This 73-Year-Old Is One of the Last Makers of Traditional Asin Tibuok in Bohol
There are no signs to get to the place where they make asin tibuok in Bohol. Those determined to see the ancient method of crafting pure, organic salt will need to ask directions from locals in the town of Alburquerque and just hope for the best.
The proprietor and main saltmaker, Nestor Manongas, wasn't there when I made the trip myself one gray day in April. A steward said he was nagpapastol ng baka (tending to his herd of cows) near his home, but a quick phone call to the 73-year-old and he very kindly made his way to his manufacturing facility at the edge of a tributary that leads to the sea.
Mang Nestor Manongas in front of his asin tibuok facility in Alburquerque, Bohol
“Manufacturing facility” may be a bit of a stretch. It’s a simple structure with a concrete base, high ceiling, and exposed wooden beams. Manongas says the facility had been rebuilt after the original was destroyed during the onslaught of Typhoon Odette in December 2021. He says his is one of only two in the province, and possibly the entire country, that continues to make asin tibuok to this day.
Asin tibuok (literally “unbroken salt”) has been made in this part of Bohol for centuries. Manongas’ own family has been in the trade for as far back as he can remember.
The original facility has been rebuilt after it was damaged by Typhoon Odette in December 2021
“I was seven years old when I started,” he tells us through an interpreter. “I learned to do it from my grandfather."
In the old days, Manongas says they used the salt to barter for other goods at the local market. One piece of the asin tbuok, for instance, would be good enough to swap for about nine kilos of palay or unhusked rice.
Coconut husks soaking in a bed of seawater
He takes us through the process itself of making the salt, and to describe it as painstaking and tedious would be an understatement. First, coconut husks which he sources from suppliers, are submerged in shallow seawater beds just outside of the facility for about three months until they are soft and tender. Then they are carried inside and dried.
Next the husks are placed on top of a small pile of firewood, which sits on a circular concrete area in the middle of the facility. The entire pile is torched nonstop for three days and three nights until it is reduced to nothing but ashes. Manongas says the fire has to be kept going all throughout so he hardly gets any sleep during this part of the process.
The ash mixture goes inside this funnel called a sagsag where seawater is pumped through
Afterwards the ash-mixture is hauled up to a device called a sagsag, which is kind of a funnel where seawater is pumped through until a more concentrated liquid is produced. This liquid is then stored in clay barrels where it will be cooked in traditional clay pots until it solidifies and turns into the powdery-crystalized form of the asin tibuok.
By Manongas’s estimate, 1,000 coconut husks can produce about 100 of the egg-shaped asin tibuok, which sells for about P500 each.
The liquid is kept in these clay pots where it awaits "cooking"
The saltmaker says there was a period when sales of his salt product was so slow he barely made enough. But in 2012, there was a foreigner who came and visited his facility and ordered 2,000 pieces of the asin tibuok. Since then there has been a noticeable resurgence in interest for the product from different parts of the country and overseas.
The salt itself has a sharp, smoky quality and is still often used in traditional foods like soups and sauces. Manongas says most people in Bohol just dip the salt in things like lugaw (rice porridge). During a special dinner at the nearby luxury Amorita Resort, Chef Jordy Navarra of the prominent Toyo Restaurant in Manila said he thought asin tibuok was a really interesting product and incorporated the salt into one of his dishes.
The liquid is cooked in these clay pots until it solidifies and turns into asin tibuok
“When we think about trying to discover new ideas, you always think like, ‘What about pre-colonial culture?’ Because we don’t have like a lot of written data or information for those kinds of things. So (it’s really great) when you see processes like this that you don’t really get to see in other cultures.”
Navarra also emphasized the importance of the humble salt in food and the cooking process. Asin tibuok itself, he says possesses a certain minerality and complexity to it more than just being, well, salty. He ended up sprinkling it on top of a dark chocolate mousse with peanut kisses and strawberry syrup to cap a stellar five-course menu.
Chef Jordy Navarra grating the asin tibuok on top of the dark chocolate mousse dessert
“So for us, we tried to find a way to use it without it being too overpowering,” he said. “And we found that dessert is a nice vehicle to throw in minerality. You have sweet and then salty, so you have that nice contrast to it.”
As for Manongas, he says he’s doing all he can to preserve the centuries-old tradition of making asin tibuok, but admits it’s not easy. While his brother, a priest in a nearby town, helped keep his little saltmaking enterprise afloat, his children does not seem all that interested to take up the mantle and keep the tradition alive. Of his five children, two are living in Finland, one is in Manila, one is in Zamboanga, and one is there in Bohol working as a multicab driver. But he says he did find someone, a neighbor, who has been helping him around the facility and who has expressed a keen interest in learning more about the trade.
Mang Nestor holds up his product, each costting P500
The future is uncertain but Manongas says that as long as he’s around, the tradition of making Bohol’s asin tibuok will continue.