In Under the Sugar Sun, Javier lamented his cousin Allegra’s wild side. At colegio the nuns claimed that she:
…refused to observe silence at meals, faked illnesses to get out of classes, and had a scandalous habit of bathing nude—thankfully, alone. What really gave the sisters apoplexy, though, were Allegra’s secret excursions to play sipa. No matter how many times they confiscated her footbag, she could be found bouncing one off her bare heel the next day. When Javier declared that this was not a very ladylike pastime, she boasted that she could do over a hundred hits nonstop, and would he care to see?
In other words, while wearing a skirt, Allegra lifted her foot almost to hip height, exposing her thighs for several minutes at a time as she bounced an object on her foot in a Filipino version of hacky sack. (By the way, if you think Allegra will give up the pastime as she matures, you don’t have a real good grip on her character. And Javier will ultimately wish that sipa had been his greatest worry for his ward. In book two, Sugar Moon, she will fall for the very worst scoundrel possible—two, actually, though she’ll use one to make the other jealous. She does like mischief.)
In the case of sipa, though, Allegra is at least troublesome in a very patriotic way. “Sipa” or “kick” is a sport that predates the arrival of the Spanish. The earliest sources date to the 11th century in Southeast Asia and maybe all the way back to China’s legendary Emperor Huangdi in 2600 BCE! (The featured image is from a 19th century Japanese woodblock print, so clearly the game became regional though this version was played with a paddle.)
There are several ancient Moro legends that revolve around sipa. For example, storm gods were said to kick around fireball sipas, and they kicked them so hard that they flew horizontally across the sky (i.e. lightning). Another legend says that the son of the sun and moon fell to earth while playing sipa, igniting a battle over parental supervision that ended in a prehistoric separation, which is why the sun and moon no longer share the sky. Yet another legend tells of a hero bouncing a rattan ball on his foot for two hours straight without fault in order to charm a widow out of her mourning.
When the Americans arrived in 1898, sport became a critical part of their “benevolent assimilation” plans. Yet, while the sanctimonious Yankees did try to eliminate cockfighting (unsuccessfully), they appreciated—or, at least, tolerated—sipa. True, one American called it “a very light form of sport” that was only “suited to an anemic people” and could not compete with “the more stirring games of modern basketball and baseball.” (See post #14 on racism.) However, another American described sipa as “a form of civilized football.” He explained that it “consists of really kicking the wicker ball, rather than the heads, ribs, etc., of fellow players in the game, as is customary in more boastful centers of civilization.”
One constabulary officer pointed out that since Moros used to have slaves to do ordinary work, they spent most of their latent energy on war or sipa. The officer was especially impressed at “the seeming ease with which a man’s foot appeared to reach behind and to the level of the opposite shoulder blade.” Sipa was even described in the souvenir brochure to the Philippine exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair) in 1904. The Americans allowed prisoners to play the game in penal colonies—along with basketball, volleyball, and other redeeming pursuits.
Since the earliest time of sipa in the Philippines, there were many regional variations, both in gameplay and in kicking object. There is the community game, where a circle of people keep the object in the air. Or there is the challenge type, where you try to make the most kicks in a row (Allegra’s choice). Or the distance game, where you try to kick it the farthest.
One could use a shuttlecock made of a washer with paper or feather, and this type of fly could be bounced off feet or elbows or hands, depending on preference.
A woven rattan ball was used consistently in the Moro lands, which makes sense given the cultural link these areas had with their Malay neighbors. This ball is what is used today in the energetic off-shoot of sipa called sepak takraw—a gymnastic blend of volleyball, badminton, and soccer. The net was added sometime around the turn of the 20th century, and each country has its own claim to put to the invention. (In the Philippines, it is Teodoro Valencia who supposedly created this sipa lambatan in the 1940s.)
Proof of how ingrained this sport was in 20th century Philippine culture, overseas workers took the game with them, even to Alaska. Filipinos working in salmon canneries in the 1930s described playing sipa until ten at night, as long as the daylight lasted.
However, by the 1990s sipa was on the wane. In 2009 President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo dethroned it as the national sport in favor of arnis, a martial art whose popularity has spread even to my small town in New Hampshire. (Known also as eskrima, this Filipino fighting technique will make an appearance in Sugar Moon, too.)
Some folks blame technology for taking kids off the playground and away from their traditional sports, a trend I see happening in the United States, as well. But, as with America, I wonder if our organized sports culture is really to blame. Kids do not run out and play pickup games anymore. They play on teams with coaches, referees, and uniforms. Sipa was actually removed from the elementary division of the Palarong Pambansa (National Games) in 2014. Now even the little ones play “sepak takraw junior,” a modified version of the regional net game. Maybe there is more future in that sport—one can travel and compete throughout ASEAN—but with all this competition, are we losing sight of fun?
Missing sipa? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that. The first Filipino-designed app on iTunes and Android was—yep, you guessed it—SIPA: Street Hacky Sack. There’s terrible irony here, I know, but the app looks beautiful. It takes the user through a tour of cultural Manila and encourages the player to pick up virtual litter along the way. (Genius, that.) In the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” school of thought, the app is a winner. But I just can’t see Allegra playing it. Too tame.
Javier approached her, but she was too engrossed in her study of the food to notice. He positioned his chin behind the nape of her neck. “Bodbod,” he whispered.
