The lugaw stall with no name

I’ve been eating lugaw (aka rice porridge, aka congee) all my life.

I started at home, associating lugaw with the usual spells of childhood flu, as standard bedside comfort food offered by my worried mother. Hence evolved my lifelong love affair with proletarian lugaw bangketa, savored with satisfaction in working-class districts and poor people’s markets, especially after I became a full-time activist in the early 1970s. 

Sometimes I hankered for the richer, more textured version of lugaw in downtown-Quiapo slash Sta. Cruz slash Binondo, in hole-in-the-wall Chinese eating places, smaller than Ma Mon Luk or Ramon Lee. But still, the ambiance didn’t feel quite right. There, street sounds were muffled, street sights were filtered. Also, it wasn’t often that I passed by downtown Manila, even in those hectic years of lightning mass protests to probe the chinks and cracks in the martial-law armor.

And then, sometime in the mid-1970s, the lugaw explosion happened in the form of the goto (beef tripe) trend going mainstream. Suddenly, all kinds of gotohan mushroomed in practically every major street corner, especially around bus stations, jeepney plazas, hospitals, government offices, and recruitment agencies.

Every goto lugaw aficionado is familiar with the ambiance and the routine ritual. You sat yourself down on a bangko right on the bangketa, facing a makeshift mesa with its formidable array of street food paraphernalia, and ordered your particular type of lugaw. The standard is ox tripe or pig’s innards, but there’s also chicken, to which you could add extra items such as egg, tokwa, and so on, plus the obligatory sprinkling of toasted garlic and chopped onion leaves, and your option of kalamansi or toyo or patis or paminta or even siling labuyo. It was all there.

At a certain point–I don’t know when–the street gotohan went mainstream, particularly through the more successfully branded and franchised fast food chains. The middle class began to enjoy the goto lugaw experience in huge, airconditioned indoor food plazas–often inside giant malls. The atmosphere was different: it was scrubby clean and civil, almost antiseptic like a hospital canteen.

For quite some time, I seemed to have lost the taste for street lugaw. My line of work and mandatory haunts led me instead to a serial, non-committal taste-testing of this or that food place frequented by media and NGO-type yuppies with money to spare along the “West Timor” strip. (My shortcut for West Avenue, Timog Avenue, and Morato… I hear there’s an East Timor nowadays too.) But I knew in my heart this would be just a passing fancy, a transient trend.

Returning a few days ago from an overseas stint, I found myself getting down the MRT Cubao-Araneta station to renew my old Booksale-bookhunting routine. Getting caught in a particularly heavy downpour, I suddenly felt my stomach aching for proletarian goto. No, not the Farmers Market Food Plaza version, please. Rather, one served in a real makeshift street stall in one smelly crotch-alley near EDSA and New York (the Cubao street, silly, not the US city), with rainwater dripping down the leaky tarp umbrellas and gathering in poodles at our feet.

Huddling around the table with my working-class brothers, I enjoy the aroma wafting from four huge cauldrons, fired by old-style kerosene gas stoves, and occasionally stirred with huge aluminum dippers. The two multi-tasking cook-servers move briskly. They take orders, cut up the selected chunk of innards with big scissors into bite-sized pieces, pour the thick, steaming, yellow porridge into big ceramic bowls, sprinkle the condiments, and curtly serve the bowls to the waiting customers–all within three minutes each after you order.

No uniformed, hair-netted, licensed food server here, speaking with an English twang. No printed order slips and computerized printout receipts. No fake porcelain bowls with Chinese motifs. No dainty wads of tissue paper, no serving trays with cute little plastic markers. Just plain, no-nonsense comfort food for the hungry, cold, tired masses, drenched in the rain, leaving their workplaces in the darkening hours but still a long way from home.

Forty pesos per bowl, filled to the brim with richly textured rice porridge. An additional ten pesos for a boiled egg. An additional thirty pesos for the real thing: tokwa’t baboy in a separate oval-shaped bowl, swimming sinfully naked in native sweet-and-sour sauce of toyo’t suka. Eighty pesos of heaven in the dank hellish streets of Manila–not bad at all.

You can spend all your weekend money wolfing down all that synthetic slop in KFC or McDo or Jollibee or Chow King or Mang Whatever, for all I care. I’ll always choose my own, lurking somewhere within the crooked maze of crotch alleys near EDSA and New York. It will always be there, my favorite lugaw stall with no name. #

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