September Vegetable of the Month is Lubi-lubi (Ficus pseudopalma)

Lubi-lubi young leaves

LUBI-LUBI or PALM LEAF FIG

Scientific name: Ficus pseudopalma

Family: Moraceae (Fig family)

Common names: Lubi-lubi, Niog-niogan, Palm Leaf Fig, Philippine Fig

The Philippines is home to thousands of endemic species, and one of them is a fig locally known as Lubi-lubi. I’ve known about this plant since I took up a plant taxonomy course in college, but I only learned that it was also eaten as a vegetable during my field work in La Mesa Watershed when I was already an Assistant Professor.

Lubi-lubi plant
The only lubi-lubi plant we have in our garden is in a pot that’s too small!

This is such a strange-looking fig plant, that when encountered for the first time by an American botany professor whom I hosted when I was still working in UP Diliman, he was puzzled for several moments before he realized that it was indeed a fig. The ‘pseudopalma’ part of its scientific name means ‘fake palm’, due to its palm-like appearance.

Lubi-lubi leaves
The leaves of lubi-lubi are arranged in a palm-like manner, hence the scientific name Ficus pseudopalma.

Be proud that Lubi-lubi is endemic to our country, which means it’s found only here! (Note: It has been brought to other countries as an ornamental, but they don’t bear viable seeds).

This shrub or small tree grows in early successional areas that don’t get too dry during the summer. The ones I’ve seen are not cultivated at all, but are rather “hulog ng langit” (fallen from the sky); they are easily dispersed by fig-eating animals. As long as its fig wasps are present, the fruits will get pollinated and ripen.

Lubi-lubi fruits
Unripe figs or syconia of Lubi-lubi.

We got Lubi-lubi plant in these photos from a friend at the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, Inc. when it was still tiny. It’s now bearing fruits (syconia, if you want to be more technical), but unfortunately, I think there aren’t any of the specific pollinator wasps in our area, hence the figs do not ripen. As you can see, the plant is thriving, even though it is in a pot.

The young shoots are the ones consumed, and you’ll maybe notice in the photo that we’ve been picking them. Usually though, the entire apex is harvested, but that kills the apical bud. That may encourage lateral branching, but we don’t do it for fear of killing the plant. Let me know if you’ve ever done it and whether the plant lived or died.

Lubi-lubi in the market
The entire apex is harvested and sold in markets in the Bicol Region. (Photo courtesy of Market Manila)

Pick the young leaves while they’re still reddish. Otherwise, they’ll be too fibrous to eat. This vegetable is popular in the Bicol Region, where it is usually cooked in coconut milk, onions, garlic, and of course lots of hot chili peppers. It also has folkloric uses for the treatment of hypertension, diabetes, kidney stones.

August Vegetable of the Month is an Edible Mushroom

Edible mushrooms in the Philippines

PARASOL MUSHROOM or KABUTE

Scientific name: Macrolepiota albuminosa (formerly Agaricus albuminosus or Termitomyces albuminosus)
Family: Agaricaceae (Button Mushroom Family)
Common names: Parasol mushroom, Kabute, Uong, Mamarang

It has been raining non-stop for about a week, and mushrooms have been sprouting like crazy everywhere. So I thought that we’ll digress from featuring green vegetables for just this month, and talk about edible mushrooms in the Philippines. Just to jog your memory, mushrooms belong to a completely different taxonomic kingdom than plants or animals. 😉

There are several kinds of edible mushrooms in the Philippines that can be cultivated, but this one is very rarely, if ever, grown commercially. This is why you’ll never find this in the markets all year round. We’ve only ever obtained this particular type of mushroom by foraging around, and never from the market.

We are lucky enough to have an area in the garden as well as access to vacant lots in the village where mushrooms appear every year during the rainy season. Mushrooms are just one of the lovely things that rains bring about!

Edible mushrooms in the Philippines are usually associated with Chinese dishes, for some reason. I personally love them in soups and omelets. Cook them however you will, they’re packed with fiber, proteins, B Vitamins and minerals!

