Monday, December 20, 2004


In Metro Manila, a number of delicacies are being peddled in the streets. There's the infamous balut (an egg with an unborn fetus inside) which has made its appearance in Fear Factor. There's also chicharon (the equivalent is probably pig skin) which is a crunchy, addicting snack, especially when paired with vinegar. Then there's Taho (and I'm saying it with a capital T to represent the entire meal).

I don't think Taho originated in the Philippines (I surmise it's probably from China considering some Chinese restaurants, both here and abroad, serve it as well) but we've certainly incorporated it into our own culture. Taho in itself is a white jelly-like substance. However, there are several variations of this, which is mainly achieved through its sauce.

The Taho which Filipinos have come to know and love is the one being peddled in the streets, sold by a man constantly shouting "taho!", all the while acting as a fulcrum to a stick with two huge steel containers on the opposite ends. One container houses the taho itself; it is kept cool and fresh, and the vendor scrapes off the liquid that accumulates on top whenever he serves it to customers. The other container, while identical to the first, is actually more complex. The container is divided into two sections, one housing the sauce, and the other containing sago (also known as "pearls" thanks to the Zagu fad a few years ago). The sauce is dark, sticky molasses. Sago, on the other hand, is perhaps what can be best described as a spherical gummy bear without the sugar.

When purchasing Taho, the vendor grabs a transparent plastic cup (which hangs on the same stick that holds the steel barrels) and opens the first barrel. He scoops out some taho and fills the cup, and then moves on to the second barrel. He liberally pours sauce on the cup, slowly transforming the white chunks into inky black, making sure that the sauce goes down deep. With a spoon, he sprinkles the sago on top of the cup, and then pours in more syrup just in case.

This combination of taho, sago, and syrup is actually a mixture of opposites. First, you start out with two bland products. I mean no one in his or her right mind would eat taho in itself. In the cooked meal variant, I'd probably douse it in lots of soy sauce. It is soft and easily breaks, but in itself, taho tastes like nothing. Similarly, sago is squishy and chewy, but it is more or less tasteless. It is the syrup that completes this meal, the one that gives taste--taho and sago merely absorb the the sickly sweet (in a very Filipino way) sauce. The syrup and taho are also opposing elements: the former is hot (so much so that sometimes, I have problems holding the cup) while the latter is cold. Yet when the two are combined, you can feel the excitement in your mouth, with the sago as your lukewarm middleground. Sago and taho are opposites too: taho is too fragile, which is why sago is there: to give the meal substance, to make Taho a meal rather than a drink. And then there's the sago and the syrup, two ingredients housed in the same container yet distinctly separated in more ways than one. These unholy triumvirate comprise the Filipino delicacy that is Taho.

Yet the image Taho inspires would not be complete without the peddler, the man carrying it to every street and district of Metro Manila. He is truly the mass-man, the poor, hardworking father who must work every morning, afternoon, and evening, just to provide for his family. He is the man which the two steel barrels are balanced upon, the person who makes P10 ($0.20) for every serving of Taho he sells. And he too is a man of multiple contradictions.

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