Monday, February 14, 2011

*237. ATBU, ATBP.

SACCHARINE SMILE. A country girl shows of her healthy sugarcane crop that's ready for harvesting in this posed picture. Pampanga's sugar industry powered the provincial economy and made it a force to reckon with during the American regime. Ca.1912.

Give a child a fresh stick of atbu (sugarcane), and he will keep quiet for the rest of the day. For some reason, munching on a piece of sugarcane-- ‘mamangus atbu’—has a calming effect on us kids. Maybe because it took much skill, so we had to focus on the laborious task at hand, using just our teeth to strip off the bark, chewing on the tough cane fiber to extract the sweet juice, and spewing out the sapal (husk) later. Biting the hard, tasteless node off, we then move on to the next juicy part, until we finish the whole footlong sugar cane stick.

Mamangus atbu was a true test for teeth and gums, but the mouthsores I occasionally got were worth my sugarcane taste experience. I’ve always preferred the purple sugarcane variety, cooled in the icebox for an hour before munching. These, I would find readily available in the makeshift stalls lining the way to my elementary school. Another way to get ‘atbu’ free is to run after hauler trucks or bagun (cargo trains) en route to the mills and try to pull a stalk from its harvested sugar cane load.

As my lolo was a modest hacendero with some rice and sugarcane fields, we grew up with the sight and smell of sugarcane. It was a staple product around the house, and I remember using arnibal (thin muscovado syrup) to sweeten our coffee, prepared by my ever so frugal mother. But I guess this was the same familiar scene in many Kapampangan households where, for a time, sugar held such prominence in the province’s economy.

In its heyday, especially from 1925-1927, Pampanga led Luzon in sugar production, with the Del Carmen Sugar Mills leading the way with an output of 45,000 tons annually, followed by Calamba with 16,000 and San Fernando, just slightly behind. Pampanga Sugar Development Company (PASUDECO), controlled by the Philippine National Banks, would later be expanded, becoming the fastest growing Central among all bank Centrals and further improving its output.

Interestingly, of the four varieties of cane originally cultivated in the Philippines, once came from Pampanga—the Pampanga Red or Encarnada de la Pampanga, which produced canes smaller than the other varieties: Cebu Purple (Morada de Cebu), Luzon White (Blanca de Luzon) and Negros Purple (Morada de Negros). Nevertheless, this hardy cane plant had excellent purity and yield, topped only by Cebu Purple, and cementing the province’s reputation as a major sugar producer for the country and the world.

The pleasures of sugar from our “dulce caƱa”, of course, we enjoyed at every opportunity. Parents could easily fix a quick treat for their kids by boiling extracted sugarcane juice in a vat until it turned into molten molasses. A dollop is ladled into a basin of cold water, turning the molasses into a brown, gooey, malleable mixture called “inuyat” which we ate with our hands. With rice drowned in carabao’s milk, “inuyat” becomes an instant ulam (viand)!

A fancy Makati restaurant once offered sugarcane juice coolers in its menu, matched with a fancy price. But we’ve been drinking ice cold sugarcane juice ever since I can remember--and it certainly didn’t cost that much! Maybe bartenders can take a tip from Kapampangan farmers who squeezed cane juice into their alcoholic drinks for a perfect happy hour treat after a day’s hard work.

Goodies made with cane sugar can be had cheap at every corner sari-sari store. We developed cavities eating five centavo ‘balikutsa’, a kind of sugar taffy so sticky delicious. Another favorite is the panutsa, which technically speaking is solid brown sugar sold in ‘baos’, but it has come to mean a kind of peanut brittle mixed with coarse brown sugar and sold with brown paper linings. The same unrefined sugar also found its way into our fiesta desserts like “yemas”—milk pudding balls encased in caramelized brown sugar. In Arayat, a centerpiece in every feast or banquet is the ‘samani’—in which white peanuts dipped in caramelized brown sugar are used to construct an edible sweet basket, a virtual eye candy to foodies of yore.

Of course, it’s not just us that benefitted from the amazing ‘atbu’. Leftover ‘sapal’ was fed to pigs and hogs. To make an instant feeder and a perch for pet insects like ‘uwang’ (rhinoceros beetle), a length of fresh sugar cane was tied on both ends and hung on the porch.

It used to be so common to see cut sugarcane for sale-- piled high like pyramids on fruit stands and sidewalk stalls, especially during the summer months. Nowadays, apples and grapes, it would seem, are even easier to find. Maybe so, but those fruits—so way beyond our reach-- never impressed me the way a stalk of ‘atbu’ could—it’s always ready to eat and ready to please—the sweet stuff that many a childhood pleasures are made of.


john said...

Hi Alex,
I am amazed at research and marvel at your breadth of knowledge. Thanks for enligthening me that there is a Cebu variety. I would never have guessed as Cebu does not come to mind when sugar is mentioned.
I do hear stories of sugarfields even in my town, but only up to the early part of American rule. The last stronghold in Cebu is in the northern tip where the lands are flat, unusual for Cebu.

alex r. castro said...

Thanks, John. My source for this is "Sugar News" from, 1925-26. There are a few references to the Cebu sugarcane industry.