She uses every memory, trick, and recipe in her arsenal to sell hamon and gets some help from her five daughters.
“Marunong ka ba gumawa ng hamoncito?” one of my Lola’s loyal customers, a suki, had asked one day. (Do you know how to cook Christmas ham?) It was in the ’70s when my Lola was selling pork at Tabora Divisoria Wet Market. People assumed she had authentic Chinese recipes because of how she looked.
“Madali lang ‘yun ,” she lied. (That’s easy). She’d never made hamoncito before. They’ve always ordered their Noche Buena ham at Adelina’s.
My Lola quickly imagined what hamoncito tasted like—“matamis na maasim-asim” (sweet and a little sour). She remembered seeing people selling tocino using pineapple juice in their marinades. Eureka! Turns out she wasn’t lying: it was easy. She was able to concoct a recipe that same night. No recipe testing, she just went straight ahead and made it. She took home the butterflied kasim or pork shoulder that was left unsold and got cracking. She sold it in three days, no one suspecting she’d just made up the recipe on the fly. She didn’t have a generations-old recipe some Chinese families were known for — she just had a lot of personal history with pork.
She sold it in three days, no one suspecting she’d just made up the recipe on the fly.
My Lola, although half-Chinese, didn’t grow up in a Chinese home. Her father, whose last name Guang Hin was changed to Santos to avoid discrimination, was a Chinese matador at the slaughterhouse. Instead of chocolate and flowers as panligaw (courtship gift), he brought my great grandmother scraps of pork fat, pork skin, and innards which, with a tiny addition of water in a big pot, a whole lot of heat and then seasoned with salt and betsin, turned into chicharon. This chicharon was then peddled and gave the family extra money. My great-grandmother recalled him to be a kind and good looking husband who died of overwork. My Lola was seven years old when he died. Her mother married soon after, severing a whole culture out of her life.
Instead of chocolate and flowers as panligaw (courtship gift), he brought my great grandmother scraps of pork fat, pork skin, and innards which, with a tiny addition of water in a big pot, a whole lot of heat and then seasoned with salt and betsin, turned into chicharon.
She reclaimed some of her Chinese heritage only after her stint as a secretary when her stepfather insisted she changed careers to become a pork vendor in Divisoria. She would take the morning shift in the market, leaving as early as four in the morning, and her mother would take the afternoon shift.
This was Lola’s cultural education. She learned to speak Chinese numbers so she could sell to the Chinese who only sold to the Chinese. Chinese customers were known for buying in bulk so all the shopkeepers competed to make them their suki. My Lola used her chinita eyes to her advantage. She even beat the competition who sold right across her stall, an actual, full-blooded Chinese woman.
At the wet market, she befriended fellow vendors and her customers. They would then teach her authentic Chinese recipes. Our family favorite of these borrowed recipes has to be the pork and shrimp kikiam using yellow beancurd wrapper you can only get in Binondo. With its deep earthy flavor of five spice or ngoyong, it tastes nothing like store-bought kikiam. Of course, word-of-mouth recipes weren’t the only basis for her much-loved hamoncito.
Sometime between 1961-64 though, Lola took a break from working in Divisoria. Tita Chancharing, her late father’s sister, offered to let her work as a cashier at their grocery store. Her salary was free food, free lodging and P50 per month. She even got her late cousin Freddie to carpool with to and fro work. It was a comfortable time for her; they were always eating expensive beef and she didn’t have to cook that often when she went home to her aunt’s house. Still, her husband was itching for them to live live on their own, not with his in-laws. She knew that they would be soon moving out and she would be returning to selling pork in Divisoria.
And so, though comfortable in her life there, my Lola was still a spunky, go-getter. She noticed that the grocery shop’s house special beef tapa prepared by the chief cook, Pablo, was selling like pancakes. After befriending Pablo, she asked for the recipe with her paper and pen ready. The same recipe would be the base for Lola’s hamoncito years into the future.
With the beef tapa recipe as a basis on how to prep her hamoncito, she executed the recipe she really only tested inside her head. She was to deliver in three days. First, she seasoned her pork kasim with salt, sugar, and betsin, rubbing those flavors in, giving it a night to seep and develop.
