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Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The pre-earthquake Baguio had Cafe Amapola at the top of Session Road. Beside the cafe (in the same building) was 'The Angel's Trumpet Bookshop'. It was a first in Baguio that carried esoteric and art books. I used to tag along with my mother to the establishment, she being the accountant of both the cafe and the bookshop. At the onset, my mother supervised the inventory of the bookshop. We had to list down each and every book, magazine, catalog, map, artwork or whatever was being sold there, a fairly easy job for a grade 5 student like myself. I liked going to the bookshop because I was in awe of all the characters there.  The 'Angel's Trumpet' had attracted a number of artists from both Manila and Baguio. Free spirits who dressed outrageously, had long hair, worked on the set of 'Apocalypse Now' and clutched in their hands a copy of Ermita magazine all dog-eared. During inventory breaks we would have snacks at the cafe. We partook of freshly baked camote bread or churros con chocolate 

There was a curiosity on top of the piano though, a glass jar filled with what looked to me as some sort of fish or meat in some even stranger sauce. I thought it was some offering to whomever those artists were venerating. And while I was intrigued by it, I dared not speak about it. Or even stare at it for a long time thinking it possessed some magical powers. On our last day of inventorying the bookshop I went next door to the cafe to ask for a glass of water. While waiting for the waiter to hand me my water, I marveled at the glass jar. Its contents gleamed with the sun's afternoon rays. The waiter must have caught me staring at it and asked me if I wanted to try it -- the salsa monja 

With eyes open wide I imagined an old, evil nun stirring a brew over an open fire. The waiter must've seen my scared expression and hurriedly offered me my glass of water and promptly sat me down probably thinking I was about to faint. He assured me it was delicious and said I should try it with a piece of bread. He entered the kitchen and later came out with a slice of bread on a plate and holding a spoon with the other hand. He got the jar from the piano, opened it and asked me to sniff the contents. He did it as if the jar was a puppy and he was asking me to pet it.  

The salsa monja had a rich, briny aroma. It smelled like olives, star anise, and even anchovies, its pungency both revolting and appealing. The waiter scooped out a heaping tablespoon and poured it beside the bread on the plate, dripping the last few drops on the bread itself. Not an ounce wasted.  Images of the evil nun flashed before me once more but now morphed into a wicked queen awaiting my consumption of her nasty potion. It must be really special and expensive I thought instead to shake me out of my stupid fantasy. The waiter then instructed me to dip the piece of bread on the salsa monja. I remember closing my eyes upon putting the food in my mouth, preparing myself for what I thought the waiter would reveal to me. Here I go again, I figured I'd rather not look at the frog's legs, newt's eyes or whatever it was that was in it.  

have no words to describe how the salsa monja tasted. Salty, aromatic, biting and sharp all do not give justice to the pleasure I had tasted. I would liken the experience to that first moment when you finally learn to ride the bike. Or learn to swim. That crucial moment when you know you are balancing on your own. No adult holding the bike at your back. Or when you first float sans the hands of your instructor on your belly or floaters on your arms. That fleeting magical moment of sheer joy when you know it is you and you alone making that bike go on or making you sway with the tide of the water. Extreme joy yet replete with uncertainty and danger. That very instance, suddenly alone, and no one or nothing seems important because you had crossed that line towards a new discovery.  

That was the effect salsa monja had on me. I was oblivious to my surroundings, savoring each mouthful slowly, absorbing the textures in my palate, my tongue swirling the varied flavors. I hoped that the portion given to me would last longer but I was not willing to stop eating just the same. I kept that a secret for the longest time. Thinking I was the chosen one amongst many to imbibe an edible mantra of sorts.  Selfishly guarding it from friends and family. I would never get to taste salsa monja again despite repeated dreams and fantasies of it.  

In college, we would hang out at Cafe Amapola. The former bookstore now converted into a piano bar. While the molo soup, the oysters rockefeller, reuben sandwich or even the paella at the cafe were delicious, I still yearned for the salsa monja which now was absent from the piano top. It never really was on the menu. Years after I learned that the salsa monja at the old Cafe Amapola was cooked by my neighbor, Laida Lim-Perez. Her daughter tells me that she hasn't made some for quite sometime now. There still is hope. I hope.  

In the early 80's my mother and I enrolled in French lessons at the second floor of Cafe Amapola. The second floor was also an art gallery. Our teacher was Fran├žois Bocquet, a mime artist who was married to Stephanie a Filipina who was then writing her dissertation on Astrology. We were about twenty in the class, me being the youngest. Classes were held thrice a week, scheduled in the early evenings. We were given photocopied pages of a French language instructional that was more like komiks. After three weeks, we were informed that the classes were cancelled and that Monsieur Bocquet and wife had left for France. So that was the 'french leave' I had read about, I thought. The only thing I remember learning from that class was 'Voila! Un taxi!' which I would use each night at the sidewalk outside the cafe when my mother and I would hail a cab.  

note: this is an excerpt from the essay "A Few Of My Favorite Foods" which I wrote ca. 1999 - 2000

(Photo Courtesy of Quaximodo Wye aka Roberto 'Boy' Yniguez)


  1. Alright, now I need to make this and see if my mouth will water as much as it did reading your blog post. Probably won't be as good, but at least the recipe I found is vegetarian, my wife and I can enjoy it! Thanks for the post Martin!

  2. Hey Rory!

    You found a recipe for 'Salsa Monja'?! Do tell how it goes... :-)