AMARANTH: The Old Is New Again

A recent trip to the Mexican supermercado in my home city recently had me imagining the lives of ancient Mesoamerican people.
At the checkout aisle, I made an impulse buy, but it wasn’t the “harmful” kind which homemakers’ magazines often warn us about.  I bought a disc of toasted amaranth grains bound with honey; it was the size of my outstretched palm.  I thought it would make a good snack, just like so-called energy bars. 
I made the purchase in the interest of history: the amaranth intrigued me, and since the brand of the product was “Tolteca,” I also decided then and there to do some research on the Toltec people.

 What is amaranth?  It’s a tiny, ancient pseudograin, the size of a grain of sand. The seeds are borne by a plant about four feet high, and looking like this:

The word amaranth is from the Greek amarantos, which means “unfading.”  The plant self-seeds and therefore comes back year after year.  It is now found in many countries with warm climates, whether year-round or only on certain months. It is considered a weed in certain areas.
There are many species of amaranth; leaf and flower colors range from red to green.  Besides the seeds, Aztecs also ate the young leaves.  This plant product is also consumed in modern times in the Philippines, India, Malaysia, China, and various countries in Africa.  Amaranth has been hailed as a food for the future due to its ease of cultivation and the high nutritional content of both seeds and leaves.
Red-leaved Amaranth


to Eat My Amaranth Plant


Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico called it huauhtli and consumed it in such great quantities that it represented majority of their daily caloric intake.  It was important not only to their daily lives, but it also figured in their religious rituals.  Each December, they honored their god Huitzilopochtli, named after the hummingbird that fed on amaranth flowers.  Amaranth fell into disuse after their Spanish conquerors reportedly outlawed cultivation of the plant.
Who were the Toltecs?  Why is this “new” old snack named after them?
The Toltecs were a predecessor culture to the Aztecs, who interacted with the Spanish adventurers of the 16th century.  The Toltec center of activity was Tula, which is north of modern-day Mexico City. 
 Aztecs considered the Toltecs as the peoples who bequeathed them great intellectual and cultural riches.  Note here the latter’s temple ruins in Tula.


 Aztecs described the way of life in Tula as the height of civilization.  This reverence could be the reason for the choice of “Tolteca” as the brand for this beloved treat of amaranth grain mixed with honey.



BINANGKAL (The Cebuano Bicho)

After returning from lunch at a popular Chinese turo-turo in Concord, CA, I chatted thru text messaging wirh my brother Louie in Cubao, MetroManila. Told him that my tummy was full from generous helpings of chow fun noodles, roast duck, steamed broccoli, and fried sesame rice balls..

“What’s Tagalog for bicho?” I asked.

His answer: Bitso.

No new information there!

Then Louie proceeded to tell me that in Cebu, there’s a local delicacy “kinda similar to and sorta different from, bitso.   Binangkal,” he said,” is the local name.”

“Why the name? Why did they call it that?” I inquired. He said he didn’t know.

My interest piqued, I went on search mode. I pored over Philippine recipes and food anecdotes, but found nothing about the history and naming of binangkal.  Even the bloggers were wondering aloud.

My next take in finding an answer to my own question was to dissect the word.  Binangkal  implies that something was bangkal-ed, right?  So I went to, and  in the search box, typed bangkal … voila!

It is the Philippine name for a tree, the nauclea orientalis.

That’s the origin of the name for the Cebuano delicacy!
There’s no doubt about it!

Binangkal… made to look like the bangkal fruit!




Big Mistake, Mr. Columbus. Those Aren’t PEPPERS!

Do you read the weekly food flyers that come with your newspaper?  Some people consider it a waste of time; they just go to their favorite store and buy whatever they need, whatever the cost that week. 

I like to read those flyers.  They show me what’s available at bargain prices, and they help me with meal planning, too.  For example, “YXZ” store has a three-day sale beginning Friday: salmon fillets are $5.99/lb., and red bell peppers are 4 for $1.

