Every afternoon, I hear the familiar call, which starts on a high note and ends low: “Tahoooooohhhhh! Tahoooooohhhhh!” This is the familiar refrain that comes from the person we’ve dubbed as the “taho man,” or simply, Manong.
Manong carries two aluminum containers, one that is long and narrow, the other one short and squat, each a precious repository of the components of a traditional and treasured Filipino snack. The two tubs are balanced on a bamboo pole and carried by Manong, who is lean and strong from hours of walking carrying his precious wares, and sunburned from time spent under the sun.
The long and narrow container that Manong holds is for the taho (ta-HOH), unpressed soybean curd mixed with a coagulant. The resulting texture is that of quivery crÃ¨me Brulee. The short and squat container on the other hand, holds two compartments; one for the sago (sa-GOH), or tapioca balls; the other is for the brown syrup called arnibal. Viscous and shiny, it’s similar to molasses.
First the taho is scooped out into the plastic cups that Manong carries with him, or else we give him one of our own cups. I’ve always been fascinated with how supple and soft the texture of taho is, quivering slightly with every stroke of the scooper. It almost looks as though Manong is carving out ripples in a wave, if such a thing could exist. One of these days, I may just ask him if I can try my hand at scooping out the taho, oh so gently, oh so carefully.
Once the taho has almost filled the cup, Manong then lifts the lid of the other container. Using a narrow aluminum spoon which looks like a long, slim ladle, he carefully spoons out some syrup and drizzles it on top of the taho amidst a symphony of voices urging, “More syrup pa po, Manong!” Once there is enough syrup to appease the cries, Manong then scoops out little piles of sago, using it to top the taho. This time, as the cries start up again for “more sago,” Manong gently tells us in Tagalog that there might not be enough for the others. For most people, it’s either the sago or the syrup that makes a taho.
Once the cup of taho is in my hands, I use the tip of my spoon to gingerly pierce the top of the taho, its surface trembling at the pressure. As my spoon slides in deeper, the syrup and the sago are swallowed by a sea of white. After some stirring, the taho is a kaleidoscope of white and brown, sparkling with the translucence of the sago. The first mouthful is like liquid coursing down my throat. It’s warm, from the syrup and the heat. It’s sweet, with the undertones of brown sugar. It tastes like the comfort of a thousand happy memories.