The other night I dreamed of deep, still water with dense shoals of squid jetting aimlessly through its depths. My boat glided above the rose-colored mollusks as I netted them up by the dozen. I diced them into a heap of rings and curly tentacles, and stir-fried them in garlic and soy sauce, but before I could begin eating, the scene vanished. Next morning, with the dream stamped on my brain, I was filled with longing for Frani Catua’s Mindanaoan cuisine. Frani prepares those memorable meals for the guests and staff of PeaceBuilders Community Inc. (PBCI) at their offices in Davao City. During my one year term with PBCI, I never heard Frani’s cry of “Food is ready!” without feeling a rush of anticipation. Now, as I sit lost in remembrance on the opposite side of the world from Davao, picking at my own uninspired cookery, I wish I could again partake in the feasts that Frani lays out in such elaborate variety, lunch and dinner, five days a week.
Early each weekday morning, before the sun climbs up to parch the streets of Davao City, Frani is at the Bankerohan open air market, above the ferry landing on the Davao River. Among the butchers’ booths and the stalls of the fish and vegetable vendors Frani browses and haggles, determined always to get the most and best she can with the money in PBCI’s frugal meal budget. Beef is too pricey, and pork is forbidden at the office in deference to the Muslim partners in PBCI’s mission network. Chicken is a cheap option, and Frani knows how to make the most of it, fried in small chunks on the bone, boiled with vegetables in tinola, or baked with garlic, onions, vinegar and soy sauce as adobo. Davao is a port city with an immense fishing fleet, and Frani hits the seafood stalls as the vendors are laying out the morning’s haul. Fresh fish, from tiny fry up to whopping yellowfin tuna, go at low rates per pound. So do scallops, squid, and a daily-shifting assortment of other sea creatures.
Frani fries small fishes whole in coconut oil until the bones, tails and heads can be eaten with the flesh. Mussels diffuse their marine flavor into her vegetable broths, or bake on a pan until their shells yawn open. Adobo sauce soaks into squid as they bake. Squid of the big, torpedo-shaped variety Frani dismembers on a cutting board. She throws the tiny, round-bodied species into the pan whole.
Above the sizzle of frying food, Frani sings Filipino love songs and ballads, alternating with American pop in the vein of Taylor Swift. Her warbling carries throughout the mission office. Her people, the Ata Manobo tribe, indigenous to the mountains of Davao del Norte and adjoining provinces, are enthusiastic singers. Anthropologist Edmund Melig Industan observes, “They love to sing their tulalang (epic song), uranda (mourning song), [and] oggung (informative and descriptive song).” Industan, who surveyed the major Ata Manobo villages in the years just prior to Frani’s birth, describes an independent-minded people, about 15,000 in number. “Their most noticeable habit is their tinusak (a big rounded cigar) placed between their lips.” Subsisting in their highland rainforest by the old Lumad method of swidden farming — burning off small patches of jungle to create temporary farm plots — they call their Visayan migrant neighbors “the lowlanders.” The Ata Manobo wish to learn all they can from the lowlanders and to adapt such lowland customs as will help the tribal communities, but a tribe member’s primary political allegiance still resides with his or her home village and its village chief.
In the village of Tagpopoot, Municipality of Kapalong, Frani grew up the fourth of her parents’ six children. She was in her early teens when her father died from a stomach ulcer. Soon thereafter, she left her mother’s house and moved out of the mountains to metropolitan Matina, Davao City, 40 miles to the south, and a world away from the forest hinterlands of Kapalong.
In Matina, Frani attended high school and took a room in the house of South African missionaries Noel and Jean Livesey, who had worked among the Ata Manobo of Kapalong for years and known Frani’s family since her early childhood. Though homesick at times, Frani thrived in Davao, eagerly adapting to every novelty of her new surroundings. There was clean water from the kitchen tap and electricity from the city grid. The streets were wide, well-paved, and filled with contending taxis and jeepneys.
Davao’s shopping malls enchanted Frani. At NCCC Mall, a short walk from the Livesey’s front gate, humming escalators carry shoppers and sightseers through four floors stocked with imported foods, dry goods, clothing, and electronics. Big city Filipino malls are opulent temples kept frigid by powerful air conditioning systems. As the armed guard at the front entrance frisks you, a blast of inside air chills your sweat-drenched clothing, and you enter shivering to a vista of polished steel, gleaming white tile and quiet throngs of neatly-dressed citizens. Even to a world traveler, the sensation is breathtaking. The force of impression on one who, like Frani, comes down to the city from an indigenous mountain village and enters a Davao mall for the first time must be like the feeling of a civilian visitor to the international space station. (I once accompanied four members of the Dulangan Manobo tribe on a visit to Davao’s SM Lanang Mall, through which they walked as if dreaming. They seemed apprehensive but spellbound, and wanted to wander there for hours, mutely gazing.)
Even as Frani found wonders in Davao, she also encountered prejudice. Her indigenous physiognomy drew ridicule from some, including a teacher at her high school who nicknamed her “N****r,” and would call her nothing else, until the Liveseys intervened to have Frani removed from that class. Still, she was confronted with the word often, as when a laundress wrote it on Frani’s washing receipt. Many people, as it seemed to Frani, wanted her to feel ashamed of her tribal heritage.
Frani was learning to cook. Jean Livesey taught her to bake bread, cake and cookies. Joji Pantoja began Frani’s education in cooking “viand” — the broad array of Filipino fish and meat dishes customarily eaten in small portions along with plenty of sticky white rice. Frani’s relationship with Joji and her husband Rev. Daniel Pantoja, founders of PBCI and Coffee For Peace (CFP), began after Frani’s high school graduation, when she took a part-time job as their housekeeper to earn money for college. She took her freshman college year at Joji Ilagan school, then spent two years studying the culinary arts at Philippine Women’s College of Davao.
Impressed by Frani’s sharp mind and natural aptitude for food prep, Joji Pantoja offered her a barista position at CFP’s Davao cafe, and later made her head chef at the nearby PBCI offices, where she serves today. Among the PBCI mission family, Frani’s Ata Manobo tribal inheritance is a mark of pride. Many of her fellow Mindanaoan Lumads, representatives of tribes throughout the island, share in Frani’s feasts when they visit the PBCI offices to consult with the staff in strategies for just peace. So do Migrants and Moros, Catholics and Evangelicals. All marvel at Frani’s handiwork.
Excellent food, as has often been said, brings people together. As for Frani’s creations, they continue to bring together Mindanaoans of all ethnicities and creeds, to offer a foretaste of the Mindanaoan future for which PBCI is working, when there will no prejudice and war but fellowship and affection across all the island’s cultures.