Seashell piles, dumping grounds for discarded seashells, have a lot to say about our people in the past
Rain rain go away! By Rain, I mean Jung Ji-hoon of K-pop fame! While it was raining, I was plagued by footage of Rain riding across Korea on a motorbike with his “hairy” co-host Hoh Hong Chul on Netflix’s travel cooking show. The hungry and the hairy.
I’m on a mission to try the dishes featured on the show. A dish has intrigued me since I saw it in several K series during the pandemic: marinated crabs. When I Googled “pickled crabs in Manila” recently, KP2 restaurant came up. After a 40 minute drive on a rainy weeknight, I reached the hole in the wall along Roxas Boulevard.
From the outside, it was remarkable only because of the group of young Koreans smoking at the entrance. The place is small but clean. A Filipina, who looked like cook, waiter and housekeeper at the same time, took care of the cooking. A Korean lady took care of the cash register and the bar while a young man in a coat, quietly overseeing everything, seemed to be the CEO.
What are pickled crabs? These are very fresh crabs marinated either in soy sauce or in a sauce made with chilli powder. I didn’t know that until I was at the restaurant. I didn’t know there were two kinds of pickled crabs so I decided to order both. The crabs were so fresh I could taste the sea. The sauces, whether soy sauce or chili sauce, only enhanced the fresh flavor. It’s like eating a cold ceviche but with the meat still encased in the shell. You suck up the meat and, according to Rain’s travel food show, you can also pry it out of the shell with your hands. The marinated crabs presented in the Hungry and the hairy were soy sauce based. As demonstrated, you can add the pressed meat and fat to noodles, then drizzle sesame oil, chop Korean green chili, and torn or Nava seaweed squares. Unlike the one on the show, the restaurant in Manila didn’t provide gloves, so I just sucked the meat off the crab. It was a unique experience. You have to try it at least once!
In the same episode, Rain and Hong Chul spent time on the mudflats of Gochang in Jeju Island, harvesting clams or clams (Mercenaria mercenaria). I discovered later that, along the mudflats, the Manila clam (Philippinarum bands) is also grown and harvested.
The physical area of his research and the number of shells studied bring tears to his eyes.
Although the Manila clam or Venus clam, belonging to the family Veneridae, was first recorded in Japan, it earned its name via the galleon trade. The shores of Luzon were full of clams, which were transported from our islands to Mexico, where they were called Manila clams. The name stuck. Clams became popular due to their higher meat ration and relatively thin shell.
Another popular clam in the past of our country is the freshwater bivalve Children of Batissa, otherwise known as kabibi. I remember meeting a Japanese archaeologist with the email “luha ng kabibe”. I only realized how appropriate his email address was after visiting the location of his study area in the La-Lo seashell midden sites along the Cagayan River. The physical area of his research and the number of shells studied bring tears to your eyes!
Along the banks of the country’s longest and largest river, the Cagayan River, 21 shell midden sites, some reaching six meters high, encompass two municipalities. A seashell pile is a dumping ground for discarded seashells. The site is important because it shows how clams were eaten in the past and possibly produced for trade. Within the shells were bones of animals like pigs and deer (indicating that people in the past simply didn’t eat clams), pottery, and other datable but discarded cultural materials that may give us clues. clues to how people lived in the past. After all, there had been people harvesting, producing, eating, and discarding these shells for a very long time, given the breath and number of shells in this prehistoric dump.
Based on the layers of shells and organic (animal and human remains) and cultural (stone tools, beads and pottery) materials recovered, the researchers were able to date each layer. The different shell layers have been determined to be between 7,000 and 1,000 years old. The dates show a period in our past when the inhabitants of these islands we now call the Philippines were becoming more sedentary, compared to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer stage. They must have been in one place for some time to be able to accumulate so much “trash” of shells.
Speaking of trash, our family matriarch, Imelda Marcos, was quoted as saying, “People say I’m extravagant because I want to be surrounded by beauty. But tell me, who wants to be surrounded by garbage? But my aunt is very pragmatic and practical. She always advised us to learn how to turn waste into beauty. She loves everything that is recycled. When she was new to Manila, fresh off the boat from Tacloban, she was invited to so many parties not only because she was a member of the Romualdez clan but because she was beautiful.
The problem was that there were so many parties and only a few dresses to wear. Instead of feeling depressed and refusing to go, she started accessorizing. “One party I would have a flower at the waist and for the next party I would use that flower as a brooch. I would just move it around and add ribbons to make it different,” she explained.
My aunt also liked seashells. Growing up visiting her homes, whether in Manila, Leyte or Ilocos Norte, I always saw seashells made into flower bouquets or centerpieces.
Decades later, I discovered these mostly broken and soot-covered recycled seashell decors in the bodega of the former home of the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos in San Juan. I was tasked with putting my uncle and aunt’s forgotten memories and belongings in order, so I spent six months in their old home doing just that.
Recently, I was made a beneficiary of these shells by my cousins. In keeping with the spirit of recycling and lifelong learning, I enlisted University of the Philippines Archaeological Studies Program professor Kate Lim and her graduate students to collect, sort and classify seashells at me, so that they may be arranged in specimen boxes, labeled with their scientific and local Bisaya names, and distributed one day to schools in Leyte.
SUBSCRIBE TO THE DAILY NEWSLETTER
CLICK HERE TO JOIN