Mark and I certainly don’t need a whole pound of fish, and one bell pepper should suffice for the side dish to go with the broiled salmon.  This means I can make a dinner entrée for two at under $6!  For starch, there’s steamed rice, which we already have. “Catch of the day” always works with a budget!


Did you know that naming the pepper as such was a mistake by Christopher Columbus?

First, let’s clarify a matter of spatial orientation. From where you’re standing,
north would be above you;
south, below you;
east, to your right;
west, to your left.

OK? Settled.

In the late 1400s, the Portuguese knew a way to India — and its fabulous spices — by sailing south-eastward on the Atlantic Ocean, rounding the southern tip of Africa, sailing north on the Indian Ocean, until landfall in Calicut, India.

SSAgeDiscoveryDaGamaMap.bmp (217702 bytes)


Columbus, working for the Spaniards, proposed a different route to King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille. He wanted to sail westward on the Atlantic Ocean, saying he could also end up in Asia… the fabulous East Indies, region of the Spice Islands.

In August 1492, he commanded three ships on a westward sailing of the Atlantic Ocean, hitting land in October. He was convinced that he had reached “the Indies” and called the local people “Indians.”

Among the foods they encountered were mahiz (corn), xtomatl (tomato), cacabi (cassava), batata (potato), and chilies (capsicum).

Rewind: in Columbus’ Europe, the prized spice was the piper nigrum (peppercorn), large black grains, which when ground up and added to foods, made them “hot ” to the taste.  This spicy plant product was believed to have originated in India.  Europeans applied the generic word “pepper” to all known spices that were hot and pungent to the taste.

So when he tasted some foods prepared by the friendly people of the Carribean, especially those seasoned with certain piquant chilies, Columbus declared that he had found peppers.

Noodle Memories from a Bali Getaway

I once went to Bali to “chill out.”

It was a difficult time in my life and I needed a change of environment. My friend Anmarie suggested that we go to a non-Christian country for Christmas, to see what it’s Iike.  Another friend recommended a trip to this fabled island of Broadway fame.  Remember the song Bali Ha’i from the musical “South Pacifc?”
      Bali Ha’i may call you any night, any day
      In your heart, you’ll hear it call you, “Come away, come away.”
      Bali Ha’i will whisper on the wind of the sea
      “Here am I, your special island, “Come to me, come to me.”

And so we flew from San Francisco to Singapore, a bucket city for inexpensive airline tickets to other Asian destinations. For around $300, we got flights from Singapore to Yogyarkarta (where we stayed a couple of days to visit the Borobudur and Prambanam temples), on to Bali, and return to Singapore ten days later.

Singapore is just below the South China Sea, while Yogya is above the Indian Ocean, between Jakarta and Bali.

Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.

Our guide told us about tranquility, eternity, reincarnation, escape from the worldly life, karma, and other goals/principles/practices.

After a couple of days in Buddhist Yogya, we flew to Hindu Bali.  Soon after our arrival at Ngurah Rai airport, which looked like a huge temple complex, I was smitten by this very green island.  It was pure magic!  Even to this day, I still declare that in my next reincarnation I want to be a Balinese.

In the artists’ town of Ubud, Anmarie and I shared a bungalow in the middle of a rice field. The resort was named after Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice and fertility.  Each day started with a mini-plate offering left on our doorstep, for placement in a small altar nearby. The plate was made of bamboo or banana leaf and contained some grains of rice, a flower, or some other small token. We were told it was for “the goddess.”

My Bali experience included long days spent writing; I finished several chapters of a book which I eventually shelved because the writing had done the catharsis I sought.  Anmarie and I also visited the public market, soaking the ambience of island life which was accented by the aroma of spices and the splashes of colors of tropical fruits and vegetables, and batik material. A day-long trip on a rented vehicle brought us through the silver town of Celuk, along pristine beaches, and across towns where we witnessed, among other events, a funeral procession and the end-of-day ritual of coming from rice harvest.

