Last January, I bought three onions for 75 pesos. It’s known that they can make people cry. Now, they can break hearts, too.
We started 2023 with a shortage in full swing. It’s a crisis, you might say. We have those all the time. True, but this is a different kind of crisis. This isn’t a state of emergency declared when a typhoon floods your house. This isn’t the kind of threat that happens when men with guns show up unexpectedly, or when you see the face of a friend on the police’s wanted poster for alleged charges of attempted murder. We learn to expect these things when the language of justice is money. It says what’s right and what’s red.
This crisis is the kind that creeps up on your windows or darts across your kitchen floor. It’s quiet, insidious. The worst kind. You go about your chores, go to work, grate your fingertips on a keyboard for chump change. You don’t notice it until it’s staring you in the face. By then, it’s too late.
Maybe you read the news. It’s been there since September last year. No one really said it, but rumor has it that a combination of bad weather and supposed hoarders are to blame for the travesty. The Department of Agriculture will dole out band-aid solutions and call it “Kadiwa: Our New Miracle Cure! ™”, administered alongside 20,000 tons of imported produce. Which means it’s up to us to cope. Just like it’s always been.
The lady behind the stall was far more deserving of my money than anyone in this current government. At least she actually sold something. You could smell it behind the face mask, provided you still wear one. It’s small, but it’s tangible. Vital to survival. Irreplaceable, in our lives and in our kitchens.
More so than others.
In Filipino cuisine, the small things are the most essential. Vegetables and meats can be swapped around and the result would still be a hearty meal. In this economy of ever-tightening belts and thinning wallets, you can even ditch the meat and add a few pinches of Maggi Magic Sarap or Aji Ginisa. The base ingredients, however – onions, garlic, and pepper – are non-negotiable.
This trio (or perhaps duo, counting out the pepper) is collectively known as panakot, meant to ward off the likes of aswang and manananggal who find them repulsive. The humble onion serves as a cornerstone for so many of our dishes: think kinilaw, think pinakbet, think ginataang langka. Whether roughly or finely chopped, it’s in nearly every dish, with exceptions like fried fish or chicken.
As for the origins of this bulb, speculations run aplenty. It’s believed to have come from somewhere in Central Asia and was a staple even in prehistoric diets. Nearly every part of the globe is familiar with its pungency, how its thin skin and multilayered bulb hasn’t failed to leave its assailants in tears.
Onions are also said to contain quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory abilities that bring down cholesterol and boost insulin levels. If you believe WebMD, it could even lower the risk of brain-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.
There are two types of onions you’d see in most wet markets. Red onions are the first and the most common. It’s the kind you think of when you think “onion”. I recently learned that the specific variety we have is called Red Hawk, and though they’re actually a deep purple, they count as red. They can be used for raw or cold dishes in salads and sandwiches. Surprisingly, they can also share space with lettuce and tomatoes in burgers. Some may say they have “an aggressive profile”, while others might say they’re quite mild. When cooked, they can be used for almost anything.
The second type is the yellow onion, also called brown onions due to their skin. These are bigger, a little harder to find. Here, as least as far as I’ve observed, they’re more commonly seen as part of advertisements than in actual kitchens. They’re considered as “all-purpose” onions, but here they’re relatively novel. Their taste tends to be sharp when eaten raw, but they stand up well to heat and become sweeter the longer they’re cooked.
There are other types of onions, too, like the sweet onions used for onion rings and onion soup. But again, you don’t see them often – at least, not in your usual jaunt to the marketplace.
Of the two, our humble red onion sees more utility. Most of our dishes include a good amount of stir-frying or sauteing. They’re the first to be chopped up and tossed to the oil, left for a few minutes until transparent. If you listen hard enough, it sounds like rain. While onions are essential, their presence is hardly felt. When the dish is finally cooked and served steaming hot on the table, they’re barely even seen or recognized. Most of the time, you barely even taste them.
But when they’re not there, you know.
Onions can make anyone cry, and I was no exception. The first time I bought onions, a single bulb looked so tiny in my hand. It was hard to believe that one could be enough for a single dish. Let alone a family of four. But this assumption was quickly corrected soon after cutting into it. Like all corrections, it stung hard. The world on the other side of my glasses looked washed out, as if all shape and color were bleeding into one.
There’s a science to this, of course: onions contain sulfur. It’s in various amino acids like methionine and cystine. When cut, they’re released into the air. They react and become lachrymator compounds, acids that irritate the eyes’ lacrimal glands. There are ways to keep yourself from tearing up: keeping your knife sharp, storing onions in the fridge, the list goes on. Surprisingly, we don’t bother. Tears aren’t enough to stop the knife. There is only a sigh of relief after the bulb is reduced to pieces, reduced further by the oil in the pan.
One might liken the release of flavors to a trial by fire, or “being in the hot seat”. We can say a person was ginisa when being scolded or berated, usually by one’s boss or superior. Going the route of agony and suffering, people can be harmed using their own means – ginisa sa sariling mantika – to add insult to injury. It can be likened to not only being robbed blind, but having no choice but to house the robber, being forced to watch as hard-earned savings and possessions are swindled away for said robber’s own benefit. Do so much as raise a finger and a hundred or so will side-eye or post mocking comments behind fake social media profiles. Raise a voice and risk harassment from police or military-aged men. If you’re lucky, this prompts a Senate hearing. If.
Our cultures understand how hard insults can hit, especially when compared to root bulbs. Being balat-sibuyas is one such example among the idioms that pepper our many languages (pun intended). Literally “onion-skinned”, it’s used for people deemed overly sensitive, who will cry foul over the smallest of perceived slights. I think I used to be one – as a kid who once cried over math classes for fear of being beaten or scolded, or when frustrated over my own inability to solve ultimately simple problems.
