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Blog of the Week: The Philippines' first Forest Food Festival

Kara Santos travels to the foot of Mt. Pinatubo to experience a unique festival that celebrates the customs, rituals and food of the local indigenous people, the Aeta

Blog of the Week: The Philipine's first Forest Food Festival
My photographer friend, Dondi, and I had grand visions of the the first Aeta Forest Food Festival. It was taking place in the middle of a forest so the possibilities for dramatic shots would be endless. So our first reaction when we eventually reached a covered court with a galvanised iron sheet roof and concrete floors beside a public school on the main road was initial disappointment. “Where is the forest?”

The food and event itself, however, was really something special. Dubbed Mam-eh (an Aeta word for sharing), the event organised by Kabalikat sa Kaunlaran ng mga Ayta,Inc. (KAKAI) and Agta-Dumagat groups LABAYKU and SAGIBIN, was the first Aeta festival organised in the country that brought together more than 350 participants from different Aeta and Agta communities from Tarlac, Pampanga, Zambales, Aurora, Quezon, and Camarines Norte.

It was a venue for them to share cultural practices, specialty food from their respective areas, the preparation of traditional food, hunting rituals, sustainable harvesting practices and food preservation techniques. Aetas showed ritual dances such as lapinding, patetet, tumigan and talipi (which refer to certain rhythms of music) to ask blessing from anitos in various situations – getting ready for a hunt, preparing for battle, a dance for curing the sick, or to show the fight for their ancestral lands.

In terms of forest food, we learned that Aeta’s primarily plant mountain rice, wild bananas, corn, and root crops like ube (a form of taro), kamoteng kahoy (cassava) and kamoteng baging (mountain yams). Wild bananas called amukaw have lots of tiny black seeds, which are strained before the edible part of the banana is made into a refreshing juice. The extract is believed to cure pasma (trembling hands and sweaty palms that occur after hard labour).

Wild beans like patani (lima/kidney beans) also form a large part of the indigenous diet of Aeta tribes in the Luzon region. The Agta and Dumagat tribes from Southern Luzon, who travelled more than ten hours to join the event, also brought with them freshwater crabs and mollusks cooked in gata and other Bicol specials such as pinangat (a blend of taro leaves, chili, meat and coconut milk) and a very spicy but delicious laing (vegetables cooked in coconut milk), which they generously shared with us during dinner.

An opening number featured a traditional hunting dance, where women sat surrounding various forest foods and a live chicken, while the men, as the traditional hunters of the tribe, danced around them to the beat of rhythmic music.

One elder tribesman carried a bow and arrow during the dance. Later someone tied the chicken to a stick and placed it towards the end of the gym floor. From a distance, the elder tribesman shot the arrow directly at the chicken, killing it instantly. An older tribeswoman picked up the dead chicken and continued the dance.

Later, I saw another woman plucking the feathers off the same chicken that was used in the dance and roasting it under a fire to add to the group’s meal.

Jane Austria-Young of KAKAI, the main event organiser, shared how frogs, monitor lizards, snakes and cloud rats are still part of the indigenous diet in remote mountainous villages. Tribesmen use their excellent marksmanship using handmade bows and arrows and improvised traps to catch their food. We noticed that the points in the arrows were made of sharpened nails that had been carved with a knife so that it was ridged.

That night, the covered courts transformed into a sort of disco-house for the younger generation when they started playing modern music.

Early the next morning, we headed to visit the nearby community. A tribesman demonstrated for us the art of traditional fire-making. He placed wood shavings inside half a bamboo stick, rubbed two bamboo sticks together until it formed as a spark in the wood shavings, and then blew on the spark until it caught on fire. While men start fires with this method, Aeta women normally use a flint-like rock that they strike together to start a fire for cooking or for lighting their tobacco, which seems very popular with the older women.

Though shy at first, the children in the community also warmed to us and posed for photos, eventually crowding around to see their shots on the digital camera’s screen. Though learning about the forest food was really interesting, it was the people that made this such a rich experience. Wherever we went, we were warmly welcomed, allowed to share in meals, and given the privilege to witness the Aeta’s rich cultural rituals and traditions. Though we didn’t get a lot of the dramatic photos we first envisioned, I think we came out of this experience with something much better.

Kara SantosTravel Up | Kara Santos

Kara Santos is a freelance writer and photographer. When not on the road or motorcycling somewhere for the weekend, she’s levelling up her experience points in the latest PlayStation RPG.

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