Food-wise, I brought home a new appreciation for a spicy noodle dish, mie goreng.  I later discovered an easy way of reproducing that snack which we ordered often through room service.   I never thought I’d be giving recipes in my blog, but here goes:

* At your favorite Asian store, buy a package of Indo Mie brand noodles, preferably one with hot and spicy flavoring packets inside.

* Peel and mince one clove of garlic and 1/4 of an onion. Also, wash and roughly chop one rib of celery, one carrot, and 4-5 leaves from a head of cabbage.

* In a little canola oil, sauté garlic & onion, soon adding the vegetables.

*  Add the flavor packets.  Mix well.

*  Break the noodles into large pieces and add water 3 tablespoons at a time, stirring until the noodles are soft.

* Serve warm with a slice of lemon.


I thoroughly enjoyed my Bali sojourn. All the sweet memories, though, were tempered by one measure of “sadness.”  Nobody ever said Merry Christmas!  (Hah! What did I expect?)


Mahiz, Maiz, MAIS — That’s Corn!

It’s early summer and the supermarkets are awash with fresh corn !

Earmarks (my pun!) of fresh corn: green husk, blonde cornsilk.
Note that the tips of the silk are not dried and blackened.

We in northern California are fortunate that the cornfields are literally a short hop away from where we live: Brentwood, which supplies the cobs to many stores in Contra Costa County, is just a short drive along Highway 4.

I remember one evening a few years back, when I shared a nice dinner with my best friend Mark and his sister Cynthia. They provided the Margaritas, the munchies, steamed corn on the cob for the starch component of the meal, complemented by a medley of oven-roasted vegetables: carrots, parsnip, asparagus, broccoli.

I said I’d introduce them to chicken tocino. “Yum!” Cynthia exclaimed upon taking that first bite of the sweet-salty boneless chicken thighs, which I fried in a little oil until the edges were caramelized and crisp.

There was the usual dinner banter between us three. My 83-year old mom, whom I took along because it was no longer safe to leave her alone at home, was her usual quiet self.  She’d respond to questions, but refrained from participating in our discussions.

And then it happened.  Suddenly, she exclaimed, “That’s her third corn!”

Cynthia had just taken another half of a corn cob. It was definitely delicious corn, as in creamy, sweet, crunchy in its state of having been steamed just-so. I couldn’t blame her for taking a third helping!


Corn, to us in the Philippines, is mais.

It is an ancient grain, but it was long unknown to the world outside of Mesoamerica, which is a region now occupied by Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

Spanish explorers who arrived in the region during the 16th century called it maiz, after hearing the Taino call it mahiz.

The Taino are among the indigenous tribes living in what is now Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico.  As we know from history lessons, Columbus made his first landfall on the island of Hispaniola, now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Please take a moment to examine the map below.File:Caribbean Islands Locator Map.pngThe Tainos, originally from South America, migrated to the islands north of the Carribean Sea.   The name of the sea is derived from “Carib,” one of the dominant groups in the region at the time of European contact.

Corn is consumed in the Philippines in various ways:

* boiled, as in nilagang mais
* included in dessert recipes, such as mais con yelo and guinataang mais
* as a dish for lunch or dinner, as in ginulay na mais.

Bea Says To-MAH-toh

It’s fun being an international student: one gets to inter-act with new friends from many nations and cultures, taste new food during banquets, potlucks, and private dinners; and learn about human nature in general.

My roommates at various times when I was in graduate school included Beatrice from Dublin, Ireland; Nelia from Manila, Philippines; Joan  from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Catherine from Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were all interesting ladies, but Beatrice stands out when I think about food topics.

One day, she came home and found a pot of chop suey which I had prepared a short while before. By her own narration, this is what transpired.  She tasted it and thought, “This is so good, it must have come from a can!”

Ha-ha-ha. The naivete of young ladies who can’t  or  don’t cook!

Bea and I had a long-standing “argument” about two foods. She said to-MAH-toh, I said to-MAY-toe. She thought avocado was a vegetable; I insisted,”Fruit!”


