It was an unusual birthday celebration for one who was turning a milestone 80 years old. Instead of heaping accolades and praises on the celebrant, the guests were talking about…coconuts—the best way to cultivate and harvest coconuts, its numerous uses, and how the government could help the country’s coconut farmers.
Considering who the celebrant was, perhaps this should come as no surprise. For years, Clara Reyes Lapus has devoted much of her time and energy to promoting local food and ingredients. She is president of Mama Sita, which manufactures condiments, sauces and mixes especially for use in Filipino cuisine. Her mother, Teresita Reyes, was the eldest daughter of the legendary Doña Engracia Reyes, founder of Aristocrat, which is probably the oldest restaurant in the country. Food, therefore, is in Lapus’s DNA.
One of her latest advocacies is promoting the coconut industry in the Philippines. Hence, she used her birthday celebration to draw attention to the needs of the coconut industry. “There’s so much idle land in the Philippines which can be planted with coconuts,” she says. Aside from providing livelihood for millions of Filipinos, coconut palms along the seashore can help save lives, she adds. These plants absorb the water and moisture in the soil, thereby helping to prevent floods. Because they can also withstand the impact of a storm surge, they act as a buffer between the shore and the surrounding communities.
Among the special guests during Lapus’s birthday celebration in Aristocrat restaurant were officials of the Philippine Coconut Authority. Also present were coconut farmers, who were given the opportunity to address their concerns and ask questions from the coconut officials. A major concern was their need to register as coconut farmers so they could be given seedlings by the PCA. To facilitate this, the officials brought the necessary papers so the farmers could register right there and then.
True to her beliefs, Lapus has made sure that Mama Sita manufactures coconut-based products. Among them is the coconut nectar vinegar. Made from fermented coconut nectar, “it’s all natural and has no synthetic chemicals and no adulteration,” she says. Its sourness comes not from chemicals but from its natural fermentation. Not only is it good as a dip, it can even be used for salad dressings and for cooking seafood.
For Lapus, it’s a long way from being an architect, which she once dreamed of being. In fact after college, she was all set to leave for Paris on a scholarship to study town planning. But then she met Bart Lapus, a biologist who was then helping the Aetas. Not only did Bart convince her to stay and work on growing food instead, but the two also fell in love and eventually got married.
It was natural for her to gravitate towards the food business anyway, considering her heritage. From a very young age, Lapus learned from her mother (after whom Mama Sita was named), who was always experimenting in the kitchen. “She would go everywhere looking for the best ingredients, to Pangasinan to buy the freshest shrimps and to fruit farms to buy guavas for making guava jelly,” Lapus recalls.
On their dinner table there would always be delicious food, so she learned early what was “masarap.”
These days Lapus dreams of planting a living museum of Philippine flavors. She hopes that dedicated farmers will be matched with dedicated buyers for the foods that Filipinos love to eat. For sure among the plants in this museum would be her beloved coconuts.
Here Lapus shares Mama Sita’s recipe for ampalaya salad with coconut nectar vinaigrette.
Ampalaya salad with coconut vinegar dressing
(Recipe of Mama Sita)
2 pieces (200 grams) ampalaya (bitter gourd)
2 tablespoons rock salt or coarse salt
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
red, ripe tomatoes (about 90 grams), thinly sliced
For the dressing:
1/4 cup Mama Sita’s Coconut Nectar Vinegar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
Ground black pepper, to taste
Slice each ampalayas into two lengthwise pieces. Scoop out the seeds from each piece of ampalaya and discard them. Slice each ampalaya thinly crosswise.
Sprinkle salt on the ampalaya and rub well. Let stand for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, squeeze out the juice from the ampalaya. Rinse out the salt from the ampalaya under running water. Squeeze out the water. (You can use a salad spinner to do this, or wrap the ampalaya in a paper towel and squeeze out the water by pressing on the paper towel.)
In a bowl, toss the ampalaya with the onions and tomatoes. Chill for a few hours then drizzle with the coconut vinegar dressing.
To make the dressing:
In a small saucepan, stir together Mama Sita’s coconut nectar vinegar and water. Bring to a boil and let boil for two minutes. Lower the heat then add the sugar and pepper. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Let cool then drizzle over the prepared ampalaya salad.