MANILA, JUNE 2, 2006 (STAR) By Mariane M. Umali (The author is Winner, Lifestyle Journalism Awards 2006 sponsored by The Philippine Star, Stores Specialists, Inc. and HSBC.)

Mariane Umali has a big heart. She works with a humanitarian NGO. Her other passion is food – reading and writing about it. "I view food as a part of culture which needs to be documented and promoted. When stressed, I cook. Food is my therapy… This fondness (for food) was brought by my parents who taught us to appreciate food to make family and friendship ties stronger. It does not matter if a dish was prepared in some far-flung area, hole-in-the-wall or five-star restaurant." Umali is a BS Developmental Communication graduate of UP Los Baños.

I just had three of the best meals in my life, and they all started with, pardon me, a sore rear end. One Friday morning, my mom, who has been staying with me in Laguna, asked: "I’m going home for a while. Do you want to come?" By home she meant Naga City, that bustling Bicol metropolis where my siblings and I were born and grew up.

It’s been three years since I last visited Naga, and I sorely miss the city. Not only because it is where most of my family are, but also I felt the need to get a dose of its subtly proud individuality. Naga, you see, is a conservative boomtown. It fervently clings to its old ways and traditions while embracing rapid development. Take, for example, the Nagueños’ loyal patronage of decades-old five-and-dimes while looking forward excitedly to the opening of three big new malls. Or the brisk sales of native handicrafts sold side-by-side gadgets hawked by peddlers from Manila. Yes, the people are fiercely passionate about their ways and beliefs, but they always welcome new things.

"Will you come?" my mom interrupted my thoughts.

"Yes, but only for the weekend," I said.

At the crack of dawn, we jumped into the car and headed for Naga. My husband drove, so I had the pleasure of seeing the laid-back charms of several Quezon Province towns. I was immensely enjoying the interchanging sceneries of rice fields, ocean, and hills, until we entered that perforated Quirino Highway.

For two hours, we tumbled in our seats as the car lugged through one craggy pothole after another. I thought I had been through the worst the highway could offer when my husband suddenly hit the brakes to avoid crushing two ducks, which, mind you, were not crossing, but were swimming lazily in a deep, rainwater-filled pothole in the middle of the road. By the time we got out of that battered highway, my rear end was so sore and I felt a migraine creeping in.

So upon reaching our ancestral house, I asked my brother Boyet to drive me downtown so I can buy painkillers. Being familiar with the traffic bottlenecks of the city, Boyet diverted to the streets of Barangay Dayangdang for a short cut. It was there where I discovered the best joints to relish kinalas and log-log.

Tucked in one corner of Dayangdang’s main road is the Kinalas Twin, one of the few eateries specializing in the dishes. You can spot the Kinalas Twin right away not because of its sign but by the traffic it causes. Outside the main road, movement was slowed down by motorcycles, jeeps, and cars parked hurriedly by eager customers. One look at the hectic place and I needed no invitation. I gestured to Boyet to squeeze our car in the sidewalk as I went ahead to order two bowls of kinalas.

To the uninitiated, kinalas and log-log are mami or noodle soup dishes, Bicol style. They are made up of flavorful broth, fresh noodles, and, akin to log-log’s counterpart in other places, a thick savory sauce. The sauce, however, is not red-orange but deep brown. Kinalas and log-log are basically the same, except that the former contains meat pieces while the latter has not.

The very essence of kinalas and log-log comes from their sauce and broth, and both depend on an utterly humble ingredient – skinned pork head. Usually discarded after obtaining the face for sisig, the whole skull is simmered to make a full-bodied broth. Before you cringe, let me say that using pork skull to make soup is not crudeness but sheer ingenuity. The great cuisines of the world – French, Italian, Chinese, and others – have long depended on bones to make a decent stock to give character to their soups, sauces, and stews.

Bones, which consist of collagens and mineral salts, are packed with flavor. As they are simmered, they release their essence and give a deep taste to the stock. Pork skulls are nothing but pure and solid bones that are not only cheap, but also give a full-bodied taste without the grease that comes with those with marrow.

The meat found in the head is another bonus. Near the bone, it has a tender flavor that other cuts lack. Around the world, great delicacies have been created using meat from the heads of hogs and cows. Among these are France’s tete de veau or rolled veal face, reportedly a favorite of François Mitterand, and Mexico’s traditional barbacoa (barbecued pork head).

To make kinalas, the tender meat from the simmered head is pared off (hence its name), sliced, and placed over the noodles and sauce before the broth is poured on. For log-log, the hot broth is simply ladled over noodles and sauce. Each bowl is served steaming hot with a sprinkling of chopped fresh green onions and a range of condiments on the side. These include patis to add a piquant saltiness, sliced calamansi or vinegar steeped with chilies to give a subtle tang to the broth, and a handful of fresh siling labuyo to pep up each bite. For those who do not have asbestos-lined palates like us Bicolanos, there is always ground black pepper.

Inside the Kinalas Twin, Edwin Rey, the owner, served our orders after assembling them from his prep corner. As I took hold of my spoon and fork and inhaled the appetizing aroma, Boyet dumped a handful of labuyo on a saucer, squeezed the juice of two calamansi, sprinkled ground pepper, and began making a spice paste using a special pestle. I ladled tablespoons of the stuff onto my steaming bowl and slowly folded the noodles over with my spoon, making sure that the clotted sauce was completely blended in the broth. My noodle ecstasy was ready.

