Keeping the Culture: Naturally Fermented Food in Mountain Province


This paper explores food that ferments naturally, without the addition of yeast.

Before my first taste of tengba, I was warned by the same person who invited me that I might not like it. I was then a high school student vacationing in Besao, my mother’s hometown in the Cordillera. This dish is traditionally the only dish served during linayaan, a family gathering that marks the falling off of the umbilical cord of a baby. Heeding the caution, I carefully placed a little tengba on my plate, the amount I could eat even if I disliked it. It was not like anything I tasted before. But I instantly liked it, enough that I took a second helping.

Fast forward to almost twenty years later, I married a fellow Kankanaey from Sagada and we settled in this mountain town. In Sagada, where many indigenous traditions still endure, we also have the gobbaw. A child is given his/her native name in this age-old ritual facilitated by village elders and attended by close kin. This also marks the falling off of the umbilical cord, much like the linayaan of Besao, but without the tengba. My mother, true to her Besao roots, made sure we served tengbain both the gobbaws of my two sons. No one in our household knew how to cook tengba in a huge pot and to be consumed by many. To save us from botching this dish, the cousin from Besao who gave the tengba sent someone, also from Besao, to cook it.

Tengba is naturally-fermented rice paste. It takes centerstage during linayaan, and it used to be staple in a household with a newborn baby. Itis one of the traditional foods served to a newly-delivered mother as it ensures adequate breastmilk production.

There are variations of making tengba. The one I know is to first mix river crabs with rock salt. Native rice, with preference for baak, that is rice at least a year old, is then pounded to powder. This is mixed well with the crabs and rock salt, using bare hands or a wooden ladle, until there are no clumps. Everything then goes into a clay jar—some had heirloom Ming or Sung ceramic jars for this—and covered well to keep insects out. This is stored untouched for at least three months before it can be used. This could last for two to three years if properly stored.

To cook tengba, a spoonful of the fermented paste is mixed with at least a cup of water, two cups for thinner consistency, stirring constantly in medium heat until there are no clumps, and then brought to a boil. Crushed ginger or garlic may be added for more flavor. Tengba can also be added as seasoning to vegetables, legumes, or meat. Other parts of Mountain Province also have their own naturally-fermented foods. The Kankanaeys of Tadian have aw-aw, akin to tengba, but without the river crabs.The Kankanaeys of Bauko have bakkay, “a mixture of pounded arrowroot, cassava, corn or rice and dried mushroom (kuwat or kodi) with salt, garlic, ginger, chili which is then stored or fermented for one to two months.” (Gayao, Meldoz & Bakian, 2016)

The Bontoks have safeng, a fermented drink first described on print by Albert Jenks in 1905. He wrote that this drink is “filthy… vile smelling” and has “the worst stench in Bontoc” (Jenks, 1905). I agree with him this one time only, on account of my own experience. Coming home one semestral break from studying in the city, I was greeted by the stench of something rotting as soon as I opened the door of our house. I can still remember how much it stank, and my mother informing me that my father had been experimenting with different fermented drinks. Safeng was one of them. Safeng is made from naturally-fermented raw camote and/or cassava in a lot of water. Boiled corn cobs are added if available. Sometimes, leftover animal bones are boiled and added, and these intensify its already strong smell. When the liquid is consumed, more boiled water and more camote/cassava, corn, bones, are added to the jar. There is no need to be cleaning the jar, as the previous contents help ferment the next batch. This sour drink used to be popular in Bontoc as it is an excellent thirst-quencher and is good for colds, flu and stomach problems. In the old days, one can freely ask for safeng from those who have some. In some villages, a clay jar of safeng sits outside the house, free for anyone to drink.

