High noon in April is a killer. It’s so hot the asphalt develops soft gooey patches that deform into the shape of one’s heel. Good sense usually keeps me indoors at times like these, but when confronted with the harsh reality of a missing ingredient for a lunch dish, a girl has to brave the elements. My mission: garlic. Can’t cook a decent dish without the garlic, so off I go.
Two blocks away from where I live, tucked into the side of a large warehouse, is a talipapa (small wet market). It’s actually just a narrow street with stalls lined up both sides, and it opens early in the morning, closes at siesta hour, and then reopens at around 4PM.
There are vegetable stalls here where squash, amplaya, Chinese pechay, banana blossoms, dried mushrooms, spices, potatoes, and okra vie for space on narrow tables. Invariably, there are also fruit vendors, constantly plying you with bunches of bananas, fragrant mangoes, avocados, santol, or pomelos—the offerings vary according to what’s in season.
On the opposite side of the narrow street, perpetually wet, are huge bins of fish. Women with sharp knives gut tuna and slice them into thick slabs. Heaps of caraballos (small fish good for frying or paksiw) glisten in the shade, glassy-eyed and slick with water. If you’re early, one stall might still have seaweeds, crabs, shrimps, clams, or nylon shells. My favorite seafood, a native specie of squid, usually sells for P90 a kilo, and they’d be so fresh you can see the purplish dots shimmering on their skin.
There is also a stall that sells pork, run by these two big-mama type women. They slice the meat themselves. I shudder inwardly as a big flabby arm swings the huge knife down into a slab of pork with a force that produces pork chops, cubes, or stew chunks. But I don’t get my meat here, I never did like these women, they are rude to me, and the few times I bought meat from them they gave me a less than top-quality cut. I don’t like it that they slap your purchase down on the table, not hand it to you. And I’ve always suspected their scale to be rigged. Half a kilo of meat looked less.
I get my meat from a stall a bit farther down, from a beef-and-pork stall run by a brother and sister in their 20s. They have better cuts and courteous service. I still get disapproving looks from the pork ladies when I pass by their stall, but I don’t really care.
From five to eight in the morning, you can buy puto and tsokolate from a makeshift stand. Puto is a sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves. It is flavored with coconut cream and ginger, and best paired with hot cup of native cocoa. Jeremy likes puto, he can polish off two of these cakes in one sitting.
Our little talipapa also boasts a dry-goods section, an open faced store that sells rice, coffee, sugar, canned food, dried fish, shampoo in sachets, brooms, charcoal, soy sauce, tomato paste, rubber slippers, floor wax, even chicken feed. The little bald gay guy here who hands out the change is Ilonggo, and he usually has a friendly greeting for me.
At the intersection is a bakery that churns out fresh bread twice a day, everyday. On Sundays the stall next to the bakery that usually has chicken barbeque is taken over by a guy who sells lechon by the kilo. By 11AM there’s no more lechon left.
But today I’m just here for some garlic, so I head directly to my suki, the longhaired vegetable lady who likes to drink a glass of milk for breakfast. She has some good garlic, compact bulbs that are heavy and densely packed. She asks how I’ve been, how come I don’t come by so often these days. We chitchat, ask about children, whine about the rising cost of commodities, complain about the heat. Soon enough she’s talked me into buying some plump eggplants, a couple of red and green bell peppers, a pack of Chinese chorizo.
I hurry home in the heat, plastic bag swinging. I pass by the buko man, his cart strewn with coconut chips and empty shells. Never get into an argument with this guy; his long itak could lop your head off at the neck. I wish briefly for a drink of coconut water, but the thought of standing one more minute waiting in the heat effectively kills the craving.
The talipapa was an added bonus to living in the area; I didn’t know it was there when we moved in. Of course doing the marketing at the mall is more convenient, after all you can’t argue against airconditioning in heat like this. But the talipapa is so much more interesting, the goods a bit more exotic. You can buy items in small quantities, you get a few extras when you haggle with a smile, and besides, people here always ask how you’re doing.