Nowadays, we tend to take salt for granted. This essential mineral, once worth its weight in gold, has become commonplace, with different kinds available in the market.
One of the nice things about living in an archipelago is the relative proximity to seawater, and thus, salt. The Philippines is home to many different salt making traditions, many of which have disappeared since the 1990s, when the ASIN Law, though well-meaning, unintentionally decimated the local salt industry, which was once 100% self-sufficient, to only about 20% today.
Aside from turning at least 80% of the local salt industry illegal, the Law also hastened the decline of hyperlocal salt making traditions, including Bohol’s asin tibuok, or “unbroken salt.” Fortunately, there has been a slowly growing resurgence in traditional artisan goods, and this has ensured, for now, that small but culturally important industries like this are given the chance to thrive once again.
An ancient craft
There’s no mistaking asin tibuok, an oval piece of salt nestled inside a clay mold, looking like it would be more at home on top of a mantle instead of the dining table.
“(Tibuok means) whole, unbroken,” says Msngr. Crisologo Manongas, a priest in Zamboanga City who is also the second to the youngest of the Manongas family, one of the two remaining families that continue to produce asin tibuok today. “Our family, since before I was born, was already engaged in traditional salt making. It’s like a cottage industry in our town.”
The Manongas family’s asinan, or salt making facility, is located in Eastern Poblacion, Albuquerque, Bohol. “Our family, since before I was born, was already engaged in traditional salt making. It’s like a cottage industry in our town,” he narrated via phone interview. “And we’re the only ones left. When I was young, there were about 200 saltmaking cottages here along the shore, extending three towns, a portion of Baclayon, a little portion of the next town, which is Loay, but the majority of the saltmakers were from our town.”
The salt used to be bartered for goods such as rice, with one asin tibuok fetching two gantas (four kilos) of rice.
Saltmaking was a seasonal occupation because it cannot be produced during the rainy season, since evaporation is a key component in the process. “During the rainy season, we are on the farm. We plant corn and camote,” the Msngr. Shares. “Nobody knows (how it started) because even if I ask our eldest sister or our eldest cousin, who is almost 90 years old, he told us that when he was young, the salt making industry was already there.”
A recent revival
Asin tibuok making almost disappeared altogether. “The sons and daughters of the saltmakers have no interest in the industry because it’s a tedious job and there’s not really so much that you can get out of it,” the Msngr. explains.
The family, already one of the last asin tibuok makers, had ceased production in 1993. The priest convinced his siblings to revive the family business in 2010, first out of nostalgia, and later, out of the desire to continue the craft, especially since inquiries about the salt were beginning to trickle in. “As early as five or six years old, I used to go to our asinan just to watch my father and brothers work. And when I was elementary, I already started helping in the asinan. In high school, we were really working full time, especially during vacation. That motivated me to finish my studies because it was really hard work,” he says.
Reviving the asinan wasn’t easy. Since they retained their salt making skills, the most important thing the family needed was funding. The family needed to rebuild what the Msngr. calls the salt shack, the open air facility where the salt is made, and to expand and rehabilitate the soaking pond, where the coconut shells that give the salt its distinct flavor are soaked in seawater for three months.
The Manongas’ asinan is run by the Msngr’s elder brother Nestor, who, at the time of the interview in 2020, was 70 (the Msngr. was 62). “All the heavy work is done by my brother. I did all the planning and also how to get the finances,” the Msngr. shares.
The family managed to secure a P700,000 loan from Bohol NGO Bol-anon United Sectors Working for the Advancement of Community Concerns ( BUSWACC), which they used to rebuild the shack and pond and buy a small truck. The Msngr. took the opportunity to fine tune the salt making process, including using a pump to bring seawater into the salt pond and using a jeep with a trailer to carry materials to different areas instead of doing everything by hand.
An involved process
When laid out step by step, making asin tibuok sounds simple: soak coconut husks in seawater for three months, take them out and chop them into small pieces, burn them, filter out the ashes and cook the salt. But in reality, not only is it difficult manual labor, there’s also an artisan’s aspect to it that cannot be passed down through worlds, but has to be learned through decades of experience. “By volume, if we soak 3000 coconut husks, we can produce 100-150 units of asin tibuok, depending also on the expertise of the workers and the weather,” the Msngr. explains, adding that the best time to do the next step is on a dry morning.
The husks are taken out of the soaking pond, manually sliced into pieces, and dried for a day before being brought into the shack to be burned with dried coconut leaves and discarded branches from other trees such as mahogany, a process which takes about four days. The size of the fire and resulting ash will also determine how much salt will be made. The fire is not allowed to go out, and is controlled by frequent sprinkings of seawater. “The resulting ash, after four days, is like a concentrated ash, which is strong. It looks white. It’s a salty ash,” the Msngr. says.
