The Art of Farming Budbud Salt
Jonathan R. Matias
Sulu Garden, Miag-ao, Iloilo
Research and Photography by
Norman Posecion and Coleen P. Sucgang
Immersing one’s self into a culture is never easy. But, there is no other way for an ‘outsider’ to gain knowledge of a different culture without an immersion process.
My earliest recollection of having this discussion on the subject of ‘immersion’ was in the early 1980’s while sitting on the bus with other attendees going to the prestigious Gordon Conference in New Hampshire. I was sitting next to Robert Sapolsky , now a famous American neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University. But, back then a post-doctoral student, doing field work in Kenya. He was attempting to collect blood samples from baboons in the middle of the African savannah as part of the study on ape social behavior. It seemed already a tough assignment, but tougher because if a baboon is perceived by others to be in danger, such as shooting one with a dart gun in view of the others, the entire troop would maul the perceived attacker. He was excited in relating how he literally had to live with a troop of baboons, sleep with them, pretend to eat like them, show submissiveness and scratch himself from time to time. After a few weeks, they stopped paying attention to him and warily accepted him as neighbor. And, when no one was looking and a baboon was away from the rest of the troop, he would shoot the lone baboon with blow gun containing a dart filled with tranquilizer then hurriedly take a blood sample as soon as the baboon fell asleep.
Such was the’ joy’ of field immersion in the African savannah in the good old days.
Immersion with the Asindero community is a hell a lot easier that Sapolky’s immersion with a troop of baboons. At least, one does not get mauled to death in the salt farms, just simply ignored most of the time. Way too many people just come to the salt farms to take a photo or a selfie, which I think can become annoying after a while when one is sweating on the job. Asindero is the term the salt farmers call themselves for fun – a play on the word ‘asin’ meaning salt and ‘hacienderos’ referring to the land barons that run haciendas.
In Part I we talked about this immersion . In Part II of this series we wish to share with you what we learned about the Art of Making Budbud Salt as a result of this immersion. Once you have ‘walked’ through this process, you would appreciate that Miag-ao’s budbud salt is not as common as any sea salt.
Even perhaps the best sea salt in the world.
The landscape of the Asindero farms
Black volcanic sand characterizes much of Miag-ao’s shoreline, with some small areas, like in Barangay Guibungan, with rocks of all sizes mixed with the sand. Fishing villages dot the shoreline so that Miag-ao’s beach becomes a 13 km parking lot of fishing boats and salt farms. With the receding shoreline, competition for space was a major issue in the 1990’s with the salt-farming operations and the fishing boats, though the Asinderos themselves did spend part of their time fishing while tending the farm. Now, the only remaining salt-farming area left in Miag-ao is in Barangay Guibungan whose name was derived from the Kinaray-a word that means ‘mouth of the river.’ I suppose the fishing boats get more parking spaces these days.
Preparing the beach
The cleanliness of the sand and the sea are most important to the ‘budbudan’, the Kinaray-a term for the salt farm, derived from the word ‘budbud’ which means to sprinkle. The Asinderos are particularly upset when some insensitive neighbors would start burning leaves or have charcoal kitchen nearby because they are worried about the ash falling into the finished salt. When the rains have stopped, the sand is cleaned of debris, small and big rocks are removed and the beach leveled as best as possible. The beach is raked to create grooves on the sand to increase the surface area exposed to the sun. Walkways are prepared that lead from the beach to the other side of the farm. A fence made up of bamboo and coconut palm leaves separate the individual farms from each other and also for public access for those who need to pass through going to and from the beach. The Asinderos have crafted specialized tools for this trade. The wooden rake, for example, is specially made so that the spacing allows for just the right intervals of the grooves being ‘etched’ in the sand.
Please click thumbnail image below for full size of each photograph.
