Editor's Pick

The Price of Salt

Once famed as the Unbroken Salt of Albur, Bohol’s Asin Tibuok stands today on the brink of extinction. Amidst fire, water, and ash, the last of its makers fight to keep their traditions alive.

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The last salt maker lies awake beneath the roof of his open cottage, staring into the flames of a raging fire. It has been burning for nearly an entire day, since he lit the pyre at dawn in the middle of the cottage. The flames never grow past its base, never touching the wooden roof or anything else around it. He first learned how to tame fire around the same time he learned how to read, while he watched his elders prepare the brine to make their salt. 
 
Their salt was so special, it would take several months to produce and require the best materials that nature could supply, not to mention an uncanny endurance for working for days on end under the scorching sun and throughout the night. He became a man when he learned to make this salt, just like his father, and his father’s father. Most of all, there was none like it outside their island. Their salt was unbroken.
 
The sun is high when we arrive at the Manongas family’s asinan, as the locals refer to one’s salt manufacturing plant in the town of Alburquerque, Bohol. Crisologo Manongas, better known as Father Cris, kills the engine and dismounts from the rusty military utility jeep we all rode in to access his family’s asinan from the main road. It’s not every day that a cheerful man of the cloth takes us on a ride through dirt roads in a vehicle that looked like it was used in World War II (the only hardy steed that he could acquire for this rough terrain, he says).
At 74 years old, Nestor Manongas still works the last asinan in Albur. Alburanons were once known for making a special, traditional type of salt called Asin Tibuok
His older brother greets us, flashing a tired, toothy grin. Nestorio Manongas removes his beret as he shakes my hand, a polite gesture rarely seen in my generation. At 74 years old, he is the last known asindero who continues to produce Asin Tibuok—the unbroken salt of Albur— using the same methods their ancestors had used.
 
Well, with a couple of modifications introduced by Father Cris, his younger brother, to ease the laborious production process and improve efficiency. What used to take several days, like the process of percolating ashes with sea water and filtering into the brine mixture, can now be done in one.

The brothers exchange a few words and updates before they beckon for us to proceed inside the wooden cottage where the entire process for making Asin Tibuok takes place. Inside, the space feels and looks larger than it does from the outside. It is like your quintessential bahay kubo, but blown up to fit around ten standing adults, and built with structural fortifications and salt-making equipment in lieu of household furniture.

At the center of the entire space is a mountain of smoldering ash, evidently still burning within, after the previous day’s bonfire. Pieces of chopped, seawater-soaked coconut husks line the bottom of the ash pile, brown and unburnt.

Nestor inspects the mound of ash, gingerly sprinkling seawater from a water hose as though he’s watering a flower garden. I notice the color of the ash is mostly white. “That’s the good ash,” Father Cris explains. “When it’s white, it means the ash has a lot of saltwater and so we can make it into brine. If it’s black, it’s just burned soot and we can’t use it.” 
 
I ask how they keep the ash from burning completely into black soot. He nods at his brother, who is quietly circling the burning ash with the water hose. “You have to keep watching it and watering it with salt water to make sure most of it stays white,” he shrugs. “Nestor spent the entire day yesterday and last night watching the fire. He had help from our nephew, so he got a bit of sleep. Today, he’ll spend the day watching the ash.”
 
And if most of the ash turns into soot? The younger Manongas chuckles with a half-grimace, “Back to the burning stage—that is, if you have an ample amount of soaked husks left, which is not typical. In that case, back to soaking the coconut husks, which is basically step one.” He points outside the cottage, where two deep salt beds filled with coconut husks sit adjacent to the mangrove forest that borders us from the sea.
The town of Alburquerque is about 17 kilometers away from Tagbilaran City, Bohol’s provincial capital and jump-off point to anywhere on the island. The town is surrounded by several river basins that flow into the Bohol Sea, with a land area of about 2,865 hectares that’s primarily used for agricultural purposes.
 
In craft communities like Albur, families were typically identified by their brand of craft and tradition—whether it was weaving baskets or looms, making brooms from buri, cooking a sweet native delicacy (kalamay), baking clay pots, or brining sea salt into rock eggs.
 
For most of the 20th century until the late 1980s, the 40-kilometer stretch across Bohol’s coastal towns in the west and east saw an abundance of family-owned asinans and cottage industries. By 2000, only three of 15 barangays were still producing Asin Tibuok. Today, salt beds and farms can still be found around these coastal towns, though most—if not all—are abandoned. Most of the young Boholanos, or even the Alburanons, have never seen or tasted these salt eggs.
Nobody’s really certain as to when the process of making Asin Tibuok was introduced in Bohol or how it actually began. Some ethnographic research in recent decades indicate that the earliest written account on what seems to be a similar process of salt-making to that of the Asin Tibuok was written by the 17th century Spanish missionary Father Francisco Ignacio Alcima.
 