Georgina spun so fast that she lost her balance. Javier steadied her before she could crash into the table and ruin the peddler’s week of hard work. She recovered, though he suspected her heart was racing. She pulled her wrist from him before he could count the beats.
Javier handed some change to the vendor and took the sweet in question. “Bodbod,” he explained. “It’s made of sticky rice and chocolate. Here. You’ll like it.”
She tore off a small piece and held it up for further inspection.
“Really,” he said, trying not to laugh. He counted off the ingredients on his fingers. “Rice, coconut milk, sugar, salt, and chocolate. No tricks, I swear.”
Needless to say, Georgina liked the bodbod. I mean, what’s not to like? Sticky rice with mango alone was responsible for a fifteen-pound weight gain back when I was 19. Add chocolate to that mix? I’m a goner.
I was inspired to write this post because Suzette sent me a picture of a the Budbud-Kabog stall in Legazpi Market in Makati, and I got all jealous, like Fifty Shades of Green. And the owner is from Bais! And he has sugar baron stories! I’ve got more research to do…checking PAL fares now.
Anyway, bodbod was one of the highlights of my research trip to Bais, Tanjay, and Dumaguete. Apparently, I’m not the only one: Andrews Calumpang wrote a song about the delight, entitled “Ang Budbud sa Tanjay.” Tanjay even has a festival to bodbod every third week in December, where they make the world’s biggest bodbod (80 kilos) and the world’s smallest (fits in a matchbox).
If you’re new to street food, you’ll notice the eco-friendly banana leaf packaging. Given my fight to extricate new earbuds out of their blister pack this morning, I think we should sell everything in banana leaves. According to Choose Philippines, the antibacterial properties of the coconut oil will keep the bodbod fresh for a week.
All signs point to bodbod! Fate wants me to eat all the sweet treats. It’s destiny!
It’s game time! Now that American football season is over, I need a new hobby. I love old school games, and you cannot get more old school than these two.
According to a fantastic site (linked below), one of the first Jesuit priests to arrive in the Visayan islands, Father José Sanchez, wrote in 1692 about sungka, called kunggit in parts of Panay. Sungka is a form of mancala, the “sowing” or “count and capture” games known across Asia. However, it is distinctive enough in its play that it has become a cultural touchstone for Filipino migrants and overseas contract workers.
Sungka is played on a carved wooden board with seven small “houses” (bahay) and one head (ulo) at either end. Small stones or cowrie shells are placed in the houses and then redistributed in game play. The Filipino version has two especially cool rules if you’re a mancala enthusiast. For example, the first move is played by both players simultaneously, and the player who runs out of stones first gets the next turn. Second, you can capture your opponent’s pieces across from you when you land in an empty house on your side. These changes make the game both more fair and more fun.
Beyond mere entertainment, sungka has been used to teach advanced mathematical concepts and to divine one’s marriage prospects—so everything important in life. “The feminist poet and communication scientist Alison M. De La Cruz wrote in 1999 a one-woman performance called Sungka, which analyses the societal and family-related expectations in regard to gender-specific behavior and sexuality, race, and ethnic affiliation, by comparing it to a game of sungka.” That sounds interesting, eh?
Panguingue is a 19th century rummy card game that uses eight traditional Spanish decks. You can make your modern deck a pseudo-Spanish one by removing the 8s, 9s, and 10s, and some folks also remove a set of spades to make 310 cards total. With these cards removed, the jack follows the 7 card. This game is similar to the in-hand rummy you might already know, but one interesting distinction is the fact that you can fold your entire hand in the first move before you bet. After that, you’re in it until someone wins it. Wait a second, you say. Betting? Oh, did I not mention there can be lots of gambling involved? That’s the exciting bit.
Pan de sal. Salt bread, literally. Think of them as delicious little rolls that go with anything. My husband made pulled pork shoulder for an American Fourth of July while we lived in the Philippines, and I realized the pandesal was born to be a slider. It was like they were made for our cross-cultural family extravaganza.
Of course, they weren’t. They were made for the Almighty. The Spanish brought wheat flour to the Philippines because how else can you make a proper Christian host for communion without wheat? (Update: The Vatican still thinks gluten is required!) Early versions were cooked directly on the oven’s red brick floor, according to food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria. This method gave the bun a crisp hard shell.
Americans, though, introduced metal pans in the name of hygiene, it is said, resulting in the softer bun which still dominates today. (They also introduced a reliance on American wheat by eliminating tariffs on US goods coming into the Philippines while still charging tariffs on Philippine goods sent to the States. A good old double-standard, but I digress.) Either way, the original pandesals were larger: 9 to 15 centimeters long, 7 to 9 centimeters wide, and 4 to 6 centimeters thick (according to a source in Sta. Maria’s fantastic book, The Governor-General’s Kitchen).
These days, a typical pandesal is about the size of a fist—or the maximum amount of bread you can stuff in your mouth at one time. I’ve tried. Instead of salty, they also tend toward the sweet, some being made with milk or even condensed milk. (This is similar to a Portuguese sweet bread roll, probably an ancestor or cousin of the pandesal.) Finally, they are rolled around in bread crumbs before baking, which gives it a great texture.
They are lovely for dipping in Spanish tsokolate (see glossary term #5) or coffee or anything you want. They are considered by many as the national bread of the Philippines. When fresh and hot, they are manna from heaven. (Featured photo by Alyssa Sison in the Creative Commons.)