The lowly calamansi and its place in Filipino cuisine

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By Anna Bueno/ -The calamansi (citrofortunella microcarpa) is ubiquitous in Filipino culinary tradition as it is almost invisible at the table. While a regular at every imaginable Filipino dish that requires a sauce or a dip, once calamansi is squeezed to flavor a sawsawan of toyo and vinegar, the fruit is unceremoniously disposed of and forgotten. The culinary writer Corazon S. Alvina, in “Slow Food,” lauds the iced calamansi juice as “one of the most refreshing things in tropical life,” yet in the array of fresh fruit juices available in the market — mango, apple, watermelon, buko, kiwi — the calamansi momentarily loses its distinction.

This remains a fact even as the calamansi captures the fascination of foreign chefs who, upon arriving at our native shores, are quick to heap praises upon the fruit. The Peruvian chef and culinary anthropologist-of-sorts Virgilio Martinez, visiting the Philippines last year, was quick to marvel at how the singular flavor of the calamansi rivals the multi-layered confection of leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) prepared alongside their native ceviche. Mighty Quinn’s owner Hugh Mangum uses a dash of calamansi to flavor his dirty rice — an effective way to cut through the fat while having his signature pork briskets.

Locally, calamansi, aside from being part of the sawsawan and serving as a refreshing drink, is commonly used as part of marinades, stuffings, and dressings. Negrense chef JP Anglo, for his part, likes to have two to three slices of calamansi grilled and stuffed in lechon manok, capitalizing on the smoky flavor that develops after the calamansi’s juices are released into the chicken’s cavity while roasting. Calamansi is also one of the main ingredients of Philippine chicken inasal; the dish does not taste the same when flavored with lemons or limes. “It has a different sourness,” says Anglo. For Asia’s best female chef Margarita Fores, whose earliest introduction to calamansi is through its juice form, “calamansi, in general, has a unique flavor.”

How unique, exactly, is a matter even experienced chefs struggle to articulate. Anglo, taking a break from the lunch service of Sarsa in Megamall, takes three slices of calamansi and squeezes one of them into his mouth. As opposed to batwan, the sourness of which is more “round,” or the sampaloc, which is “sharp,” or limes abroad that taste “like Corona,” the calamansi is “organic,” says Anglo. “Lasang lupa,” he adds, with the caveat that it might be difficult to describe the flavor as we grew up with it, and therefore have been accustomed to it in our palate. The flavor of calamansi, it seems, is its own.

In a country with a predilection for sourness — a function of our climate, says Fores — the taste of calamansi is at once esoteric and familiar. Esoteric, because it escapes accurate description, as most unique ingredients do; and familiar, because it is laced into our native tastes. The calamansi routinely finds its way to some of our best dishes: in sinigang, as additional flavor; in kinilaw, as a souring agent added at the very end, the way “kinilaw master” Enting Lobaton reportedly does it; in various kinds of pancit, to garnish and to taste; in sizzling sisig with crunchy chicken skin (a la JP Anglo’s) drizzled with a recommended sawsawan of 60 parts vinegar, 20 to 30 parts calamansi, and just a touch of soy sauce for that extra kick; and even in pastries, such as calamansi meringue pie or calamansi muffins from Boracay. It’s naïve not to mention instant pancit canton in toyomansi, popular on its own.

In its simplest form, calamansi is squeezed for juice, which now comes bottled, powdered, or in concentrate. Medicinally, calamansi is a refrigerant, which means in a humid country, it can either provide a respite from the climate, as Alvina says, or relieve a high fever. An old recipe for “calamansi sirup,” which appeared in 1930 in Sofia Reyes de Veyra and Maria Paz Zamora Mascuñana’s “Everyday Cookery for the Home,” requires the juice of 200 “calamansis” heated together with seven cups of water and 10 cups of sugar. One cup of the resulting “sirup” is diluted with three cups of water to produce a local lemonade, no doubt a welcome refreshment on a hot day.

While there is debate over the origins of the calamansi (Alvina says this is “an unsettled issue among botanists worldwide,” whether the calamansi is native or introduced or a result of interbreeding), the fruit is commonly cited — by Doreen Fernandez, for example — to be endemic to the Philippines, easily found in all of the three major island groups, no matter how it may be called in all its shapes and sizes: kalamondin, kalamunding, salimuyaw, or aldonosis. Yet it is assumed that most calamansi trees are of a single variety with little genetic variation between them, as the flowers of the calamansi are known to be self-pollinating.

Nonetheless, calamansi, as the “Philippine lime,” is usually associated with other limes such as the suwa (in Mindanao) or dukban (in Batanes). Suwa, says Fores, almost tastes like the kaffir lime. The dukban lemon, which is almost as big as a pomelo, has a thick rind similar to that of young papaya, is planted in the gardens and farms of the Ivatan, and is not known to be cultivated outside those islands.

Helen del Rosario, president of the Philippine Calamansi Association, additionally avers to a calamansi variety called the “Luz” variety, developed by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD). The “Luz” was developed in order to cope with insufficient calamansi supply in the Philippines; its juice has a higher yield than that of the native calamansi. The “Luz” also situates itself in a context where Philippine farmers, producers, and processors of calamansi still struggle to comply not only with local, but also worldwide demand for calamansi on account of gaps and weaknesses in the calamansi farming industry.

Apparently, the calamansi is in short supply even as it seems ever-available in groceries and supermarkets, and even as it subtly dissolves itself into the sauces and marinades made for our tropical tongues. There is an opportunity, however, to encourage more supply by putting the crop, among others, at the forefront of our cuisine, which is already known for its distinctive sourness, says Fores. And as with any other thing that has defined Filipino cuisine — a penchant for sawsawan, a deep relationship with rice, a passion for the sea — the key is to be creative and to respect the ingredients we have. For Anglo, our souring ingredients, like the calamansi, are our biggest strengths. “If we want to push Filipino food some more,” he says, “we must maximize our souring ingredients, keep on using our own.”

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