Her Sweet Success
By Corazon A. Ong
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 1, 2003

AT 68, Emma Zalameda Aguilar continues to do what she does best--sell native rice cakes and delicacies. A sign outside her store in Pagsanjan, Laguna says it all: "Aling Emma's Kakanin and Special Pasalubong." She has been in this business for 44 years now, not counting the years when she helped her mother sell their stuff as a child.

Their family used to run a small restaurant fronting the town's plaza, featuring native sweets from Laguna and their piece de resistance-bibingkang Pagsanjan cooked the old-fashioned way. "May gatong sa ilalim at sa ibabaw at tanging bunot lang ng niyog ang gamit na panggatong (Using coconut husks as fuel, the rice cake is exposed to heat from above and below),'' says Aling Emma. Using either charcoal or wood will alter the taste, so a heavy storm can stop production. "Kapag walang niyog ay wala rin kaming luto (When there are no coconuts, we can't cook the bibingka, either).''

The recipe for their specialty is some sort of family heirloom, with Aling Emma's mother inheriting it from her aunts. Aside from galapong (ground glutinous rice), the recipe calls for shredded cheese and six eggs per cake. "The eggs make the cake retain its softness for days even without refrigeration," says Aling Emma proudly.

When first introduced, the rice cake cost 25 pesos each. It now sells for 100 pesos. On ordinary days, Aling Emma sells 20 cakes daily; by mid-morning, they're sold out so regular patrons have to reserve them in advance.

The store is at its busiest on Christmas and New Year, when cooking goes nonstop to meet surging demand. The batter is prepared the night before to give it ample time to rise; cooking then starts at 1 a.m. Customers have to give three days' notice for holiday orders, says Aling Emma.

Their shop also sells kalamay, espasol, and suman (assorted rice cakes). Aling Emma's powderless espasol mixed with shredded buco (young coconut meat) is individually wrapped in banana leaves. A pack of 10 costs 60 pesos. Also homemade are bottled pickles of papaya, ubod (heart of palm), ampalaya (bitter melon), kangkong (swamp cabbage) or whatever vegetable is in season. Prices range from 60 pesos to 80 pesos. Of late, she has introduced bottled sweet calamansi with macapuno filling. A small bottle costs 100 pesos while a medium-sized one costs 200 pesos.

Aling Emma's store has also become a one-stop shop for various Laguna and Quezon products such as longganisang Lucban, individually-wrapped Nagcarlan espasol, uraro (cornstarch cookies) of Liliw, garlic chips from San Pablo, balaw-balaw (tiny shredded shrimps) from Pakil, chicharon, sampaloc candies, peanuts and coconut jam.

No wonder her patrons have expanded to include such celebrities as Caridad Sanchez, Gloria Romero and Lorna Tolentino. "When they're shooting a movie in these parts, they would all come, including the director. And they call me Nanay (mother)," she says. Business is so good that Aling Emma has to extend her store hours from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. And, except for the time when her mother and sister passed away, the store has had no break to speak of.

But then again, the store has become home to Aling Emma. Behind the counter, she keeps a small TV set and a sofa to lounge on between serving her customers. "I move around a lot attending to my customers' needs and that serves as exercise for me," she says. A bout with high blood pressure three years ago has since tempered her taste for pork and sweets.

Despite her age, Aling Emma isn't about to pass on the business to any of her four children. With husband Rogelio Aguilar earning good money with his own car repair shop nearby, she can take things easy. But she can't imagine life without her store, she says. "I enjoy talking and interacting with people," she says, adding that she has gotten to know her customers so well she can even recognize their voice over the phone.

She readily admits though that tending a business is always hard work. "You have to be patient and must never compromise the quality of your products," says Aling Emma who obviously relishes the sweet taste of success.

Aling Emma can be reached at (+63 49) 8210356.

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