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The Foul-Smelling Buro on Batangueño Tables of Yore

Buro jars at a stall in a public market.
Buro jars at a stall in a public market.
Among the most frequently told family dinner stories my late mother loved to tell was this one time when she was still a little girl back in the 1920s or 1930s in the western Batangas town of Nasugbu, when she was sent by my grandmother on an errand to buy burong mustasa from the neighborhood carinderia or eatery. The buro safely in a bowl, she proceeded to walk back to their house. Unfortunately, she tripped on a stone and the buro spilled from the bowl onto the road.

Those were the days when motorized vehicles were still rare and horse-drawn vehicles were the common mode of transport. Hence, horse manure also littered the roads. So to be more accurate with my mother’s story, she spilled the buro onto horse poop on the road.

Now my grandmother, or at least according to how my own mother described her, in her youth could be a really mean customer when she got angry. Therefore, rather than incurring her ire by returning home and admitting that she had spilled the buro, my mother decided it was wiser to scoop up the mustasa from the poop, return it to the bowl and pretend nothing had happened.

Of course, come dinner time, as the rest of the family feasted on the buro, my mother was having none of it! When asked why, she gave this lame excuse about not having any appetite or something.

For the benefit of younger readers in particular, who likely grew up more familiar with food from popular fast food chains, the buro is any food that is preserved by fermentation in brine or salt solutions, sometimes with sugar or, alternatively, in vinegar instead of brine1. In English, the buro is called the pickle.

Being in the tropics as we are, where the heat and the humidity quickly spoils food, making buro of food was a necessity to our forebears to extend its lifespan before it became dangerous to eat. Pickling is by no means a Filipino invention, and ancient cultures around the world resorted to it to prevent food spoilage2.

While the process of fermentation – i.e. the interaction of “good bacteria” with the food3 – prolongs its lifespan, there also tends to be a tradeoff. Depending of the food being pickled, the buro rather tends to emit a rather foul-ish odor – anything from the mild and, therefore, tolerable to the downright asphyxiating.

As a teenager, I used to have lengthy arguments with my mother whenever she made buro of fish, mustasa (mustard) or even the talangka, the shore or river crab4. Everyone in the family loved these, and I couldn’t figure out why. The smell alone made me want to puke. My mother, for one, thought they smelled fabulous.

But the most offensive smell, at least as far as I was concerned, was the burong labanos or pickled radish. I could smell it from even outside the house. Its pungent smell simply dominated the entire house and made me dizzy. When my mother made this, I would find excuses to eat out.

There were buros, of course, that I loved, mostly those made with fruits like santol (cotton fruit), siniguelas (plums) and these manzanitas (small apples) that my uncle frequently brought back from Nasugbu. Most of all, I loved the burong mangga (mangoes) which my mother made from the Indian mango tree we used to have in the front yard.

The fabulous burong magga.
My mother would patiently slice the mango into thin strips and accumulate these in a plastic jar, then pour calculated amounts of salt and sugar on the mango, cover the jar and let it sit for three to four days. The fermentation would yield a salty-but-sweet juice that made the burong mangga such a delight.

Time was when, if my mother was feeling lazy, if she wanted any sort of buro, all she needed to do was to get this from the market uptown in Lipa City. These days, at least to my knowledge, there is just one stall in the market that sells the buro. Refrigeration and changing food tastes, especially among the young, has regrettably made the buro something of a dying delicacy.

I would definitely not mourn if nobody made buro out of fish, mustard, shore crabs or radish anymore. But won’t it just be sad if mothers don’t teach their children anymore how to make it out of fruits, most of all mangoes. If you have never tried burong mangga before, well, you certainly don’t know what you’ve been missing.

Notes and references:
1Pickling,” Wikipedia.
2What is Pickling?,” online at the Accidental Scientist, the Science of Cooking.
3Fermentation,” Wikipedia.
4Talangka,” Wikipedia.