AS a boy back in Marikina City, Edwin Palestroque loved green mangoes smothered with alamang. Growing up in that city, Edwin was all-too familiar with the popular snack. Filipinos love the cheap alamang and the sour green mango that usually went with it. Anywhere in the Philippines, one can see a man pushing a cart selling the peeled green fruit stuck on a stick, the shrimp paste spread all over it.
Even then, Edwin was aware of what the alamang represents, at least that it was not something rich people consumed. It was not a surprise then that, years later, he would give wealthy people — particularly the coños of the world — a taste of this “commoner” food through Elemeng, his version of the alamang.
That he branded Elemeng by using a name that’s based on how he thinks rich kids pronounce alamang is not out of spite. It was all about his belief that the name would resonate. “I want to reach the upper-class market and catch their attention with a product that they usually would not put in their grocery list” because of its funky smell, he tells Lifestyle Laguna. Fair enough.
The clever branding aside, Edwin is an odd person to be peddling shrimp paste. The 30-year-old Laguna native — he was born in Biñan, grew up in Marikina, and is now back in his hometown — is an artist. Tall, lanky and with tattoos covering his arms, neck and God knows which other body parts, Edwin belongs to a band; you will never guess he hawks alamang.
It all began a year ago, on December 6, 2017, when Edwin brought home green mangoes that he had bought in the local market. He cooked the shrimp paste to go with the fruit — salty, sweet, pungent. When his aunt, Guia Valenzuela-Mraz, tried it, she was pleasantly surprised by its distinctive flavor. Why don’t you make more of this and turn it into a business, she told Edwin. Filipinos abroad would love it. Encouraged by his family and friends, Edwin did just that.
The Hotel and Restaurant Management program he took in college came in handy, as did the fact that, even when he was as young as 10, he already knew how to cook food for himself. His mother, Cleofe Andrea, managed a canteen they owned at the Fortune Tobacco Corporation factory in Marikina. When school was out, Edwin would go to the canteen to help out, either as a cashier or in the kitchen.
Concocting his version of the shrimp paste took a series of trials and errors before Edwin finally got the mixture right. The product that is now being sold mainly online is sweet and spicy and could be spread on almost anything, in fact, not just mangoes.
Edwin also took time to perfect the technique in storing Elemeng without using preservatives. “I use only just the basic ingredients. We don’t use tomato because it rots easily,” he says. He experimented with it by tapping his friends, letting them try it, giving Elemeng away for free.
The business officially started on December 8, 2017. Through his networks and connections, he began selling online by creating a Facebook page. Initially sold at Php65 per 12-ounce plastic jar, Elemeng now sells for Php150 (regular size) after Edwin changed the packaging to glass jars to prevent spillage.
It was not long before people took notice. A writer from a Philippine newspaper wrote about Elemeng in his Facebook account saying “it’s like Nutella chocolate” that you can eat on its own. Elemeng was featured in other publications since then and, just recently, it was recognized as “the Number One Most Trending Product of 2018” by Let’s Eat Food Magazine. Today, Elemeng’s network of distributors is growing, expanding outside of Manila to as far away as Davao City. Most of the distributors are home-based while some are restaurants. Market demand is clearly growing: months ago, Elemeng sold an average of 350 jars a month; today, it’s a minimum of 1,500 jars a month.
It had not been easy, of course. Edwin and his team had to go through the stress, deal with the complexity of sales and management, and experience the exhaustion from production. “It’s nice to be a businessman because there’s no one to boss you around, everything is up to you,” Edwin says. “But it’s also hard because if you won’t make the move, you’ll earn nothing.”
Together with his family, Edwin produces Elemeng right from his house kitchen in Biñan. He hopes that he’ll be able to put up a small production area, like a mini factory, sometime soon. He cooks the shrimp paste himself but also manages the business. His stepfather, Julio Paraiso, helps him in the preparation while the rest of his family assist with the distribution. His girlfriend, Sweet Llevado, is in charge of accounting and finances. “It is a family business,” he quips.
Edwin still laughs at the recollection of how Elemeng started, and never imagined he’d have this thing going and growing out of a product many find embarrassing to possess. His real dream was to become a musical artist, to just perform onstage with his band, LTNM (Love Thy Neighbor Movement). He and, evidently, the many who love Elemeng have come to accept and even love the incongruity of a heavily tattooed bassist with braces and massive earrings selling spicy shrimp paste.
“Elemeng reflects myself,” he says. “This is me: makulit na masarap (persistent but delicious).”
Or, as the coños would probably put it, mekelet ne mesherep.
(Story by Mari Santilles / Photos by Dek Fernandez / Lifestyle Laguna)