Preparing the drying bed of bamboos
Bamboos are purchased well ahead and made ready for the forthcoming summer. While the sand is being prepared, the bamboo structures are also being erected. The bamboos are cut in half longitudinally and arranged in rows about 3 feet above the sand. Because bamboos are never straight enough, counterweights of stone are used to ‘train’ the bamboo to remain sufficiently flat, ready to receive the final super saturated salt water. Each set of bamboos are about 3 feet wide, sufficient to enable the harvesters to get to each side of the row when harvesting the salt. Each bamboo rack is separated by a space of about 3 feet to allow the harvesters to get to either side of the rack.
Watering the sand
Transferring seawater to the prepared sand is done by carrying a 10 foot long bamboo (called ‘bayong’ in Kinaray-a) into the sea, submerging the bamboo, carrying the filled bamboo back to shore to spray water onto the sand. This process is done in the morning and then again in the afternoon. The bamboo is a special variety cut from the mountain groves in Barangay Wayang, of Miag-ao. Carabaos (water buffalos) drag the giant bamboos to the nearby river and then floated them down to a point where it can be collected and transported by tricycle to town. The bamboo is twice as long as the standard lowland bamboo and more than twice as thick. As you see in these pictures, the bamboo is quite large and altogether weighs about 55 kg when filled with seawater. Considering the stature of the typical Asindero, the ‘bayong’ weighs as much or more than the carrier. And also considering the distance from the sea, the uphill slope of the beach and the back and forth movement of the bayong as the water is sprayed on the sand all attest to the unusual strength and stamina of the Asindero. An often repeated anecdote one would hear around the budbudan is the story of a stocky Nigerian, twice as big as the Asinderos, who attempted to do the same work carrying the water-filled bayong. He had to be taken to the clinic after the first attempt.
The hot sun dries the seawater quite fast. In the afternoon, the sand is again raked to mix the sand and the dried salt. Depending on the weather, the watering cycle can last up to 5 days until the sand is supersaturated with salt.
The bamboos of Barangay Wayang in the uplands of Miaga-ao are unusually large, with internal diameter as much as 8 inches. The common lowland bamboo, in contrast, is smaller, with internal diameter at 3 inches. Moreover, the wood of the bamboo of Wayang is half as thin as the conventional lowland bamboo. It makes the Wayang bamboo much lighter, yet carries more water. Also the bamboo does not crack or split like the conventional bamboo despite the internal pressure of the weight of the water inside.
During this spraying process, there is a contraption added to the open tip of the Wayang bamboo that allows the water to evenly spray on the ground. A secondary piece of bamboo is attached to the tip. This piece is perforated with 2 mm diameter holes, spaced to give the wide dispersion shown in the photos.
Once the sand is supersaturated with dried salt, the sand-salt is shoveled into sacks or into bamboo wicker baskets onto the mound called pasabakan made from bamboo. The basin-like structure is filled with the salt-sand complex and fresh seawater is spayed on top to wash down the salt into a secondary pond adjacent to the mound called the ‘lapok’. This collecting pond was typically made of mud, but now modified with plastic liner to keep seepage at minimum and less contamination from mud particles. The super saturated salt water drains into the lapok, waiting for the vine treatment before it can be placed out in the sun for final drying. Once the salt is flushed out of the pasabakan, the sand is again shoveled out and spread out back to the sand bed.
The super saturated seawater that collected on the secondary basin is called ‘tuma.’ This is not yet ready for sun drying until it is mixed with the extract of a mountain vine called ‘balunos.’ About a one foot section of the vine is pounded to shreds and mixed lavishly with the tuma until a heavy froth is visible. Balunos, in the olden days, was brought down by the Aetas (pygmy tribe living up the mountains) who come down once a year to barter for a sack of salt. The Aetas, being nomadic, have not come down for decades and the barter trade is done with people living in the upland barangays. The trade is the same—a section of the vine in exchange for a sack of salt. What this vine is and how it works will be Part III of this series. It is suffice to say for now that this is the critically important part of the budbudan process. Without the balunos, the salt does not form into the crystals preferred by the people of Miagao.