To encourage growth in the garden, keep an area relatively shaded with trees, allow the fallen branches and leaves to decay instead of sweeping them away. Alternatively, go mushroom-hunting in your vicinity. You’ll usually find this variety growing under the shade of trees in areas that are damp.

Just be careful and make sure that the mushrooms you pick are the edible kind and not the poisonous ones! There are poisonous mushrooms that look similar to this edible one, so it goes without saying that you should do your research first to confirm if what you have is edible or not.

 

What a Vegetarian Eats in Philippine Restaurants

Vegetarian Hors d'oeuvres

I often make the mistake of not specifying a vegetarian meal when booking flights. There was one time when I meekly asked a flight stewardess on a plane bound for Hong Kong for a vegetarian alternative to the usual “Beef or Chicken?” options. She said they had nothing, so all I was given were I think crackers and a drink.

It was by a lucky coincidence that the woman sitting right next to me was actually a Filipina stewardess on vacation who worked for the same airline, and she told me that there are always vegetarian choices on board! She then kindly proceeded to ask the cabin crew to give me something, so I happily got a selection of fresh fruits (it was my first time to taste non-preserved plums that day, oh yeah!). Bless that woman!

I have since then become more assertive about my food requirements as a lacto-ovo-vegetarian (I still eat eggs and dairy products, but no, I don’t eat even fish or seafood). I now will usually insist on getting the meat-free version of a dish in a restaurant (“Waiter, can you please replace the wonton toppings with more vegetables?). But any vegetarian or vegan laments the fact that lack of vegetarian options anywhere we go is still the greatest challenge that we face.

Salad in a bowl
Go green or go home. (Photo courtesy of https://unsplash.com)

Vegans have it much worse, as they don’t eat even eggs or dairy. A big reason why I haven’t yet made the successful transition to veganism is the difficulty in finding 100% animal-free food. Heck, even the ubiquitous Magic Sarap food flavouring lists chicken fat as one of the ingredients. Food with animal traces in them is just almost unavoidable.

So what does a vegetarian like me eat when we go out? Here’s a list of my most commonly ordered food items in non-vegetarian restaurants.

1. Vegetable Staples

Surprise! The Number 1 on the list of vegetarian food are vegetables! Kidding aside, finding a restaurant with even a single vegetable dish can often prove to be a challenge. Dear restaurant owners: beef & broccoli, beef ampalaya, spinach lechon kawali, or eggplant stuffed with pork, are not vegetarian dishes. *Sigh*

So I end up ordering pinakbet (vegetable stew) or lumpiang gulay (spring rolls) to eat with my rice, but both dishes often still have bits of meat in them. All I can do is meticulously remove those bits before I eat my lunch. My mom refers to the process as panghihinguto, an allusion to its similarity to picking kuto (lice) from someone’s head (eww).

Salad on a plate
Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians don’t eat only salad. (Photo courtesy of https://unsplash.com)

Unlike what many non-vegetarians think, I don’t eat green salad as a main dish. Vegetarians are stereotyped as salad-munchers, but the fact is, I rarely eat fresh salad. But thank you for placing that on the menu as an afterthought, and please hold the bacon bits.

2. Noodles (including Pasta)

Oh yes, whether it’s stir-fried or in soup, noodles are often my go-to order, because there just usually is no other choice. As mentioned, many restaurants here in the Philippines will have no vegetable dish on the menu, but few will not have at least one noodle item on offer. However, it often has some meat or seafood bits mixed in it (think pancit canton or wonton noodle soup), so if I can’t order it meat-free, I just practice panghihinguto before I eat it.

Pasta Marinara
The elusive meat-free pasta. (Photo courtesy of https://unsplash.com)

Meat-free pasta is hard to find, but Sbarro’s saves the day with their baked ziti, which can be topped with a choice of meat-free tomato or Alfredo sauces. I count myself lucky when marinara, pesto, or aglio e olio pasta are on offer in Italian-themed restaurants, but usually they are not.

