Patis and why we are losing it

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Every time I visit the United States, I check grocery shelves for Philippine products. In the past years, our products have been replaced by similar products made in Thailand and Vietnam.

Indeed, even patis is apparently more Asian than we thought. Difficult to find Philippine-made patis these days.

Amy Besa, my college contemporary who runs a restaurant in New York with her husband Romy, had something to say about patis in her recent post on Facebook:

“Vietnamese fish sauce or nuoc mam has been hailed as one of the best in the world, at least as proclaimed by the US press... The best nuoc mam comes from the island of Phu Quoc. The islanders use only top-grade black anchovies, natural inputs, and traditional storage methods to make their sauce as they have done for a century or more.

“Although I would like to interject that if the fish sauce producers in the Philippines were both supported by the DTI and the buying public, we could also produce world class patis as I had experienced with the patis from Lingayen, Pangasinan...

“Here in the US, I had decided to look for Vietnamese fish sauce over 2 decades ago in Manhattan Chinatown, buying the 750 ML bottles for $5 then (pretty steep in the 1990s).

“Since then I realized that the ‘Vietnamese’ fish sauce I had been buying at a premium price was actually made in Thailand. The latest one Romy bought in Brooklyn Chinatown was $9 for 680 ML and was made in China.

“The highest quality fish sauce is made with two ingredients: fish and salt. The Lingayen fish sauce makers then (around early 2014) trucked their fish in from Sorsogon as the Lingayen Gulf was already over fished.

“What made it Lingayen quality was their salt: fine and coarse. The fish are brined in coarse salt when they are loaded onto trucks so that the fermentation starts during their 10-hour drive to Lingayen. They are then unloaded into concrete vats at the factory and further fermented with fine salt...

“Their finished product actually was fragrant, so unlike the stinky ones we normally associate with fish sauce. And I bought them for P20 a bottle! I loaded our van with as many boxes we could carry back to Manila.

“The unfortunate part of this story is what happens to this product once it leaves the factory. Resellers and market vendors rebottle them and dilute the real patis with water, salt, caramel coloring, MSG. So that’s what most of us get now.

“Upon examining this ‘Vietnamese’ fish sauce, made in China, at a steep price of $9 for 680 ML, we’re actually paying for a smaller bottle, caramel, fructose and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (another exotic term for MSG).

“So I keep wondering where the real fish sauce goes? Someone told me a long time ago that the most desired is the ‘first pressing,’ meaning the first golden liquid that rises from the brined anchovies, sardines or small fry used in the process. And usually fish sauce factory owners keep them for their use.

“But I guess with the problem of overfishing, soy sauce is the vegetarian response to the fish sauce. Plant based condiments might make better sense in the future.”

My friend Manny Gonzalez of Plantation Bay has a different take. He doesn’t think it is a problem of inadequate DTI support. It is a problem of attitude about quality, puede na.

“The fault begins with the makers themselves (of whatever product or service in the Philippines). As for the buying public, consumers have been trained by generations of Filipino manufacturers to value what is cheap and not what is good.

“It goes all the way back to the ‘import substitution’ policy of the post-War era, which asked Filipinos to buy inferior products at higher prices, a concept which had only one possible outcome.

“As a commercial-quantity buyer of many products and services, I have seen the same story unfold repeatedly. The Filipino business’s mental time horizon is very, very short.

“Someone starts with a good product, which people buy. Encouraged by its success, the business looks for ways to squeeze yet more short-term profit out of the product.

“For illustration, they may find means of cutting their cost by 10 percent, which increases their margin by 20 percent. This comes at a sacrifice in quality. Initially the customers don’t realize what is happening, but eventually they buy less or switch altogether...

“I just had this happen with a local supplier of coffee, which I won’t name. It initially won our business with a good sample, then almost immediately substituted an inferior grind that was labelled the same as before.

“We sent their stocks back and demanded the original quality. Instead of complying, they tried to fool us with a half-and-half mix, which we also rejected. I have seen the same thing happen with all sorts of products/services from vegetables to pest control. Each time, I have to look for another supplier. But most businesses just don’t get it.

“FILIPINO COMPANIES DON’T TAKE PRIDE IN QUALITY. In consequence, consumers learn not to expect it.”

Romeo Encarnacion, a business consultant had the same observation in a recent blog:

“What about MSMEs in the Philippines? To move from a livelihood effort to a business enterprise, they must design the business to compete successfully with the best in their respective industries…

“Sadly, to forward-think is not how our exporters do it per the DTI official I spoke with many years ago. It is typical when they get their first substantial export order, the first thing they do is go on a European holiday or some grand holiday in the West. And before long, they lose the business to Thailand or Malaysia.”

And that’s why we are what we are. Maybe it is cultural, we are content with mediocrity. We have shown we can shine in world class environments. But when we get back home, we are happy with puede na. And that goes with the choice of public officials too.



Boo Chanco’s email address is bchanco@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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