Shrimps in coconut milk, ‘kilawing labanos,’ ‘kulawo,’ ‘sinukmani’-San Pablo

HOW CAN YOU GET COOL IN THIS sizzling hot summer? Visit San Pablo, especially the lakes.

Anyone who has studied Philippine geography knows that there are seven lakes in the Laguna city of San Pablo. I do remember one name, Sampalok lake, apparently the biggest one.

It was An Mercado Alcantara who brought me and my guests there where we stayed at her husband’s family resort, Casa San Pablo. She had hinted that this was where she drives away the stress of the corporate world. Once there, you understand that it’s the quiet and the cool breeze that will do that as well as the flowers and trees around you. And it’s the local cooking—shrimps in coconut milk; radish and liver cooked in vinegar (kilawing labanos); kulawo or eggplant cooked in toasted coconut; and the sinukmani (rice cake).

But An said that the ultimate getaway for her is at one of the seven lakes. Named Pandin, it’s where the women of the place cook lunch for you and who will also bring you on a tour of the lake on bamboo rafts where you dine at the shadiest part of the shore.

Lakes are mysterious bodies of water. They’re usually deep (Pandin is about 60 meters down) and dark. According to geologists who An talked with, the San Pablo lakes were once craters of volcanoes. Are they connected? One of the women at the lake told me her parents talked about a boy who drowned in the lake but whose body was recovered in Manila Bay. That says something about the connection of the lakes to Laguna de Bae that is connected to Manila Bay by the Pasig River. But, she warns, that is just a story.

We went ahead of my guests to catch the preparation activities in the early morning. Aling Sion greeted us and said they were still cooking the food. I thought they were going to cook on the raft but it seems they cook the food and then bring those with them.

The venture you sense is a purely women’s operation. They cook and they are the ones who expertly use oars to get us around the lake. They said it was Patis Tesoro who taught them how to organize. Sadly Tesoro’s own restaurant, Kusina Salud, has shut down and will only accept food for takeout.

Coconut country

It’s still a long walk from where the cars are parked to the lake. Our guide was a barangay head and he said that it was good it didn’t rain or else the path would be muddy and slippery.

We noted how there were only a few coconut trees around when San Pablo used to be “coconut country.” It’s the coco lumber business that’s doing that, he said, and the absentee landlords who don’t seem to care whether their lands still have coconut trees.

Once we got to the highest point there it was below us, Lake Pandin. It’s a small lake because you can see most of its borders. At the shore there was a line of bamboo rafts. It was where we enjoyed the cool breeze while waiting for the rest of the party to wake up and have breakfast.

Some of the women were already at the place. Where were the men? Apart from our guide through the path, one man was on his small raft feeding the fish. There was one who was tasked to get buko (young coconut) which turned out to be what we were going to drink that day. Later on, two others were on another raft looking for shellfish by the banks.

Some of the women were washing kaong fruit harvested from the trees around the area. They offer those for sale but we beg off because we know we don’t have the experience to make those tender and sweet which may have bewildered these cooking women who told me how easy it is to do that.

When their food was tasted later, it merely affirmed how these women are the greatest cooks ever and that we wouldn’t have done justice to those white transparent kaong fruit.

When it was finally time to go off, the women took their places to man the oars. We ate on the raft that had a table. The rice came wrapped in banana leaf. The freshwater shrimps in coconut milk were cooked just right, sweetish and milky. The pakoor fiddlehead fern was also cooked in coco milk but somehow it was the best tasted yet, counting those cooked the same way in Baler, Aurora province, as salad in vinaigrette in Pampanga and even what we cooked ourselves from ferns brought in from Aklan.

Later the women invited us to view the twin lake of Pandin called Yambo. They offered that it was just 10 steps up but when we saw the path that had about 10 giant steps, each one about a meter high, some of us copped out. The more adventurous and fitter went up.

As we meandered along Pandin lake trying to extend this experience, I thought of Jose Rizal’s picnic scene in his novel, “Noli Me Tangere.” This must have been what the picnic party rode on, not bancas but bamboo rafts. One of the characters decided how to cook each kind of fish that was caught, kept alive in nets hanging on the side. And on the poles supporting the roof, fruits were hung, where guests just picked what they wanted to eat. When I told the women that, they said those were good ideas to make the picnic experience even better. And, of course, they can say that Laguna’s own son, Jose Rizal, gave them the idea.