Both the tomato and the avocado, surprisingly, are gifts to world from Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica is a region and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica

Ancient peoples from this region enjoyed a rich and varied cuisine, which eventually spread around the world through a phenomenon later termed the Columbian Exchange.  Through this process, the Old World (Europe and the Near East) exchanged crops, animals, technology, and ideas with the New World (the Americas).

Among the remarkable crops that came out of the Mexican region are the xtomatl and the ahuacatl.  Surely, you can recognize which crops these are, without me having to translate the old Aztec terms.

easy guacamole recipe
The ancient people of Mesoamerica enjoyed this current U.S. favorite.
Guacamolli contained avocados, tomatoes, and chili peppers.

Regarding pronunciation: speakers of the “King’s English” say to-mah-to, while folks who speak “American English” are okay with te-may-toh.  Both are correct; it’s just a matter of who’s talking, or where they are located.

About the  fruit or vegetable?  issue.  Both are fruits. (Sorry, Beatrice.) In laymen’s terms, “fruit” is the fleshy seed-associated part of a plant; it may be sweet or sour, and you can eat it raw.

In the culinary sense, however, fruit are associated with sweet tastes, while vegetables are on the savory side.  (In this case, Beatrice, you’re right!  You use avocado in salads, with dressings that usually include vinegar, i.e., savory.)  HOWEVER, I’m also right in claiming that the avocado is a fruit: it is used in refrigerator pies, smoothies, and ice cream.

One of the most popular items sold from the pre-departure areas of the Manila interrnational airport is avocado ice cream; they come packaged with dry ice for the flight home.  Passengers take them as home-coming presents.)

An avocado ice cream sandwich.

SITAW (Sitao) Everyday

I used to say I could live off sitaw everyday; it’s my favorite vegetable. Plus, I know MANY ways of preparing it: boiled, stir-fried with garlic,  blanched and slathered with oyster sauce, batter-fried, adobado, and included in dishes like sinigang, kare-kare, bulanglang.

Sitaw is known in many markets as yard-long beans.  Its scientific name, vigna unguiculata, subspecies sesquipedalis, means something else. Let’s break down that last Latin word: pedalis means “foot;” sesqui means “six.”

What it’s saying is that the yard-long bean is a foot and six inches long — 18 inches, give or take.  Certainly not a yard long!

 photo GardenPictures295.jpg

The more appropriate monikers would be Chinese long beans, Asian beans, long podded cowpea and — here’s another name that seems inappropriate — asparagus bean. The plant that bears the sitaw is nowhere fern-like, as the asparagus is. Therefore, I have to dig further as to how that last name came about.

I would venture that the name sitaw was adapted from the bean’s Chinese name, Dou Jiao.

A Dinner of Sitao and Shrimp TEMPURA

The shrimp was fresh; they were transparent and plump, the heads firmly attached to the rest of the body. Time for a catch-of-the-day dinner, I decided.  Bought about two dozen pieces and a bunch of sitao, Asian long beans which Mark loves.

I prepared the shrimp tempura style, and he sautéed the sitao with garlic. Two glasses of white wine, and we were set.

What is tempura? Sounds like a Japanese word, right? It calls to mind terms like sakura, meaning “cherry blossom,” or the greeting konbanwa, meaning “good evening.”

Tempura is a method of cooking by which fish and vegetables are dipped into a batter and fried quickly in plenty of hot oil. Some sources say that Portuguese missionaries brought tempura to Japan in the 16th century. I say maybe not; people can independently develop methods of cooking; and frying batter-dipped fish or veggies isn’t all that difficult to figure out.

ANYWAYS… Christians had to abstain from meat during Lent, also known as ad tempora quadragesima (roughly, the period of 40 days of penitence until Easter).  It’s possible that the European missionaries, not inclined to the raw or steamed fish diet of the Japanese, popularized the frying method and its association with the word tempora among their converts. That’s my theory.

When discussing food and their places of origin, I like to include maps to help readers place the countries and their surroundings. Japan is on the upper right.