What’s not understandable is being in one’s thirties, forties, or older, occupying an important post, and then throwing childish tantrums when put under scrutiny. Of course, no need to name names. We know who they are. They usually put on a front of stone, acting “tough”, “cool”, “stylish”, “Mayor”, “Senator”, “Congressman”, or whatever else they layer upon themselves. The shiny Rolexes and Patek Phillipes on their wrists are dead giveaways. “Kay sarap ng buhay. Sana ganito na lang palagi.”
Peel away the layers. Put them under heat. See how they sweat?
At some level, I still fear I’m like this. Behind my own layers is a child full of fear, compounded by years of pressure and harsh parenting. Most of the time I don’t get the results that I want with myself, and I’ve felt the need to lash out. As time passes, as the news shows more and more of that same circus everyone tires of hearing, I constantly pray I’m not.
I can still cry when I chop onions. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, I learn to wash my hands with soap and water first before washing my eyes. I sometimes put on one of those face shields if it feels too much. No tantrums required.
The world of food and agriculture is intertwined with layers of logistics, from manufacturing to production and finally distribution. Here the middleman is king. Storage facilities are unfortunately costly. Fertilizers, seeds, and tools, even more so. Mills are vital for turning palay into rice by the sack, and yet they remain ever so expensive. Then, to get the rice to market, it needs to be transported there. Another slash in the budget for gas and space. Our farmers, mostly, don’t simply bake in the hot sun for crumbs. In more and more cases, they take their own lives.
It makes sense that the further you go outside urban areas, the cheaper vegetables get. In many cases, farmers find themselves dumping “excess” produce because they can’t find anyone to sell them. Facebook posts abound of farmers dumping entire truckloads of tomatoes or squashes being sold at 4 pesos per kilo.
In other news, the World Bank reported in 2021 that micronutrient undernutrition is highly prevalent in the country. As many as 38 percent of infants and 20 percent of pregnant women in the country are anemic.
In other news, still, as much as 500 to 600 million pesos’ worth of onions were seized and impounded this January. These were only about 30 percent of all the smuggled goods.
We’re all tired of statistics. Unfortunately, they keep on coming. One statistic hopelessly layered on top of another. We’ll be part of them, sooner or later.
In a PhilStar Global column titled “Onion ‘Solution’”, Reni Valenzuela writes that creativity and patience are what’s needed in these trying times. “Momentary sacrifice” is what happens when you learn the art of cooking without onions. Live with it. Bear and grin. Do it all over again for the rest of your life. Classic Filipino “resiliency”.
Prices rise. It’s what they do. But not like what’s been happening over the past few years. Not like 75 pesos for three small onions. Not like onions disappearing from other vendors’ wares. And certainly not like onion powder being touted as a substitute for the real thing.
So when the middleman is king and there aren’t enough cold storage facilities to go around, onion farmers tend to be forced to sell at a huge loss. Onion prices falling ahead of imports and messy policies by the Department of Agriculture only served to make things worse.
But there are things being done, if credit must be given. In a statement given last February, Presidential Communications Secretary Cheroy Garafil said that the government has earmarked nearly 327 million pesos to boost local onion production to address rising prices. Cold storage facilities would be built. Smugglers would be named. About a month later, the newly-appointed Customs chief Bienvenido Rubio assured the House of Representatives that he would “cooperate in the fight against the ongoing onion shortage”.
This news sounds nice. Sometime later, onions started to become more affordable again. Last May, I bought 3 onions for 20 pesos at a sari-sari store.
Then again, last June, onion prices were once again rising to as high as 200 pesos per kilo.
Too late for Merlita Gallardo and her husband. Too late for the four other farmers who took their own lives, only for their loved ones to be hounded by police. Too late for the others whose onions are being flipped for massive profits by hoarders and middlemen.
Onions are interesting multilayered bulbs. Keep them somewhere cool and dry and they’ll keep for a while, but leave them out long enough and they grow roots.
You might have tried this cute little experiment in school. Leave an onion bulb alone and you’ll see a little green point growing from the tip. Leave it even longer and you find out that little point has sprouted. You can plant it then and there.
Given time and a green thumb, you can even start your own little onion farm. Do it from one pot, then start with another, and move to some bigger pots. If you’re lucky enough to have a little plot of dirt, you can plant your little onion plants there, too.
Don’t worry too much about the variety – you can start with onions you bought from anywhere – because what matters is you take the time to let them grow. I’ve never had much luck with plants myself, but you might.
After all, we already have to do almost everything by ourselves. So much of our contemporary culture is already built on the assumption of constantly teetering on the edge of collapse. You can see it from the informal sari-sari stores and roadside vendors to freelancing gigs on Facebook groups and other job-hunting sites to community pantries set up during the height of the pandemic. On a macro level, we have to bear the brunt of bad policies and massive government loans. It seems that connecting every layer and every stratum of our lives is our own actions, fighting tooth and nail for mere survival.
To cut to the core of the matter, so much of what we do and what we are stems from neglect. We are left to our own devices at the mercy of administrations that ultimately failed, and still fail, to show that they care. And that’s not even scratching the deeper layers of complexity that come with politics of all levels.
It’s an acrid truth. It warrants tears. It warrants rage. Most of all, it warrants action.
Sometimes, like with any and all produce, you encounter the rotten ones you thought were sound. Those are beyond saving. It’s best to throw them out.
John Oliver Ladaga hails from Iligan but is currently based in Davao City.