One bite and I savored the hot broth that is so full of refreshingly pure meat flavor. Another spoonful and I felt the firm noodles providing an almost ethereal contrast to the succulent meat pieces, pleasantly interrupted by the crunch of green onions. One more sip of the broth and I relished the addicting tang of calamansi and the invigorating zing of crushed labuyo, prompting me to take another spoonful. Each sip and chew expunged my aches, and before I could finish my bowl dry, my migraine was gone.

Edwin tells us that sales have been brisk since he opened Kinalas Twin in 1991. "Each day, I buy 70-75 kilos of fresh noodles, 40 kilos pork head, and five kilos lean meat. All these are consumed before we close every 6:30 p.m., nothing is left, even during the Holy Week," he says.

Edwin reveals his trade secrets lie in the sauce and in freshness: "I make a very flavorful sauce and I make sure that every ingredient I use is fresh."

As we paid him, I asked if he feels threatened by the sprouting restaurants in the city. He answered no confidently, saying, "What we offer is satisfying and fresh food at a very low price."

True enough, prices at Kinalas Twin range only from P11 to P26. "And you can ask for additional sauce and broth, even noodles!" say the men from a nearby table.

I left Edwin’s place eased of pains and tiredness, but I craved for more. Boyet then took me to another corner in Dayangdang where we entered a hut with walls made of alternating sawali and galvanized iron. The place had no sign, but like Kinalas Twin, droves of vehicles were parked alongside.

The hut is owned and run by Aurelio or "Manoy Elio" Amelano and his wife Helen. In this seemingly run-down place, they serve kinalas and log-log cooked in a charcoal stove along with baduya (plantain fritters), chakoy (fried chewy bread rolled in sugar), and balisoso (sweetened ground rice wrapped in banana leaves). While these native snacks are reason enough to search for Manoy Elio’s hut, his kinalas and log-log are those which attract a loyal following.

Upon taking a mouthful of the kinalas he served, I immediately understood why. The sauce had this velvety richness that gave boldness to the already flavorful broth, and the noodles a tender yet springy chew that tasted clean of lye.

"I buy my noodles fresh and hot every day from the factory," Manong Elio said.

A slight prodding and he revealed how he makes his sauce. "Just brown some garlic, add the brains from the pork heads you simmered along with salt, ground pepper, and patis; thicken the mixture with flour; and pour enough broth," Manoy Elio said.

Like Edwin, Manoy Elio makes sure that everything he uses and serves is fresh. "Customers will discern if you serve them day-old broth or sauce. I do not have a refrigerator here because all the ingredients I buy for the day – 45 kilos of fresh noodles, and 10 pieces of pork head – are cooked early and consumed before we close at 5 p.m."

Before we left, Manoy Elio gave me one important advice in running a kinalas and log-log eatery: "Make sure you provide excellent and fresh siling labuyo. No matter how good your broth, sauce, and noodles are, nobody will patronize you if you serve poor chilies."

As we exited Manoy Elio’s hut, Boyet asked me if I could take another bowl of kinalas. Upon nodding, he took me to an unnamed tumbled-down shack in Dayangdang where a petulant lady served kinalas and log-log using beef heads instead of pork. One taste and I knew why the place thrived despite its ramshackle state and not-so-cheerful owner. The broth was complex but not overwhelming, lifting the whole dish into a new level of flavor and enjoyment. I was extremely full, but I left the place in a state of nirvana.

As we drove home, I felt proud that my hometown offers two simple yet enduring noodle dishes. Most of all, I felt proud of Edwin, Manoy Elio, and the lady serving beef kinalas and log-log.

Culinary experts say that the competence of a cook or chef lies in his ability to make extraordinary dishes out of the barest ingredients. The kinalas and log-log titans in Naga have long proved their mettle by creating these enduring noodle dishes out of something that most people would not have hesitated to discard. Edwin, Manoy Elio or the lady serving beef kinalas may not have gone to a formal culinary school, their joints may not be for the hoity-toity, and they may not have NASA kitchens or a legion of help. What they serve from their crude open-theater galley may not require menu sampling or ring molds and shot glasses; but each bowl that they churn out is mighty good, so good that they are unfazed by the competition posed by the many fast-food franchises, cafes, and diners mushrooming in the city.

And they prevail because they give what their discriminating customers want: freshness, simplicity, and a downright gratifying fare. You experience freshness in every bowl they serve – the broth and sauce are made from heads of hogs and cows slaughtered the same day, the noodles hot from the factory every morning, the green onions still holding life, even the chilies are plump and firm. Further, the simplicity of what they serve does not distract one from enjoying the basics of taste, and this is what distinguishes kinalas and log-log from other noodle dishes.

Most of all they thrive because we Nagueños, though open to other gustatory experiences, cling fiercely to our culinary traditions. Yes, we welcome and try new dishes, but we are never distracted from our very own. For me, the best noodle soups would always be kinalas and log-log. And I don’t care if I have to drive through the potholes of Quirino Highway again just to enjoy them.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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