Last week, I was served Giant Clam. How did an endangered species find its way to my lunch table?! This particular clam was one of many marine casualties from a recent boat grounding. I was called in to conduct the damage report after a large tugboat ran aground inside of a protected fish sanctuary, and left a large hole where there was once reef.
Assisted by three Filipino free divers, we surveyed the area taking underwater measurements with a large 50m transect line of the damage area. Secondly, I took many photos with my underwater camera to document the destruction. Finally, I conducted a visual survey of damaged species including displaced fish species, sea stars, corals, sponges and most notably the Giant Clam.
The Giant Clam can live to be over 100 years old, reaching sizes of up to 4 feet and more than 440lbs. Luckily, the clam damaged in our boat grounding was only about the size of a basketball, but that is still much larger than any clam I had ever seen in the Atlantic Ocean! Giant Clams attain such impressive sizes through a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, an algae that lives inside of its tissues, giving the clam its color. This is the same algae found inside the stony corals which build coral reefs. Zooxanthellae captures light energy and produces food for the clam through photosynthesis, while the clam provides a home for this algae. Did you know that no two Giant Clams have the same color pattern?!
On the day of my birthday, a Wednesday, my entire office spent the day cooking an elaborate and delicious meal which we then enjoyed at the Fish Ponds, where I frequently help with aquaculture field work.
Linguistics can provide great insight into culture. For example in Tagalog there is no word for snow but many for rice and coconuts. The mature coconut (brown in color) is called ‘niyog,’ while the young coconut (green in color) is called ‘buko’. And buko juice and meat is easily my favorite snack here in the Philippines.
There are an abundance of coconut trees around, approximately 338 million bearing 15.344 billion nuts per year on average and amounting to about 25% of agricultural land according to the Philippine Coconut Authority. And it is considered the tree of life because of its endless uses including food, oil, homes, brooms, baskets, paper, cups, guitars, benches, tables, medicine, dyes…etc. See the Philippines Coconut Authority for more!! http://www.pca.da.gov.ph/tol.html
Buko seems to be in endless supply. All the coconut trees in proximity to homes are equipped with notches running height of the tree and leading to the canopy. A Filipino will then proceed to climb without any rope or harness to the top (maybe even 80 feet high!!) to knock down coconuts. Later, with practiced dexterity, the machete is used to careful chop just the end of the buko off so that you may drink the delicious juice straight from the source. Once the coconut is empty, or you have had enough, it can be chopped in half to reveal the soft, tender white meat inside. Spoons are typically fashioned from the outer scraps of the shell so you can consume the meat immediately. I always cringe when I see people dump extra juice onto the ground so that the buko can be chopped for its flesh. However for Filipinos buko is so abundant, that my own desire to consume every single drop regardless of how full you might already be, is not shared by the native population. Maybe because buko juice is immeasurably better than the coconut water sold in American stores, I still feel the need to savor every single drop!
While buko meat is soft and tender, niyog meat is much more dense and tough. This is the type that can be shaved off into small pieces and then squeezed with water to produce coconut milk, known as ‘gata’ in Tagalog (cow’s milk is ‘gatas’). And vegetables cooked in coconut milk are my favorite Filipino meal!
Fun Facts about Coconuts:
Coconut water can be used as a substitute for blood plasma and during WWII it was used for emergency transfusions.
The name ‘coconut’ is from 16th century Portuguese sailors who thought that the 3 small holes on the coconut shell resembled the human face. “Coco” means “grinning face, grin, or grimace.” The word nut was added later on.
Technically, the coconut is not a nut, but a drupe, similar to peaches, plums, and cherries.
In 2010, the top coconut producing countries were the Philippines, Indonesia, and India.
In Thailand and Malaysia, trained pig-tailed macaques (monkeys) are used to harvest coconuts. There are even special training schools for these monkeys and annual competitions for the fastest harvesters.
And you are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than a shark (A serious danger too, I’ve been warned not to sit under coconut trees when it is windy).
This past Friday we had a cookout for all the CRM (Coastal Resource Management) Peace Corps volunteers. There are about 22 of us total, along with our language instructors. This cookout was a lesson in Filipino cooking because each language class prepared a Filipino dish to share with the group. First, shopping for the ingredients at the local market and practicing our Tagalog as we bargained with the vendors. And then, cooking the food together and eating. It felt like Thanksgiving because we had enough food for 3 cookouts!!!
My group prepared Bikol Express, a spicy dish, originating from the Bikol region of the Philippines and home of my language instructor Eva. In the photo you can see Eva and me cooking up our delicious meal. Below is the recipe for Bikol Express, however I doubt that any American recreation of this dish will compare because the best part of Filipino cuisine is the freshness of all ingredients vegetables, seafood and my favorite the incredibly sweet fruits.
Chili pepper (sili)
Black pepper (paminta)
Coconut milk (gata)
Saute the garlic, onions, tomatoes, ginger and shrimp. (Igisa ang bawang, sibuyas, kamatis, luya at hipon).
Add coconut milk with water and chili, black pepper, salt and simmer until cooked. (Ilagay ang gata tapes and silk, paminta hang gang maluto).
Then, add the pure coconut milk (Tapos, ilagay and kakang gata).
SJ Byce as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. And Intern at CIEE Bonaire '17