A look at Bohol’s heritage ‘unbroken’ salt

Published November 19, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Yvette Tan


Yvette Tan

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.

“When I was young, there were about 200 salt-making cottages here along the shore,” says Monsignor 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.

The Manongas family’s asinan, or salt making facility, is located in Eastern Poblacion, Albuquerque, Bohol. The salt used to be bartered for goods such as rice, with one asin tibuok fetching two gantas (four kilos) of rice. It was a seasonal occupation because it cannot be produced during the rainy season, since evaporation is a key component in the process.

Asin tibuok making almost disappeared altogether. The Manongas family themselves 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.

The asinan is run by the Monsignor’s elder brother Nestor, who, at the time of the interview in 2020, was 70 (the Monsignor was 62). 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 Monsignor 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.

Not only does producing asin tibuok require 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.

The husks are soaked in seawater for three months, manually sliced into pieces, and dried for a day before being burned with dried coconut leaves, 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 sprinklings of seawater.

The ash is transferred to a container with a cone-shaped filter. More seawater is poured in. 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 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.

The asinan is staffed by three workers, including the Monsignor’s brother Nestor, who can tell how a batch is going to turn out just by tasting the filtered seawater.

After acquiring a loan to get the asinan up and running, the Manongases encountered a new problem: most people had forgotten about asin tibuok, and those that remembered either still wanted to barter it like in the old days, or thought it was too expensive.

Still, they were optimistic that they could find a client base who shared their appreciation for the craft. 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.

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, were 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 Monsignor says.

Aside from the Monsignor and his brother Nestor, their sister Veronica is also involved in the family business. The Monsignor 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.

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,” the Monsignor says. “Now it’s alive. It’s the dead coming to life again and I’m happy with that.”