurred as her small hands dipped into the water. From its bed a thousand small shore crabs emerged, each heavy with roe.
Nena’s eyes lit up, like she had struck gold.
*** END ***
This story was inspired by a friend’s anecdote at a party, about her mom’s numerous attempts to sneak taba ng talangka past the Canadian customs. It was hilarious, and I knew every Filipino in the room could relate with her story, as I did. It evoked images of my childhood, of my mom, of us kids gathered around the table, picking the roe from talangka. Yes, we made our own talangka delicacies – more often its buro version. It was a seasonal treat we enjoyed in many ways: as a side dish, as sauce and, best of all, as rice topping drizzled with kalamansi.
Thanks, Gene, for this pasalubong.