YOU know a carinderia is successful because you get there, and there’s nothing left. Limas, we would say. Claire Yangon, who owns and operates Kainan sa Bagtikan, has been feeding the denizens of this area for 24 years.
SHE recalls moving to several pwestos in and around Makati until she found this exact spot, and it’s where she has stayed for the past 17 years. It’s one of those spacious old-time two-room apartments, which she rents, and then uses the space downstairs and the garage for carinderia operations.
Already the street is showing signs of some gentrification; her eatery is flanked by an independent coffee shop and a bar, but she has remained where she is because as food businesses go, the proof of the pudding is literally in the eating. “Siguro nagtagal kami kasi lahat ng natitikman nilang luto namin, masarap. Lutong bahay lang. Napakasimple lang po ng mga luto namin,” Claire says. “Kahit walang maraming rekado, masarap ang lasa. Minsan makita mo napakaraming rekado, parang napakasarap, ’di ho ba? Tapos, ’pag tikman mo, wala, hindi mo magustuhan din ang lasa [I think we lasted this long because they like the flavor of our home-cooked meals. Our dishes are very simple. It’s just standard ingredients, but the dishes are good. Sometimes, you see dishes that look so enticing, but when you taste them, they’re bland].”
Clearly, Claire is someone who knows what cooking good food entails. “Ang dami nang tao, marami na ring kainan, pero po ’yung sa amin ang hinahanap nila, mura na masarap pa raw: gulay namin, P20; karne, P35. Kami ang pinakamura dito. Ayoko nang mataas para at least araw-araw nauubos [Even if the other food businesses have sprouted in the area, they still go to ours. They say our food is not only cheap but tastes good, too. Our vegetables, P20; meat starts at P35. We’re the cheapest in the area. I don’t like charging higher prices because I don’t want the food to be left over]. She even has customers who she has known since she started in the early-2000s. “’Pag nakita nila ako dito, dito na sila kumakain kasi alam na nila ’yung luto ko [When they discover that I’m here, they start regularly eating here because they’re familiar with my cooking].”
The canteen dispatches 4 kilos worth each of sisig, dinuguan, among other viands, but these are the crowd favorites. Claire likes to change up the menu everyday because she knows customers are always looking for variety, but her best sellers are listed on the billboard and available every day. What was left when we got there is the dinuguan, which is, indeed, quite good and has a pretty hefty serving, maybe because it was the last. The paksiw is not overly sweet like most, and the sauce has an almost gravy like savory quality. At the counter, a customer is telling her friend, “Hindi ako kumakain ng paksiw, pero ’yung sa kanila kinakain ko [I don’t eat paksiw, but I eat their version].”
Claire has an infinite number of recipes in her arsenal: Adobo, caldereta, papaitan and sinigang sa miso are just some she mentioned offhand. She also tries to come up with seven kinds of vegetables, because in all these years, she has noticed that people eat healthier now. In the midst of cooking ginataang langka, which she spikes with Mega Sardines in Tomato Sauce with Chili, she shares, “’Pag matagal ka nang nagluluto, isang tingin mo pa lang alam mo nang tama ang timpla [When you’ve been cooking as long as I have, you know just by eyeing the ingredients if the flavors are right].”
The ginataang langka, especially hot off the pan, is delicious, with the Mega Sardines in Tomato Sauce with Chili giving it a mild kick. It’s like a variation of ginataang langka with alamang. The secret to her sisig, she would later reveal, “’Yung iba mayonnaise ang ginagamit, kami utak [Others use mayonnaise but we use pig’s brain].” That is certainly gourmet level, which you won’t get at casual restaurants and, unfortunately, the sisig had already run out by the time we came, but I’m not surprised as some of the best sisig I’ve had were in carinderias.
It will come as no surprise that Claire is Capampangan. “Sabi nga nila…” and she repeats what is taken for as fact in this country that Pampanga produces the best cooks. “Dito ko nakuha lahat n’ung pangarap ko sa buhay,” she declares. “Nagkaroon ako ng bahay at lupa. Nakabili ako ng sasakyan ko, dito ko nakuha sa pagluluto [I fulfilled all the dreams I had in life through cooking. I was able to buy a house and lot. I bought a vehicle].”
She was even able to go on a European vacation to visit her sister who lives in Belgium. “Nakaranas makasakay ng eroplano. Nakarating naman ng Belgium. Para ring probinsya, nakita mo ’yung damo-damo. May mga palayan dadaanan mo. Nakapunta rin sa Holland, sa Germany, sa Ghent [Belgium]. Hindi ako makatagal, isang buwan lang [Her visa had a three-month validity]. Iniisip ko rin negosyo ko dito [I experienced riding an airplane. I was able to go to Belgium. It’s just like the province; you see meadows and pass by wheat fields. I was also able to go to Holland, Germany and Ghent [Belgium], but I didn’t last long, just a month because I kept thinking about my business].”
Food businesses can be financially rewarding, but Claire makes it clear that it’s a very hard work. She still wakes up at 4 a.m. everyday to buy ingredients at the Libertad market. While she has people who help with some of the prep, the cooking is something she still does herself from Monday to Saturday. “Nafi-feel ko na ’yung pagod, na masakit ang paa ko, masakit ang kamay ko [I’m beginning to feel the strain. My hands and feet hurt], which Claire describes as sakit ng nagluluto (cooking ills). “Hindi naman pwede pagod ka, hindi ka pwede hindi maghugas ng kamay. Ako rin ang mag-buhat, buhat sa palengke [Even if your hand muscles are tired, you still have to wash your hands (which causes tremors). I also scarry the heavy loads of produce at the wet market myself].”
She also reminds us that the market can be fickle. “OK naman po, nasasambot ko naman po, pero po ngayong taon na ’to, parang tama na lang ang kinikita kasi nag-iiba ang panahon [Things are okay. I’m able to earn some money, but this year, in particular, I’m not profiting by much. Times change].”
But the compliments are a balm to her soul. “Kanina may nagsabi, ‘Ang sarap ng dinuguan niyo.’ ’Pag masarap nasasabi ano, pero ’pag hindi masarap hindi nila sasabihin [Earlier, someone told me, ‘the dinuguan is delicious.’ When it’s delicous they tell you, but if it’s not they don’t say anything],” Claire observes wryly.
The house in Pampanga, the fruit of all her hard work, gives Claire much pleasure. She lovingly describes a fish pond at the back of the house, surrounded by lots of trees, “mga puno ng mangga [mango trees].” Sometimes, she wishes she had a daughter. “Iba ang anak na babae [A daughter is different],” she says. She thinks a daughter makes a better companion for a mother, especially as Claire gets older. She has two sons, one of whom has inherited a smaller eatery she also used to operate, and like any lola, she dotes on her grandchildren. “’Pag may apo ka na, apo na lang ang mahal mo,” she jokes. She was widowed when she was only in her 40s, and when I asked why she didn’t marry again, Claire says with a laugh, “Mahirap maghanap ng pang-forever. Tama na ’yung boyfriend, boyfriend [It’s hard to find someone for keeps. I’m okay with just having boyfriends].”