Watering bamboos for sun drying
After mixing balunos with the supersaturated tuma, the sea water is ready for dispersal to the half-cut bamboo. The Asindero uses a traditional pitcher made of wood to efficiently collect the water and place inside the bayong. To make the watering of the half-cut bamboo more precise, a contraption made of coconut husk is inserted inside the opening of the bayong as shown in this series of photographs. The bayong is carried to the bamboo racks and tuma is distributed evenly and precisely on each of the bamboo. Then the process is repeated each day as the sun dries up the excess seawater and the final product is ready to harvest.
Once the salt has formed, harvesting the budbud salt is a pleasure. We see the Asinderos smiling as they work, like harvesting in the rice fields. The work is tedious but the product is just right there at their fingertips. The salt has to be scraped off the sides and bottom of the concave bamboo. There is one more tool made for this purpose. The Asinderos make a special scraper also from bamboo as shown here. Harvesting is most often done by women, from the very young to the very old during the late afternoon.
Production varies from week to week. Weather controls much of the output. The sunnier it is the faster the water evaporates. Asinderos say that it is not the sun, but the wind that makes budbud form into the large crystals. Budbud salt is harvested when it is relatively wet. The wet salt is placed in a wicker basket to drain back into the tuma. Once substantially free of dripping water, the salt is then be stored in sacks, each sack containing 25 kg of salt, representing a week of work for with the value of about Php 1,500. Most of the production is sold in the Miagao market. Considering the few farms left, not much budbud salt goes outside of Miag-ao.
Miagawanons prefer budbud salt over commercial salt for cooking. They say that budbud salt melts much faster and improves the taste of the food.
The budbudan is a family owned operation and typically handed down from one generation to the next. The earliest record of this type of farming is in Elias N. Falagao’s book entitled “History of Miagao” where he noted that budbudan began in Miag-ao in 1823 . Perhaps, it had been all along the shores of the entire Iloilo Province and the technology simply forgotten from the other towns over the centuries, leaving its last remnants in Miagao. Nobody for sure knows until we find some records from early Spanish writings. I would not be surprised that it might even be pre-Hispanic in origin.
The work of the Asindero is hard, but salt-making represents only part of their livelihood. When not tending the farm, the Asindero supplements their income from fishing and other enterprises, such repairing tricycles or carpentry. Since it is typically a 4 to 6 month operation only during the dry season, this supplementary work sustains the family through the rainy season. As the children become more educated, some have gone overseas to work as seamen, engineers or domestic helpers, and as income from the children becomes adequate to support the immediate family, the budbudan becomes less and less a desirable source of revenue. Hence the continuing decline in the number of the Asinderos.
As one becomes more ‘accepted’ into the Asindero community, one finds more traditions in salt farming that are rarely spoken with outsiders. Mrs. Salvacion, age 82 and the oldest of the Asinderos, talked about songs of the Asinderos as they harvest the salt when she was young until transistor radios made them fade from memory. Once, an older man called Norman Posecion to come closer to see the ‘Asindero dance,’ a sequence of footwork as he mixes the sand with his feet. It must had been something of a dance when the old songs were being sang at the same time.
Here is a typical Asindero sentiment:
“During the rains, the sea takes our sand away from us.
During the summer, the sea brings it again back to us”
— the ‘Asinderos’ of Miagao
So much already had been lost in the past and maybe more in our present generation. Perhaps, we might be the last generation to witness the Asinderos making budbud salt. Therefore, it is up to us to find a way to preserve what is left before this unique Miag-ao tradition become relegated to nothing more than pictures on a wall in a museum sometime in the near future.
If you have comments or suggestions, please send email to: email@example.com. Please use subject heading “Asindero.”
3. Failagao, E (1979) History of Miagao. La Editorial, Inc,, Iloilo City, Iloilo, Philippines, pp 369