Growing up in Bontoc, I never tasted safeng. I never heard any of my classmates say that they had this at home. Except for the wines, I did not taste any of my father’s experiments with fermented drinks and did not ask him questions about how these fermentations were going, where the idea came from and what he wanted to achieve— a few of the million things I regret not asking my father while he was still alive. Nonetheless, safeng resurfaced in our lives, in a time and form that I was ready to consume. My mom, in her fieldwork as a community doctor, learned a milder and simpler version of safeng and started preparing and consuming this at home. She would boil camote, preferably the sweeter ones which we call kimpit, in level water. The camote is taken out when cooked. The camote water, when cooled, is transferred to a glass jar and covered loosely. Left untouched for 3-4 days, it turns into a mildly sour drink. This did not stink at all. It tastes like mild fruit wine, but not intoxicating. Some batches are even bubbly, with a fizz, like soda.

Raising my two boys, now 5 and 3 years old, plain boiled camote is a regular option on our table. My sons love it; that’s why I believe that, yes, our kids will eat what we train them to eat. We also make safeng from the water of boiled camote. My sons love safeng, too, and so much that they ask for it even before I give it to them. I sometimes wonder if they will make this, too, in their own homes when they grow up.

All these led me to reflect on how we keep our indigenous food traditions.

First, the community event when this dish is served has to continue being practiced. Or, the dish goes beyond traditional occasions to be prepared outiside of the usual. There’s one restaurant in the Cordillera that offers tengba in their menu. I have also been invited to Christian baptisms of Besao relatives now living in Baguio City who serve tengba alongside the usual party fare of pinikpikan, adobo, pancit, and salad.

Second, the generation now has to appreciate indigenous food. In the gobbao of our first born, I observed how most guests of my mom’s generation went to our kitchen asking for tengba to bring home; while very few of the younger generation knew what it was. How can the generation now eat something they know nothing about? I recently read an article that talks about the urgency of reviving the indigenous food culture. It laid out “a need for behavioral change among the youth as they are neither ready to cultivate crops nor do they eat traditional food” (Sushma, 2018). We’re not even talking of cultivating crops. Eating traditional food has no media advertisements where this is promoted. There is little academic research on these that are accessible for the youth. These are not taught in schools, not even in cooking classes in the province. The hopeful in me likes to think that we’re moving towards thinking indigenous is cool, and maybe the young people will start eating indigenous food. But I still have to see that.

Third, there has to be crabs in the river. Let’s say the occasion is there and everybody loves tengba. But are there crabs in the river? Is the river clean? Does it even have water? Let’s do it without crabs. How are our traditional rice varieties faring with climate change and water shortage? A few years ago, most of Sagada’s camote patches dried up mysteriously and never recovered. I heard there were similar cases in some camote-consuming parts of Benguet, posted on social media by mountaineering friends. Someone mentioned research findings on a fungus causing this. But aside from a few friends who panicked, no other alarms sounded and no moves taken to investigate the situation further and apply solutions. Generations of Kankanaeys subsisted on camote, and when this good old staple is wiped out, there is no grief, no eulogy, and no autopsy, and honestly I’m hoping for a resurrection. These and a few other observations suggest that in order for indigenous food to remain, the earth has to be healthy and our natural resources sustainably used.

Now, why was I warned that I might not like tengba? Maybe that person thought my upbringing did not prepare me for this, or he knew that liking tengba is an acquired taste. I don’t really know why. But I’ve learned this: When I invite someone for tengba, or if I talk about it, like now, I will say, “Tengba is delicious! Try it.”


Gayao, Betty T., Meldoz, Dalen T., & Backian, Grace S. (2016).TraditionalStorage and Utilization Practices on Root and Tuber Crops of Selected Indigenous People in the Northern Philippines. Benguet State University Research Journal.January-March 2016, 75: 37-49

Jenks, Albert E. (1905).The Bontok Igorot.Bureau of Public Printing, Manila

Sushma, Meenakshi (2018).Indigenous Food Must be Brought Back to Plates, SayEcologists. DownToEarth. 04 December 2018. Retrieved from: /news/food/indigenous-food-must-be-brought-back-to-plates-say-ecologists-62381

About the author

Gawani D. Gaongen

Isang makata ng Kankana-ey at nagsusulong ng pangangalaga sa kabundukan na nakabase sa Sagada. Nagtapos sa University of the Philippines at nagwagi ng NCCA Writers’ Prize ang kanyang tula sa Kankana-ey.

By Gawani D. Gaongen