Claire-Dee Lim

writer, teacher, traveler, and lazy gardener

Category: Writing (page 2 of 5)

Guest Post: “Pining for Pinangat” by Paulino Lim Jr.

Whenever I’m asked how I became a writer, I simply answer: it’s because of my father. Paulino Lim Jr. is a distinguished novelist. He’s the author of the Filipino political series Tiger Orchids on Mount Mayon, Sparrows Don’t Sing in the Philippines, Requiem for a Rebel Priest and Ka Gaby, Nom de Guerre, and several short story collections. His award-winning short stories have been featured in AsiaWeek and other publications. His scholarly monograph, The Style of Lord Byron’s Plays, is cited as the preeminent work about the romantic poet. He’s also a professor emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach. So no surprise, he’s been a huge inspiration.

When I was young, he always encouraged me to tell my own stories and write them down. So I did. He’d read what I wrote, and besides correcting my grammar, his critical eye taught me how to use the precision of words to convey ideas. He also advocated exploring my own voice and not self-censoring, which can be a mistake for any writer. That early influence is probably why I’ve written some of the things I have.

I’m so pleased to feature my dad’s recent piece: it’s a story is about getting an undeclared food product from the Philippines through Customs. It blends both narrative and a recipe of a delicacy known as “Pinangat.”

Here’s a “taste” of Paulino Lim Jr. I hope you enjoy it!

(pinangat photo: Laing, Bicol Express, Wikimedia Commons)

 Pining for Pinangat

I am in line at the LAX International Airport, holding my passport and Customs Declaration form. Six other returning residents are ahead of me. A message on the monitor above the immigration gate shakes off the lassitude of the overnight flight. “Declare all food products. Failure to do so can result in up to $10,000 in fines and penalties.”

What to do? On the declaration form I only wrote “Books,” not the pinangat in a plastic container, wrapped with a bath towel. Twenty pieces each wrapped in foil, what shall I call it? Pinangat? Filipino tamale? I glance at the Customs Officer behind the counter, scanning a monitor before stamping passports and declaration forms. He reminds me of a young sailor in his late 30s, wearing blue cap and short-sleeved white shirt and matching blue tie and epaulets.

Scenarios play in my mind. Does the penalty apply for not declaring a food product? If I refuse to pay the fine, will I be detained? Will the pinangat be confiscated and, heaven forbid, discarded? I will plead, unwrap a package and say, “This is a delicacy in my hometown.” Who’ll believe me if I say that the pinangat is my antidote for homesickness?

So many copycat dishes have filched the name, but Filipinos know that there’s only one pinangat, the Bicol variety, and the best tasting comes from my hometown in Albay Province, Camalig, also known as the country’s “Pinangat Capital.” The town fiesta honoring the Patron Saint, John the Baptist, is an extended week-long celebration, dubbed Pinangat Festival.

Mayon Volcano

Mayon Volcano

What‘s so special about the Camalig pinangat? Geography is as much a factor as the South of France is to Perrier water. Its main ingredient is the gabi vegetable, also known as taro in Hawaii, that grows along rivulets and rivers flowing from Mayon Volcano. The volcano also accounts for the superb quality of the coconut used in pinangat.

A mature coconut, its husk turned brown, is broken open with a bolo or cleaver and grated. The grating is mixed with a cup of water in a basin, and manually squeezed and kneaded until the water turns milky. The coconut milk is poured into a container using a sieve. Water is again mixed with the grated coconut for a second squeezing.

Fresh shrimp and pork are two favorite pinangat fillings. The shrimp is peeled and the pork diced. They are seasoned with salt, chopped onions, garlic and, if desired, chili pepper. A third of a cup of seasoned pork or shrimp is placed on two overlapping gabi leaves. A tablespoon of the first squeeze is added, the leaf folded over the mixture to create a pouch.

