Eating Zen: Ibos and The Modern Struggle

By kristine buenavista

Zen of Ibos - Project IloiloWhere Maria lives, the crickets fill the surroundings with full, delightful sounds every four in the afternoon.

Where Maria lives, the kitchen is made of wood, soil, dust, fire, old silverwares, soot, and decades. Where Maria lives, there is this crisp October air from the trees which she and her husband have planted.

Maria of Sitio Pal-ac, now 70, has just joined a fun run last June.

Naunahan ko pa ang duwa ka pulis! Haha!”

[I even outran the two policemen!]

But there in their kitchen, a beautiful sense of stillness and a deep energy of the Slow permeates the room. She sits like a monk. She breathes with ease. Her hands–molded by wrinkles, hard work, patience, presence, and time–move with grace and softness.

She prepares everything every three in the afternoon.

The sticky rice is washed thoroughly and soaked in fresh coconut milk.

Maria and her husband have been blessed with ten children and thirteen grandkids. She has been making ibos for more than thirty years. It all started with her ardent interest in selling, so she learned the whole process on her own. After her first day selling ibos in the public market, she felt a unique kind of fulfillment and joy.

Zen of Ibos - Project Iloilo

“Tungod sa ibos, nakabulig man ako suporta sa akon mga kabataan. Bisan tuod high school lang ang natapos sang kalabanan sa ila, wala man sila namon napabay-an.”

[Because of ibos, I have helped my husband in supporting our children. Though most of them have just finished high school, we tried our best to make sure they are well taken care of.]

 She sprinkles salt.

“Wala ako nakapoy gawa sang naobra ko kay daw wala man ako may nadalian. Basta, alas-tres ako masugod pamutos, pag alas-singko masugod na ako sina la-ga. Mga tatlo ka oras kag maluto ang ibos. Sa aga, mapa-Mercado ako mga alas-sais para magbaligya. Amu na ini ang akon naangdan. Wala stress, sige-sige lang, hinay-hinay lang”

[I don’t feel tired with what I do because I feel there is nothing to hurry for. I just know that I’d start wrapping at 3 PM and start steaming at 5 PM. It takes around 3 hours for the ibos to get cooked. Then next morning, I’ll go to the public market at 6 AM. This is what I am used to. No stress. Just taking it one at a time, slowly.]

The family gathers wood from their surroundings, dry them out in the sun and, later, use them to cook the native delicacies. Besides ibos, Maria has been a veteran in making and selling latik, sundol, aripahol, and her original recipe (and amusing experiment), suman sapay.

Zen of Ibos - Project Iloilo

From the market, she’d go back home at eight or nine in the morning, depending on what day it is. Sundays are the happiest days for vendors of native delicacies. For Maria, it could be any day as long as she can continue the little encounters with her loyal sukis. Maria has always marveled at their lives. She takes pride in their success stories, and their deaths have also made her cry.

“Kaisa, ikaw na lang mapanagupnop ngaa wala na sila nakabalik kag nakabakal liwat.”

[Sometimes, you just figure out why they have never returned to buy again.]

“May isa ako ka suki nga napatay na, pero ang iya apo, naging suki ko naman. Baw, seaman na siya subong kag nagligad, nanaog siya sa barko, nagbakal siya sa akon ibos kag nakibot ako nga guinpaskwahan ako niya.”

[I had this one patron who already passed away, but his grandson also became a patron of mine himself. He is a seaman now. Last time, he dropped by, bought some ibos from and gifted me for Christmas.]

When she told me this story, there was a beautiful light in her eyes.

I saw pride.

I saw gratitude.

I saw connection.

And most definitely, it was not solely because of the money she received.

Then she picks a piece of coconut leaf and folds it slowly into a container-like shape where she could pour the mixture.

Times have changed for her and the other women vendors. Two decades ago, there were many of them; people dropped by more often to buy their food. They would sit next to each other, arrange their products into relaxing patterns, and go home to put food on their tables. Maria remembers how things have changed a bit in 2012.

Zen of Ibos - Project Iloilo

“Sang mga 2012, nag amat-amat na hina. Ang iban ko nga mga kaupod, nag-untat na kay daw ang mga tawo wala na gabakal sang amon baligya. Siguro mas uyon na nila ang mga sosyal nga pagkaon. Amo na asta subong, kung indi maurot ang akon baligya, ginalibod ko pa. Damo na bi mga kung ano-ano nga nabaligya man subong.”

[In 2012, the sales got lower. The other women decided to stop selling. I think people prefer fancy food nowadays. So when my products don’t get sold, I have carry them around and market them to other people.]

She adds more sticky rice and coconut milk mixture while weaving the coconut leaf around until it reaches a certain size.

Maria has taught other women to make native delicacies. One of her neighbors, Monina, learned from her and is now selling in the public market as well.

“Kaisa, naakigan ako ka mga ingod ko dira kay namian ako maghatag paaman sa mga suki ko. Nahambalan ako nila nga ginansiya ko pa na tani. Pero ambot, gabalos lang ako sa kabubut-on sang akon mga suki. Isa man lang ang paaman ah! Haha!”

[Sometimes the woman selling right next to me would scold me if I give and bonus piece to a patron. They’d remind that I have to think of my profit. But well, I am just reciprocating the kindness of those who support me–anyway, it’s just a piece!]

Then, re-using a string from an onion sack, she’d tie it around.

She makes the whole process looks so easy. The pieces of ibos look all the same, as if they have been processed by a machine.

“Wala guid kami nakasubli sang abilidad ni Nanay. Indi guid ako kabalo sanda. Kung ako, indi amo na kahipid ang akon obra kag daw indi takon maayo mamaligya pareho sa iya”, Maria’s daughter shared.

[We don’t have her ability. I can’t do that. I don’t have her precision and her talent for selling.]

Zen of Ibos - Project Iloilo

The 70-year old just smiled while looking at her.

“Indi ko man sila gusto piliton kay may direksyon man sila nga ila.”

[I don’t want to force them. They have their own path.]

She pours water into a big kaldero. The steaming lasts for three hours.

Zen of Ibos - Project IloiloWhen we buy a piece of ibos from Maria and the other locals, we pay four-to-five pesos for the following: natural ingredients that were bought fresh or even gathered by families from their own yards; five-to-nine hours’ worth of presence and attention; and years of hard work and dedication. As customers, we partake in these rituals that start at 3 PM.

Purchases have been made too easy by big companies these days–we have become so detached with the joy of the process; its entire experience. When food is served and sold in fancy plastic wrappers, we feel finer, more secured. When food is shown on commercials and endorsed by celebrities, we feel a sense of grandeur.

Has our addiction to technology made us look down at people who make things using their hands? Has this fast urbanization taken us all away from the sacredness of slow food, from appreciation with what nature provides, and from our spirit for cultivating communities?

I used to have this sheer affinity for forceful revolutions. But in most days now, when I am alone and still, I am grounded on this belief that what sustains humanity are people like Maria, whose daily life is filled with so much simplicity and tenderness–the people who tread softly with their hearts and mind. They stand in the frontiers of Busyness and Ugliness–to hold their families together without having to fully succumb into the mouth of these materialist and individualistic times.

She sits like a monk. She breathes with ease. Her hands move with grace and softness.

There, in the kitchen, there is this beautiful sense of stillness and a deep energy of the Slow.

Where Maria lives, a tender revolution happens.

Photos by Karen Buenavista

Kristine Buenavista is the Co-Founder and Self-development Program Facilitator of Alima Community. She is constantly stalking the slow life.