In his chronicles, he describes a method for producing Sal de Bisayas” that is unique to the Visayan region. This method involved soaking chopped driftwood in sea water, to be dried and slowly burned into ashes, which would then be collected and filtered into a brine, then finally boiled in earthenware vessels until producing hardened pieces of salt.
 
This method pretty much sums up the way Alburanons have been making their salt, with the exception of using coconut husks instead of driftwood.
We’re standing on the grassy lawn outside Alburqurque’s Santa Monica Parish Church. It’s probably around three in the afternoon, as several kids in colorful school uniforms are lounging about the grounds. The parish church seems an unlikely go-to spot for truant activities such as cutting classes. Located along the main road (or the Tagbilaran East Road), there doesn’t seem to be many after-school alternatives though.
 
I ask Father Cris who will carry the torch and continue their family’s tradition of salt-making. His older brother is 74 years old and he still seems to be doing much, if not all, of the heavy work. As a priest based in Zamboanga City, Father Cris is focused on managing the business aspect of their production, including filing for government licenses and certifications to ensure legitimacy. Their youngest sister, Veronica, also helps with the administrative side of the operation.
 
I’m surprised when he tells me that they don’t know who among their nephews and nieces would be interested and committed enough to take over when the time comes. Between living abroad and fulfilling their parents’ dream of having respectable careers, the younger generation does not seem too keen or invested in the idea of taking over the asinan and producing Asin Tibuok (save for one nephew, who had helped to revive the business but had to migrate to Finland).
This is the common predicament among asinderos in Bohol, often resulting in closing the asinan, thereby ending a family tradition forever. The other problem is the scarce market and limited distribution vis-a-vis commercial salt. Like most small salt producers, they can’t sell their salt in the Philippines unless it’s processed with iodine.
 
When I was young, my family would produce about a hundred units [of Asin Tibuok] every harvest season, and we would use this to barter with the rice farmers,” he recalls. “One unit for several kilos of unmilled rice. Often, the farmers would need more salt, usually for their kalabaws and livestock (to induce thirst and more water consumption by the animal).”
 
He is the fourth among five siblings, with sisters as the eldest and youngest. Nestor is his oldest brother and 13 years his senior. At a very young age they began learning about the process of salt-making by watching their elders, and running little errands like fetching saltwater in the mangroves during low tide.
 
He would carry out this task several times in a day from morning until right before dusk, just going back and forth; a tiring and boring task, he says, especially for a young boy.
 
Regardless, he and his siblings were expected to help out and contribute to the family’s livelihood like everyone else. This was their family’s identity and tradition, after all.
“Nestor left home when I was a teenager, I think,” he recalls. “He moved to Bukidnon, where he worked in various jobs and also met his wife.” One by one, he and his siblings would eventually leave home and the asinan to pursue their own paths away from the small town of Albur. He entered the seminary as a young adult, where he could receive a full education and the security of a future. Not long after, his family stopped producing salt and closed their asinan in 1985.
 
In just a couple of years, there would be a drastic decline in the number of cottage industry salt producers, not just in Albur but across the coastal towns of Bohol. In 1995, a law would declare that only iodized salt is permitted to be sold and consumed around the country.
 
I was around ten years old when I first heard a song about salt on the radio. It was a commercial jingle for a government campaign, sung by a young LA Lopez. It’s been almost 30 years and the song still haunts me, combined with visions of packets filled with fine white salt crystals bearing the caricature of a child in a proud graduation toga and the words “FIDEL Iodized Salt” stamped in red uppercase letters.
 
The fine print promised this fortified salt would eliminate iodine deficiency, and that the government was committed to protecting its citizens from goiter, mental retardation, low IQ, and other related disorders that were prevalent in the lower income sectors of the nation’s populace.
In 1995, the Philippine government, led by then-president Fidel V. Ramos, enforced Republic Act No. 8172: An Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide. Better known as the ASIN law. This aimed to not just eliminate the problem of malnutrition and iodine deficiency in the country, but it would also require all producers and manufacturers of food-grade salt to iodize the salt they produce. 
 
This would inspire and pave the way for the Philippine Food Fortification Act of 2000, or RA 8976, signed into law by then-president Joseph Estrada. It basically provided the policy on mandatory fortification of staple foods such as rice, wheat flour, and refined sugar with vitamins and minerals.
At the time, several countries such as India and China, as well as various states in the US, were just as preoccupied with spraying their salts with potassium iodate (or dietary iodine), as mandated by their respective governments to comply with the Universal Iodization Program. This program was spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and several other international organizations, in an effort to combat malnutrition and iodine-deficiency disorders that were said to be rampant health problems in developing, and lesser-developed, nations. According to the studies presented in the program, adding iodine to the salt was deemed to be the most efficient and economical way to distribute.
Three decades and three government administrations later, one can’t help but wonder about the measured impacts of the ASIN law on the country’s agricultural industry, the economy, its social fabric, on top of the population’s health at large.
 