More gabi leaves wrap the pouch into a rectangular shape that fits nicely in a chafing dish when served. A strand of coconut frond tied length- and crosswise secures the wrap, as a string does to a small package. The wrapped pieces are placed in a pot lined with white stalks of lemongrass, beaten soft with the flat side of a cleaver. Coconut milk from the second squeeze is poured over the pinangat, and the pot is covered.

The pot simmers over low heat from fired charcoal and cracked coconut shells. The dish is ready when nothing remains of the coconut milk, except for the whitish yogurt-like residue that adds an appetizing layer to the green of the pinangat. Each pinangat can be lifted with a fork from the pot by its frond string.

It’s now my turn at the passport gate. No more psychic scenarios, each move happening in real time. I pull my carry-on bag to the counter, and say “Good morning,” as I hand in my passport and travel form. The Inspector returns my greeting with a nod.

He looks at me. “What was the purpose of your travel to the Philippines?”

“I visited my folks in the province. For the most part I was a visiting professor at De La Salle University in Manila.”

“I see you’re bringing in books. Sir, anything else to declare?”

I shake my head. The Inspector stamps the passport and scribbles on the declaration form. Is it a note for the Customs Officer at the Exit gate to inspect my luggage?

This moment must be how a smuggler feels, or a gambler about to roll the dice. I pull my green canvas suitcase from the trundling carousel, and walk slowly toward the Officer, a bronzed Latino in his late 50s, standing behind a platform.

Buenos dias, Señor,” I say.

His face cracking a smile, he replies, “Bienvenido.” He takes the travel form, points to my suitcase, and says, “Do you have chicharones in there?”

I shake my head, and he waves me to the exit sign.

Never Trust a Writer

It’s a common conception that whatever you say, whatever secret you divulge, or oddball behavior you reveal around a writer, it will inevitably wind up in a story. I admit that bits and pieces of many interactions, encounters and observations have worked themselves into my stories. That’s what inspiration is. A kernel of something concrete or ineffable that finds a home in your mind and flourishes—often into something new.

Inspiration pops up where you least expect it. Plenty of times no people are involved. You can find it underfoot, high up on buildings, and splashed exuberantly on walls. You just have to keep your eyes open.

Please let there be a space, Jessica prayed to the parking gods while turning the BMW coupe onto busy California Street, in the heart of the city’s financial district.

Penny burst out of Jessica’s office where she had been hiding. She fought through the crush, waving coupons. “People! I’ve got vouchers for a cable car ride and free hot fudge sundaes at Ghirardelli Square. Any takers?”

Award-dinner beauty prep was about to take up the rest of Jessica’s afternoon. She wolfed down a few chocolate truffles from a massive box sent by an appreciative client, then blew out of the office to Rincon Spa.

Chelsea sat on a planter in front of a brick office complex … She was about to leave when she saw a harried woman emerge from a building, face glued to her phone. She moved to intercept her.


Hayden loftShe rang the buzzer, then looked up at the industrial façade. It seemed like a fitting abode for him: masculine, formidable. Why haven’t I been here before?

Rules of the Flyer

Old school marketing for music shows and events is alive and well in the Mission District. Many flyers and posters are typically glossy and slick, but the hand-drawn ones have a low-fi, punk charm. Come upon a vertical surface— telephone poles, construction barriers, boarded-up storefronts—it’ll likely be covered with notices. During my political activist Berkeley days, groups of us would go “sniping.” We’d affix campaign posters and rally flyers everywhere with a staple gun. We had an efficient system: one would hold up the flyer the other would staple it with the gun. We’d arrange them in grids for maximum visual effect.

There was this unwritten rule that you’d never tear down other people’s stuff—that’d be uncool (unless they were Republican campaign posters—we rationalized they were doing it to us Dems). So we’d only cover up the ones that were out-of-date. Now that practice seems so quaint and idealistic given that these days competition for consumers’ attention is so fierce. But that’s not what’s happening as evidenced by the layers upon layers of flyers in these photos. It’s nice to know that the “rules of the flyer” still apply.

Penny rounded up a crew of skateboard rats and bike messengers and enlisted them to plaster every telephone pole and construction site barrier with Hayden Korr Band posters.

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