The next day, she added in more spices and a tall can of pineapple orange juice for the marinade. The marinating hamoncito then stayed in the fridge overnight to soak up all the flavors and to tenderize with the acidity. On the last night before the customer’s due date, it’s finally taken out to be cooked.
A lot of hamoncito was prepped and stored for the holidays. Lucky for them, they had quite a chest freezer — it occupied a quarter of their small home’s first floor. The fridge was so big compared to the size of their house that her youngest daughter had turned it into her personal couch.
The night before the special hamoncito was received by the customer, the pork is sown into a tight roll with white crochet thread. Afterward, it was boiled with all its marinade in a large pot. With no thickening agent like cornstarch, it took hours of cooking for the sauce to thicken. It’s very much worth it though, as its tender meat bursts with flavor, ready to be sold and eaten right after. To make it extra special (when they were serving it for themselves), her husband would make a sugar crust around the pork and roast it in their “wonder oven” for a crunchy twist.
During the day of delivery, Lola and her small army of girls would help carry several kilos of pork during the commute from their home in Mandaluyong to their spot in Divisoria. Not one child complained.
“Mula’t sapul, sila kasama ko,” she said. (From the beginning, they’ve always been with me.) After that first batch, all her daughters would learn the recipe and help out, long past bedtime. This wasn’t just a holiday thing either; her daughters would help out the rest of year, helping her churn out orders for longganisa and tocino.
It would be wrong to say my Lola’s Hamoncito recipe is authentic Chinese hamoncito. Up to this day, we as a family don’t even have a grasp of how hamoncito differs from hamonado or if it’s the same thing. But it is hamoncito that is authentic to the Divisoria experience, born of a strong-willed businesswoman with a gift for cooking and lots of mouths to feed. My Lola’s father might not have lived long enough to instill the Fil-Chi lifestyle popularized by movies, but his legacy has somehow lived on in my hardworking grandma.
But it is hamoncito that is authentic to the Divisoria experience, born of a strong-willed businesswoman with a gift for cooking and lots of mouths to feed.
My Lola’s only memory of her father was when he was dying. She remembers going up to his room to bring him his food and to feed him. He didn’t say much, he was too tired, too spent by disease. After the meal, my Lola would do as her mother instructed her and dunk her arms in a bucket of water laced with Lysol. Then, one day, near her father’s death, he’d managed a conversation.
Her father instructed her to free the five birds she’d kept in a cage. When he was still well, he gave it to her, his beloved princess, his first-born. As she watched the birds fly away, her father promised that in exchange for freeing the birds, he’d give her five precious dolls one day. He’d make sure of it. She didn’t know how that was possible, with her father so frail and so unlikely to come back to work.
She remembered this story when she gave birth to her last child, her fifth daughter. She remembered this story when she gave birth to my mother, her first-born, whose tiny feet were oddly shaped like those of a porcelain doll. My grandmother remembers this story, with warmth in her voice, when she tells me all about working to the bone just to see her dolls, her daughters celebrate their debut, graduate from college, and give birth. It’s a memory she comes back to when she wonders about what could have been if her father hadn’t died so early. Would she have lived a completely different life? Would they also own a supermarket just like her aunt? Would she have access to a real Chinese Hamoncito recipe? But then again, would she have met her husband, my Lolo, in that alternate life and had her five daughters?
My great grandfather’s legacy lives on in my grandmother’s grateful heart. Perhaps some things don’t need to be taught and are just in our blood. The same way genetics has given our family a predilection for diabetes and losing our gall bladders, she also inherited her father’s determination, resourcefulness, and imagination that helped make her hamoncito recipe. Though it isn’t from some traditional Chinese cookbook, this delicious, scrumptious hamoncito recipe is as authentic as authentic can get.
After that first batch of hamoncito sold, it was quickly a hit. Word spread and people began ordering it for special occasions—not just for Noche Buena. They also bought it for New Year’s, Piyesta ng Tondo, and birthdays, a steal for only P10/kilo. All sorts of customers bought ham from her: from Filipinos to Fil-Chis, even to rich Chinese tycoons’ wives. All my grandmother’s products had her stamp of quality: guaranteed to be made not just with her well-known signature tenacity, but also with love… lots and lots of it.