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The Simple Joys of Pondahan

Featured image- Simple Joys of Pondahan

By Sol Vanzi | Illustration by Roc Verdera

Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, there were very few public places where friends could meet to hang out. There were no parks, nor malls. We lingered at the church plaza before and after mass, traded rumors while washing clothes near the village artesian well, or joined processions, and attended wakes.

Our biggest social gathering before Christmas was at the public cemetery on All Saints Day, where everyone knew where every family’s tomb was. The cemetery became a huge picnic park from morning until after sunset, at which time groups formed for the traditional pangangaluluwa or All Saints Day serenade. By midnight, all headed home to start planning for Christmas.

The long wait

Throughout the year, the young waited for the Christmas season to gather at all-night pop-up food stalls called pondahan. A pondahan was nothing but a bamboo table with a coconut frond roof and bamboo benches. No walls, no frills. Three crude wood-fired stoves were set up to cook the pondahan’s only offerings—tea, bibingkang galapong, and puto bumbong.

The weeks after All Saints Day were devoted to preparations for the pondahan. Heavy stone mills were brought out from storage and cleaned. Bibingka clay pots were inspected and replaced if necessary. Puto bumbong bamboo molds were taken apart and reassembled with fresh strips of cloth. Young men volunteered to gather bamboo poles and coconut leaves for the food stalls.

Families and neighborhoods decided who would put up the stalls and where. It was part of the tradition to have young, unmarried girls man the pondahan. Their younger brothers and sisters stayed up nights helping. Aunts and uncles were assigned to hang around as chaperones.

Now the hard work

By the first week of December, the pondahans were all set up along the road leading to the town or village church. All had to be ready to open for business on the first simbang gabi (dawn mass).

Two days before the simbang gabi, preparations began for puto bumbong. Malagkit (sticky) rice and pirurutong (purple rice) were mixed and soaked all day, then grounded using the stone mill. Male suitors lined up to help turn the heavy stone mill. The resulting slurry was poured into a cheesecloth sack and hung overnight to drip.

The next day, heavy weights were placed atop the sack, leaving the ground rice almost like clay. The dough was forced through a sieve-like bamboo tray called lastay, resulting in damp cereal-like bits ready for the special steamer.

For the bibingka, the aromatic and newly harvested rice was soaked overnight with a handful of leftover cooked rice for leavening, then grounded in the stone mill. Beaten eggs, vanilla, and a little sugar were blended, then it was all ready for the primitive clay oven.

Unlimited organic teas

Pondahans offered free unlimited tea brewed with leaves from fruit trees and plants in the village like avocado, guava, tamarind, guyabano, and mango. There was also salabat (ginger tea) for those with colds and cough, and tsaang gubat for all ailments. But no one served Chinese tea in tea bags.

Gathering leaves and roots for the teapot was not so simple. There were many rules.

For avocado, the area under the tree had to be swept clean. Someone had to climb the tree to vigorously shake its branches and only the leaves that fell could be used.

On the other hand, guava leaves had to be mature, tamarind leaves should be young, and ginger roots should have no shoots.

Lost traditions

The pondahan was more than just a rite of passage. It spiced up the town’s social life, trained young boys and girls, and passed on culinary traditions to the next generations.

It is sad but true. Like many Filipinos my age, I have children and grandchildren who may never know the simple joys of traditions such as the pondahan.

See more at: Manila Bulletin

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