“From being largely a self-sufficient salt producer in the 1990s, with more than 70% of the annual national salt requirement coming from Bulacan, Pangasinan, Mindoro, Cavite, Paranaque, and other areas, we have become reliant on imported salt,” stated Ron P. Salo and Virgilio S. Lacson, from the House of Representatives, in a bill they co-authored in 2017 to amend the ASIN Law, otherwise referred to as House Bill 4939.
 
This bill doesn’t actually go against salt iodization, but proposes to consider the other types of salt (such as sea salt) that have traditionally been produced in the country, and the health benefits that these contain, rather than continuing with our dependency on imported salt.
House Bill 4939 proposes for the exemption of Philippine sea salt from mandatory iodization, stating that with minimal processing necessary, it is already rich in moisture and essential minerals. The bill also assigns the FDA to oversee the registration of sea salt producers, the authority to “Protect sea salt producers from harassment of local authorities and allegations of non- compliance with iodization.”
 
Should this bill be approved and signed, it would be known as the Revised Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide, and make such a positive impact on the country’s small sea salt producers like the Manongases. It would not only lift the burden of prohibition, but it would unblock the various bureaucratic processes that limit the growth and innovation of small industries.
 
At the time of this writing, the House Bill remains pending.
Back at the Manongas asinan, Nestor is busy preparing the salt brine. The white ashes that resulted from the fire earlier have been collected and placed in two large, cone-shaped filters made with buri leaves, in which additional saltwater is percolated and a wooden container collects the brine below.
 
“We have an order for 2,000 units of asin to the US,” Father Cris explains. Since it’s prohibited by law to sell and distribute their product in the country, majority of their profit comes from food entrepreneurs and artisanal craft enthusiasts from developed countries such as the United States.
 
One particular customer slash collaborator has not only been steadfast with their support, she has also propelled the distribution and visibility of the Asin Tibuok as more than just a food product, but also a product of culture and tradition that is rapidly in danger of becoming extinct. Based in California, Lennie DiCarlo has advocated for Philippine artisanal food products in the last decade and is passionate about promoting the Asin Tibuok to the epicurean community in the US.
 
Her website serves as a resource for information about the different traditional salts in the Philippines and the stories of the artisans who make them. It also provides a convenient platform for enthusiasts in the US to access and purchase these ubiquitous and under-appreciated Philippine food products.
With her help and persistence, the Mangonas family’s salt production business has been registered with the FDA in the USA, and has a license to operate and distribute in the country. This makes it easier for them to ship large quantities of the salt for DiCarlo to distribute online, and at food expos and trade shows.
 
A number of notable food groups have been effectively spreading the word of Asin Tibuok worldwide, such as a listing in the Slow Food Ark of Taste catalog of endangered heritage foods in 2016. The Fermentary also sells Asin Tibuok(nicknamed #TheDinosaurEgg) online for $210. Chefs and gastronomes have sung praises about the sea salt, like San Francisco-based Filipino chef Francis Ang, as quoted in an article on the ChefsFeed site, “You aren’t just getting straight-up salt. You’re getting umami, [and] you’re getting a tradition.”
 
Ironically, it’s been more of a struggle getting their certifications and license to operate at the domestic level. Having already received their approved license to operate from the Philippine FDA back in 2018, this year ought to be easier as it’s just a renewal. What should be an efficient and painless process has taken over two months and a series of unnecessary back-and-forth with different personnel in different FDA offices in the Philippines.
“I submitted all our papers and payment before the deadline and complied with all requirements,” shares Father Cris in a recent phone call. “Considering that the inspector officer that the FDA sent is actually from the same town [Albur] and the fact that we complied with their requirements over a month ago, it doesn’t make sense that we aren’t getting any update, or feedback, or even a reply to our queries.” I can hear the frustration in his voice.
 
I ask him why he had decided to resurrect his family’s salt production operation back in 2010 in the first place. “I grew up in this salt-making practice as a family. It’s part of me just as I think it’s part of other asinderos in Bohol who were also born and grew up into it,” Father Cris responds thoughtfully. “Since 1985, I’d come home and would feel incomplete, that there was something missing without the hustle and bustle of brining, burning, and producing salt around our home and community. It’s built into our memories and our identity, our traditions, our family heritage.”
 
When the last generation of asinderos are gone, this all fades away with them.
 
Asin Tibuok is available via xroads Philippines Sea Salts (philippineseasalts.com) and Ritual (ritual.com).
 
 

Originally published in Volume 8.