Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lola Illang's Sikulati de Cacao: Worth Melting For

One of my fondest memories of Lola Illang is of her pretending to trip over some blooms at the Botanical Gardens in Baguio where we were spending the summer of my 10th year. A whistle went off because visitors were not allowed to touch the flowers. We helped her to her feet as she discreetly slipped a clenched fist into her pocket, hiding what I can only guess to be sprigs or seeds.

She had plenty of room for her spoils. Our family compound included an expansive orchard, where she’d often be found tucking something under the soil. The yield, in time, found their way onto our plate.

She was a retired Home Economics teacher. It was my belief that she could make anything by hand—from straw doormats to fruit preserves.

Back when I had yet to discover the pleasures of coffee, my drink of choice was lola’s sikulati (hot cocoa). Not only was it made my hand, the main ingredient was grown in our backyard. Lola would gather the pods from our cacao trees and prepared the seeds following the process detailed below.

Erming gathering cacao pods
Erming and Victor

The cacao tree grows tall. Dummo climbs up to pick more pods.
Eru's turn to climb.
Lola Illang left the seeds to dry under the sun in a bilao (woven winnowing tray), after which they were roasted, peeled and ground, and formed into balls. I would stand by to watch and she would put her chocolate-stained hand to my face so that I could inhale the warm, earthy smell.

Gathering the seeds

Washing off the pulp

The seeds are then spread on a bilao to dry
The trays are left on the roof of the outhouse to dry under the sun

The sun-dried seeds

The seeds are transferred into a claypot for roasting

The traditional wood-fed clay stove

Roasting the seeds

The seeds after roasting

Winnowing the roasted seeds

After which, the shells are peeled off

To reveal the cacao beans

The seeds go into the heavy-duty stone mortar, owned by my great-grandmother's family

Pound away

Until the seeds turn into powder

Spreading the powder onto a flat grinding stone, another heirloom piece from my great-lola’s family

The powder is spread onto the grindstone, another heirloom piece from my great-lola's family
Roll away until the powder turns into a fine paste and the oil comes out

The paste is shaped into balls by hand

When the surface is slick with oil, set them aside for melting.

The beans, the paste, the balls

Bring out the lomonilla (commonly called batirol)

She cooked her sikulati in a clay pot, over a clay stove fed with firewood. Let the water boil, drop the balls, whisk, add sugar, whisk, pour milk, whisk. Using a lomonilla, she would stir the mixture until it thickened and the flavors melded.

Away from fire, she whisked some more by briskly rubbing the handle of the lomonilla between her palms. She was a spare woman but she could work every single froth out of chocolate. She served this brown liquid in tiny cups called escudilla reserved solely for this purpose and I would enjoy every drop.

Until now, when this luscious beverage coats my tongue, I see her face. It transports me to better days.

See Lola Illang's recipe.


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