The ash is transferred to a container with a cone-shaped filter. More seawater is poured in and the ash is filtered. “Because if you [get] the sea water directly from the sea and cook it in the pot, it’s not going to produce the asin tibuok. All you’re going to get is the grain,” the Msngr. explains.
The resulting liquid goes into the small clay pots that serve as the salt’s molds, which are heated with a flame from underneath. “The cooking will start at eight o’clock in the morning and end at four o’clock in the afternoon. We usually take it out from the oven in the afternoon the day after,” the Msngr. Says.
The water is made to evaporate before it is refilled with more filtered ashy seawater until the whole pot is filled with one solid block of salt. “In the process of cooking, the [bottom of the] pots will peel off… If the bottom is not peeled off, it is not fully cooked,” he adds. “It’s not grain salt, it is solid salt. And it has a different taste.”
The asinan is staffed by three workers, including the Msngr’s brother Nestor, who can tell how a batch is going to turn out just by tasting the filtered seawater. The other two asinderos are longtime employees, one of them being employed since the asinan was revived, and having taken five years just to get the hang of such an involved process. It really is a craft, one whose intricate nature discourages all but the most determined altmakers.
These days, they never run out of coconut husks, which are discards from the local copra industry. “Before, when we were in elementary and high school, coconut husks were scarce because there were so many saltmakers,” the Msngr. says. “Now, there’s so much left to rot so… we pay for the hauling [and] we pay the owner a minimal amount.”
A niche (but discerning) clientele
After the asinan was up and running, the Manongases encountered a new problem: most people had forgotten about asin tibuok, and those that remembered still wanted to barter it like in the old days. Many locals thought it was too expensive.
“We cannot lower the price because we paid for everything. We already have the electric connection for the power, for the pump. We paid two workers to do that. We use diesel fuel to haul the materials we need to make the asin. We have to pay [for everything],” the Msngr. explains.
Still, they were optimistic that they could find a client base who shared their appreciation for the craft. “It did not really hit the market, but we continued because we were optimistic that hopefully, some others would like to get it.”
This was when they met Leni DiCarlo, a second generation FilAm who runs a business that imports artisanal Philippine sea salt. The Manongases began supplying DiCarlo with asin tibuok, which is known as “dinosaur egg salt” in the US because of its distinctive shape when placed bottom-side-up.
DiCarlo’s efforts have helped asin tibuok gain international exposure. Local business people such as Bea Crisostomo of Ritual PH, a general store that specializes in local artisanal everyday goods, who generously allowed Agriculture.com.ph to use her photographs, were likewise instrumental in helping the salt gain recognition locally. Asin tibuok is also included in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a lexicon of endangered crops, livestock, and food worldwide.
The Manongases are rightfully proud of their finished products, especially since they are one of only two producers in the entire world. “Get our salt and the salt grains that you buy in the supermarket and have a taste of the two. You can taste the difference…. Even if you’re not an expert, after tasting that, you can see the difference,” the Msngr. says.
A continuing legacy
Aside from the Msngr. and his brother Nestor, their sister Veronica is also involved in the family business. The Msngr. admits that the reason they’re able to do this is because all of them are already financially stable, and thus able to work full time on a passion project. “We can just opt to leave [this but] deep in my heart, I don’t want to leave it even though I see that it’s not really that profitable,” he says. “[Even] if we do not have a good market, I’ll still take care of the asinan… I don’t want to see it being left to be destroyed by the elements.”
Because of the ASIN Law, the asinderos aren’t allowed to sell their products locally, though because they work with Ms. DiCarlo, their facility is FDA approved for export. “We are not allowed to sell [it in the Philippines] but in the US, no problem. In fact, they are looking for it. It’s really an irony. We’re promoting local trade and indigenous productions and yet they’re forbidding us to sell [it] in the [local] market. It’s really sad,” the Msngr. relates.
The Law, however, has some provisions for artisanal salt, which is why asin tibuok can be bought locally from specialty retailers like Ritual.ph, whose proprietor Bea Crisostomo’s photos appear in this article.
The siblings are determined to continue their family craft for as long as it is possible, mostly because it makes them happy.
“What I saw before was a relic of our asinan before I revived it. Now it’s alive. It’s the dead coming to life again and I’m happy with that. Although it’s not really profitable as of now, I’m happy with that because without that, the trade will be forgotten,” the Msngr. Says, adding that he fears for the inevitable should no one decide to continue the craft. “If we die, if my brother dies and if Mario Baluarte (the owner of the other asinan in the barangay) dies—he is already 50 or 55—no one can take up the trade anymore because no one will know how to do it.”
Still, he’s hoping that with enough outside interest, the art of asin tibuok making will survive. “[When my brother eventually] cannot work anymore because he’s getting old… we don’t know what will happen next. One of our workers already has a taste for it. Maybe he can continue working on it.”
Photos courtesy of Bea Crisostomo