Tempura became popular in southern Japan during the 16th century; Portuguese missionaries were active in Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu.


In April 2013, I visited my very good friend Sister Carmen Tan Segovia in Matsue. We toured many places, such as  the peace memorial in Hiroshima, temples in Osaka, and other interesting places in Chugoku and Kinki.

Among the dishes I tried was udon noodles with shrimp tempura topping.  The soup was flavorful, but I thought it didn’t serve the tempura right; the batter quickly got soaked and lost its distinctive crunch.


Sitao will be the subject of another blog on this website.


UKOY, A Serendipitous Find

I must admit: I can sit for hours reading what others might consider absolutely dry, uninspiring material. I’m talking about dictionaries, pages of instructions, those types of things. And that’s OK; every now and then I get rewarded.

Take UKOY, for example. I’ve been searching Malay and Indonesian cookbooks for any hints as to the origin of that delightful fritter made with shredded squash or sweet potatoes and small shrimps.


Once I encountered a list of Philippine food words supposedly derived from Chinese, and it included ukoy, but not much additional information aside from the description.

Well, the other day I was looking at an on-line catalog for rare seeds, and I found the answer to my ukoy question. It’s from Central America!

These squat little fruits are amazing! Gorgeously ribbed in the alternating high-low ribbing seen in other Central American squashes, the warted, flattened fruits appear in tones ranging from green to deep yellow.
Guicoy Squash

Adds This ancient variety is depicted in late Mayan pottery and was featured on a major Maya archeology website…  tend to top out just under 2 lbs, perfect for a small family.

Product Quantity Price
Guicoy Squash (10 seeds) (SQ276) $4.50

I’ve never seen this type of squash in any markets in the Philippines, and I’ve been to many. Early in my career, I worked for the information office of the Bureau of Animal Industry, Department of Agriculture. I loved my job so much, that I accepted every assignment… and thus was able to travel to much of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands.

The guicoy probably came to the Philippines via the Acapulco-Manila galleon trade.  If 17th century cooks in Manila and environs shredded the red guicoy and mixed it with small shrimps and other ukoy ingredients, they’d have gotten that characteristic orange color for the finished product, right?

Lookit !

Red Guicoy   says:
Red and green guicoy … are some native pumpkins cultivated by various Maya peoples.

Green Guicoy Pumpkin: Very Ancient!

KETCHUP: Nelia’s All-Purpose Sauce

My friend Nelia from Pandacan, Manila, likes to put ketchup on everything.  She’ll slather it on fried eggs. on a piece of steak, on mixed vegetables. It’s her go-to seasoning.

For folks like Nelia, someone in New Orleans had this great T-shirt idea:

Did you know that ketchup didn’t always contain any tomatoes? Look at a list of Philippine condiments and you will see banana ketchup among them.

Ketchup made from bananas? Yes, and that’s because ketchup is a sauce, not necessarily a tomato sauce.  Historically, it has be made from mushrooms, oysters, berries, bananas, walnuts, AND tomatoes.

In Malaysian (as well as Indonesian), the c was pronounced as ch, hence ki-chap.

The term was borrowed from Chinese traders who, many centuries earlier, brought their koe-tsiap to trading partners in Southeast Asia.

English traders during the 17th century found in what is now Malaysia a unique table sauce that went well with many dishes; it was called kicap, and was essentially a fermented fish sauce… what we now know as patis.

The English brought the kicap home to Europe, from where it travelled to the Americas.  People tweaked the recipe – and the name –  in various ways until the world wound up with a tomato-based table sauce, with a name spelled as ketchup.

Indonesia, to this day, uses the word kecap to mean “sauce.”   Thus, they have

kecap asin – salty (soy) sauce
kecap manis – sweet (soy) sauce
kecap ikan – fish sauce

About banana ketchup. It’s a local favorite among Filipinos, who like the tamis-anghang (sweet-spicy) taste of this product, formulated to make use of bananas, which are plentiful in the country.