As the clan's first granddaughter, I was recruited by Lola Tina for kitchen duty at the age of four. Lessons were daily and started with an early morning fun ride. From Lolo's jeepney factory in Pulanglupa, grandma and I rode a calesa to the Zapote public market in Bacoor, where I first learned the names of hundreds of varieties of vegetables, fruits, fish, crabs, shrimps and bivalves, as well as the various cuts of beef and pork.
Home from the market, we would take everything out of the bamboo shopping baskets and lay them out on the long dining table that doubled as working table between meals. There was a lot to do.
Fish had to be scaled, gutted, sliced and salted (if meant to be fried or broiled). Meat was washed and seasoned, then stored in an airy bamboo cabinet called paminggalan, which kept food safe from pets, pests and insects. Vegetables were peeled and sliced, the size and shapes dictated by what dish they're intended to be used in.
MOST USEFUL KITCHEN AID - And when all the ingredients are ready, it was time to take out the almires, a heavy mortar and pestle made of rough stone. The mortar was the size of a regulation basketball. We used the almires daily. It crushed garlic for fried rice and ginisa, cracked black pepper for adobo, ground peanuts for kare-kare, mashed broiled liver for lechon paksiw, chicharon bits for pancit palabok, bread crumbs to thicken mechado gravy and split roasted mongo for ginatang totong.
ORIGINAL MAGIC GINISA - The most important and frequent use for almires was to pound small crabs, collectively called pakot, to extract juices from their fat and flesh. After pounding the crabs to break the shells and mash the flesh, water was poured into the almires, whose bowl was scraped of all sticky crab juice. Everything was mashed then poured through a fine bamboo sieve to remove all broken shells. Sometimes the mash included pounded shrimp shells and heads when we made camaron rebosado.
This crab/shrimp extract was Lola's "magic ginisa" mix, providing a rich, deep flavor and protein to sautéed vegetables, pancit, chop suey and fresh lumpia. It is sad that these days, vendors no longer sell crabs of any size as pakot. Even the smallest alimasag are sold to be cooked whole.
I look for live tiny rock crabs called alimangong bato, which are very juicy and fatty, producing thick extract after pounding in an almires. Also good bargains are soft shell crabs called luno, which are sold for half the price of hard shelled crabs.
BASIC GINISA WITH PAKOT - Lightly brown onions and garlic in oil, add sliced tomatoes (as needed) and stir-fry until wilted. Pour in strained crab/shrimp extract and continue stirring to prevent large clumps from forming. Season with salt, patis or soy sauce and add the vegetables. Stir to cook evenly. Some vegetables cook better if the pan is covered for a few minutes to steam the vegetable until done.
The pakot's flavor is really essential in pancit palabok and pancit guisado. No store-bought cube or powdered flavoring can equal the seafood nuances that permeate every strand of noodle.
ADD EARLY, KEEP COLD - An important rule is to add the pakot extract early, to reduce the fishiness associated with crabs and shrimps. Mixing in the extract while adding the vegetables and noodles does not allow the proteins to cook enough, resulting in off flavors reminiscent of raw bagoong.
Equally important to remember is to keep the whole pakot, and the extract, cold. Shrimp and crab spoil very easily, especially in the hot and humid atmosphere of the kitchen.
Some smart chefs cook the ginisa to the point of adding the extract and simmering until done. They add the other ingredients later, minutes before the meal.
BURNT LIVER FOR LECHON - Lola always salted pork liver heavily before broiling the pieces over very high heat, aiming to have blackened burnt edges. The grilled liver pieces were cut into small cubes and pounded to a paste in the almires with roasted kasubha (local saffron), then stirred into a pot of lechon paksiw.
Try this trick next time you have leftover lechon; you will realize that in some recipes, the slight bitterness of burnt food produces a unique blend which separates the ordinary from the haute.
THE RIGHT ALMIRES - One of the most popular souvenir items from the island of Romblon is the marble mortar and pestle, glistening like semi-precious stone. Pretty, yes. Useful in the kitchen? No.
A kitchen almires needs to have rough surfaces, in order that the items being pounded do not slide or fly right out of the bowl while being pounded. This is particularly annoying when cracking whole black peppercorns.
NO TO WOOD OR METAL - We have, over the years, been gifted with several wooden almires from Northern Luzon. Made of Narra and other varieties of hardwood, they absorb the juices, odors, taste and oils of whatever material is processed.
Wooden mortars and pestles also attract insects, mold and mildew; they look disgustingly stained after a few months of use. Wood is too soft for well dried solid whole black peppercorns, and definitely no match for crab shells.
Metal reacts chemically to any food and alters the flavor of anything it touches.
BEST FROM SAN ESTEBAN - On a trip to Laoag, I once got off the bus at the town of San Esteban, Ilocos Sur, to purchase hand carved rough stone almires from roadside stalls dotting the highway. They made perfect, though heavy, Christmas gifts. Maybe I'll do it again this year.
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