3. Vegetarian or Cheese Pizza

Meat-free pizzas can be usually had from any self-respecting pizza place. Papa John’s is a winner, and I am in love with their garden special pizza. I hope they open up a branch here in Cavite province (please make it Dasma or Gen. Trias, please…).

Garlic Tomato Pizza
People of the Philippines, where can I find pizza like this? (Photo courtesy of https://unsplash.com)

4. Sandwiches

We need more Subway branches in this country! I don’t particularly like fresh salad, but I love salad sandwiches. Luckily, there’s this sandwich place that recently opened in Dasma, the one with the hexagonal bread, what’s it called again? Please comment below if you know what I’m talking about. In any case, they have a tofu steak sandwich, which weirdly enough was probably the very first of its kind that I have ever eaten. I enjoyed it, although I think the tofu slice was just a tad too thick. I just have not had many chances when it comes to trying out new restaurants, and I am probably missing out on all the nice sandwich places out there.

Vegetarian Sandwich
Vegetarian sandwiches are so easy to make and so delectable, so why don’t they offer these in many restaurants?

Which brings me to the next food item…

5. Tofu

God bless the person who invented tofu, as this is practically the only accessible meat analogue (although strictly speaking, it’s not really an imitation of any kind of meat) here in the country. This is the reason why, given a choice of fast food restaurants, I always go to Chowking, because they have plain tofu on the menu.

Max's Sizzling Tofu
Oh my, Max’s sizzling tofu is so delish! (Photo courtesy of jenryv2 http://www.foodspotting.com)

Tokyo Tokyo in SM City Dasmariñas has always been nice for always accommodating my special request of replacing the sauce on their tofu steak donburi with a meat-free version. Other Japanese-themed restos will also typically have tofu furai (tofu fry or fried tofu), like what they have in Karate Kid. But for the ultimate tofu experience, Max’s sizzling tofu is still unbeatable for me.

6. Side Dishes

The only things most other fast food restaurants have that I can consume are the side dishes. This is where vegetarians can be creative, as pairing two or more side dishes can make a complete meal. I am particularly thankful to KFC for having coleslaw, which I order large and pair with a large serving of French fries. I also would like to thank Kenny Rogers for their side sampler. Wendy’s is also great for their baked potatoes.

French Fries
Side dishes, when there’s nothing else.

I think I am officially craving for a tasty meal right now. Vegetarian choices in Philippine restaurants may still have a long way to go before becoming comparable to what meat-eaters have, but they are definitely out there! Being a vegetarian in a mostly-omnivore world has its challenges, but these are small problems compared to the countless good things that a vegetarian lifestyle does to ourselves, the animals, and the planet. Go green!

June Vegetable of the Month is Bitter Gourd or Ampalaya

BITTER GOURD or AMPALAYA

Scientific Name: Momordica charantia
Family: Cucurbitaceae (Squash Family)

Ampalaya (Momordica charantia) is literally a bitter pill to swallow. But once you get used to its taste, you will even crave its unique flavor and texture. The fruits should be harvested while young and green (they’re not good once they start turning yellow). They’re best stir-fried with tomatoes, onions, and garlic (add beaten eggs if you’re not vegan). And don’t forget that the leaves are also edible, and are amazing in munggo (mung bean) soup/stew. This plant is also known for its medicinal uses, and has been marketed as an anti-diabetic. Pregnant women should not consume too much of this vegetable though!

Growing this vine, which is also known as bitter melon, is fairly easy. Just plant seeds directly in soil, not need for special germination treatment. It can even thrive in soils that are relatively not very fertile. It can also be grown as a potted plant, but wherever you plant it, you will need to support it with a trellis or if you prefer, just allow it to creep up the stems of your other plants. It may be grown in shady areas to get large leaves, but for it to flower and fruit, a more sunny side of the garden is needed. Flowers are unisexual, so there are pollen-bearing and fruit bearing flowers. Beware of the pests — the fruits and leaves of this plant are prone to insect attacks. Harvest before the bugs get to them!

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