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From seas to savors: Telling the tale of asín tibuok

Many Boholano asinderos have called for support in bringing the smokey yet earthy asín tibuok to mainstream consumers.

Salt is an important part of everyday life and the world around us. Our seas are rich in it; the tears we make are full of it; and the ubiquity of salt transcends centuries of history, as salt has found itself as the traditional currency of early civilizations to exchange with produce and harvests.

But gone are the days when salt was as ubiquitous as barter; the present day puts salt merely on the pedestal of what gives life to food. After all, one does not enjoy salt because it is salty, but for what is salted by it.

In the Philippines, one kind of salt stands out as interest in artisan food and ingredients continues to grow, with previously unfamiliar articles finally entering the limelight. Among these precious items is the asín tibuok—which means “unbroken salt” in Bisaya—an artisanal sea salt hailing from the humble shores of Bohol.

Labor of love

Dubbed as the “dinosaur egg” in international markets, asín tibuok goes through a long, arduous process that can take at least three months before it takes its discernible form. “[Asín tibuok] is made and sold packaged in earthenware pots and in a solid form resembling a rock,” explains Andrea Yankowski, an anthropologist based in California who was the principal investigator for a British Museum-issued grant concerning asín tibuok.

Francisco Poblete, one of the long-time workers of Tan Inong Manufacturing Corp., attests the laborious nature of their craft, which he says starts by soaking coconut husks in seawater within earthen pits. “Kay ihumol [pa na sa dagat] ug mga tulo ka bulan usa pa tadtaron unya makasuyop siyag parat,” he adds.

(It is dipped in seawater for three months before it is chopped so it can absorb the seaweater’s saltiness.)

These husks are then chopped, dried, and eventually burned before it becomes gasang, or ash. Seawater is then poured into a filtering device full of gasang to leach out the salt, where the resulting brine or tasik is transferred into handmade clay pots where it will be boiled until it becomes the recognizable petrified, egg-shaped mass of salt.

Back-breaking as the process may be, this is requited with a unique end product—a slightly alkaline, smokier-tasting salt with a high mineral content. The asín can then be used similar to regular table salt. But unlike table salt, Poblete attests that asín tibuok does not come off as salty, adding, “Ug sila pa, organic kuno nga asin.”

(Some even say it is organic salt.)

But the varying flavor profiles depend on which part of the salt one uses. Lennie DiCarlo, founder and chief executive officer of xroads Philippine Sea Salts, who also acts as an international distributor for Tan Inong, explains, “If you’re gonna use the salt that’s [at] the bottom of the clay pot, that’s going to be more of a traditional salt flavor—salty.” Meanwhile, the salt on top has a “smokier” flavor due to its exposure to the flame during the roasting process.

Asin in crisis

In a highly globalized economy, it is easy to lose hold of what is local and uniquely Filipino, as asín tibuok represents centuries of indigenous salt-making knowledge—knowledge that otherwise would have been lost to time and history. One of the few remaining pillars upholding this endangered custom are the Manongas family. A family synonymous with asín tibuok itself, they have been using the salt for generations to make ends meet.

Part of the Manongas triad of siblings devoted to the preservation of asín tibuok is Veronica Salupan, who acts as Tan Inong’s management, marketing, and finance officer. “Talagang [binuhay] kami ng tatay namin through asín tibuok [noon], kaya very important ito samin,” she reveals.

(Our father sold asín tibuok to sustain our family’s needs, which is why it’s incredibly important to us.)

Due to the work slowly taking a toll on their father’s health and the implementation of Republic Act No. 8172 or the ASIN Law of 1995—which required all manufactured salt in the country to be supplemented with iodine—their family had to momentarily pause production. It was only during 2010 when her brother, Crisologo Manongas, found the determination to bring back this long family tradition. “Nag-loan siya para makatayo ng asinan,” shares Salupan.

(He had to secure a loan to put up a salt plantation.)

And while their venture initially struggled due to lack of public appeal, the Manongas siblings have been moving mountains to spark interest in their product. As aptly put by Salupan, “Hangga’t mayroon pa kaming buhay, hangga’t may tauhan kaming kasama…hindi namin ‘to ihihinto.” It was DiCarlo who was able to translate the Manongas’ fervor into a more palatable package for customers. “As soon as I saw it, I knew exactly what to do with it. It was one of those love at first sight [moments]. I loved the story…[and its] significance,” she beams. The local restrictions and apathy toward asín tibuok led the team to test the international scene and was met with great success.

(As long as we live, as long as we have help, we won’t stop making salt.)

Thus, in 2016, the asín tibuok was inducted into the Slow Food Ark of Taste, an international catalog of  endangered heritage foods, aiming to recognize and draw attention to food that may disappear or become extinct in a few generations.

Salt at home

However, the popularity and success of asín tibuok as a finishing salt is limited only to its international audiences. Due to the restrictions put in place by the ASIN Law, locally made organic salts such as asín tibuok cannot be sold locally. However, the law allows the retail of imported non-iodized salts such as Himalayan salt. “[The country is] getting other countries’ salt into the Philippines because people want non-iodized salt. So you are buying foreign products that can be easily made in the country,” DiCarlo says.

By allowing the local retail of non-iodized salt, it can provide inexpensive access to salt and allow the country to be self-sufficient again in producing salt. Yankowski asserts, “There should be an exception for artisan sea salt and these won’t replace iodized salt but can be sold as a specialty product.”

The story of asín tibuok might have started with great struggle, but now it continues with a bright future ahead, especially since asinderos have since returned to salt-making. Thus, Salupan is reaching out to former asinderos to consider rejoining the trade, “Sana naman bigyan niyo naman ng pansin na talagang ang gawa [namin ay nagmula sa gawa] ng ating mga ninuno.”

(Please give a chance to appreciate the work we do, which is actually the work of our ancestors.)

The family is grateful for the establishments, media, tourists, and customers who have supported their work, with Salupan admitting they’re doing their best to keep up with the demand. Poblete also adds that their ability to make asín tibuok depends on the availability of raw materials, such as coconut husks.

Meanwhile, DiCarlo is proud of the current efforts at making asín tibuok visible. “It’s an emblem of a heritage food of the Philippines that could easily go away…if we don’t support the industry,” she reminds. Much like asín tibuok, the Philippines is home to many other hidden gems. Culinary heritages like these are in need of support and attention they greatly deserve, not only to support what is local but also to allow them to thrive and to manifest what makes the Filipino special in a fast-paced, globalized world.

With reports from Eloisa Limbago

By Albert Bofill

By Matthew Gan

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