Bakkay, safeng, tengba and fermentation
By Penelope A. Domogo, MD
Along with tapey and basi, these three- bakkay, tengba and safeng/sabeng- have things in common- they are part of our indigenous foods and cuisine and they are produced through fermentation. Fermentation is a universal way of preserving food since time immemorial- other societies have miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, cheeses, yoghurt, kombucha, pickles. People fermented what they had in in their locality. In a general sense, fermentation is “any process in which the activity of microorganisms brings about a desirable change to a foodstuff or beverage.” (Wikipedia). Louis Pasteur in the 1850s to 1860s made breakthrough experiments which showed that yeast brought about alcoholic fermentation and bacteria brought about lactic acid fermentation.
Of course, our ancestors didn’t see the microorganisms acting on the rice or camote, but somehow they discovered that when you leave certain foods uneaten, they turn into something different but edible and tasty! Imagine our ancestors’ delight when they discovered the sourness of safeng and sweetness of new tapey and the bitterness of aged tapey. I had that experience. I left a pot of cooked red rice in the veranda which had the morning sun and forgot about it. Imagine my amazement when I found it not spoiled but turned into tapey! Just like a lot of discoveries, I am sure, they found about these by chance. Without refrigeration or drying or preservatives, foods easily ferment or putrefy. Plants ferment, animals get rotten or putrefy. When plants ferment, they become beneficial. When animals putrefy, they are not edible. Take note that tengba, tapey and safeng are plant-based. So in societies and in those days where refrigerators don’t exist, fermentation occurred spontaneously. And when someone discovered something good, they would experiment like Pasteur did, sans the microscope. And thus fermentation became common knowledge.
Safeng is popular in Bontoc, perhaps because of its warm climate. It’s made with just boiled water and camote or cassava and leave it there covered in a clay jar or stainless steel (not aluminum) and it’s ready to drink after about 3 days. Some put corn cobs, chicken or pork bones. It’s a very good thirst quencher especially after a lot of sweating. People have noticed (and I experienced it myself) that after heavy sweating under the sun, safeng does wonders. If you just drink plain water, your thirst will not be quenched even if you drink a liter. But with safeng, just a cup will satisfy you. Well, because safeng contains electrolytes, too, from the camote or cassava, not just water. Safeng, I was told, is also very good for hangover. It’s good for colds and flu- its sour taste appeals to sick taste buds. Safeng is our version of “yakult” or yoghurt. The same lactic acid bacteria does the trick of converting glucose (sugar) into lactic acid which “inhibits the growth of potentially harmful bacteria”.
Tengba and bakkay are our counterparts of the Japanese miso. Miso is bean-based while tengba is rice-based and bakkay is corn-based. Tengba is the main food of newly-delivered mothers in Besao, Mountain Province, and it is observed to increase breastmilk. Knowing the ingredients, we can say that these are protein-rich and calcium-rich foods. And these are consumed in everyday life as well. Traditional Igorot cooking is plain boiling veggies. Adding tengba or bakkay would add a saucy savory flavor. Bakkay has a sour taste.
Although our ancestors knew that fermented foods are good for the body, they did not say why. This is where modern science comes in. Researches show that fermented foods contain probiotics. These are good bacteria normally found in our digestive system that balance the bad bacteria so that we have a healthy gut. These good bacteria can be depleted because of eating modern unnatural highly-processed foods. And when your gut is healthy, the rest of your overall health follows suit. Fermented foods also provide enzymes, minerals and vitamins especially the B complex vitamins. With these, fermented foods strengthen the immune system. Aside from helping our overall health, they also add a natural variety to our foods and make eating more interesting. The wonderful thing about this is that you don’t get fat from eating kimchi or tengba or safeng. You see, they are not sweet so we don’t overload on them.***
“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Proverbs 2:6