Food and Leisure

Philippine food, the most wonder-full in the world!

- Mary Ann Quioc Tayag -
Quioc, why is adobo different in cut, color and taste every time," a Malaysian friend asked me. She has tried our adobo from fast foods to grills to deluxe hotel and even to Amanpulo.

Her question reminded me of the adobo Claude and I saw recently in a five-star hotel international buffet. It had lean pork cubes and garlic in gravy-like dark brown sauce. ‘’A pork adobo pretending to be something else," I thought. I wondered why they did not use the usual liempo cut.

The Cantonese have a saying which in English translates to, "Eyes first then the nose before the mouth will want to eat the food." The adobo looked good, but it didn’t look right or correct. And food that does not look right will not taste right. (I learned that even as a little girl from my grandmother who was very particular on how her meat and vegetables were sliced.)

Once, Claude made Claude’s Dream, a dessert made of buko, pandan and green gelatin. We had no green gelatin so he used red gelatin. No matter how much he insisted that the pandan taste comes from the pandan tea and not from unflavored jellos, our guests insisted the dessert did not taste of pandan but of cherry. (I think that is called the power of suggestion.)

Hubby thinks the hotel chef used lean pork cubes for his adobo because foreign guests might reject the fatty liempo.

When I lived in Hong Kong, my Asian and European friends like what ache (manang) cooked at home for my son Nico and me. Fats and oils. They liked the clean taste of our tinola (which they called chicken daddy to distinguish from the chicken mami), the adobo, sinigang of pork ribs, bistig babi, putong babi, and brought home kare kare with our bagoong.

initially was apprehensive to cook for them. "They might not eat," she said. "Maputi la ren eh," (They are white, eh.)

"It is good enough for us (Filipinos) so it should be good enough for them," I said and urged her to cook and serve the dishes our everyday way. I don’t know if I should take this as a compliment, but they often said ache and I changed their idea of Philippine food and eventually ache made money catering their parties and office lunches.

If the Koreans thought of the foreigners’ reaction on their food, they would have removed the garlic and chili powder from what many regard as offensive-smelling kimchi and today, the kimchi would be green like pickled gherkins, good for hot dog sandwich. Indian dishes would not reek of that now-very-distinct smell of spices. Thai food would be bland and not chili hot. And worst of all, the Japanese would have fried their sushi. For what could be more revolting than seeing a complete stranger mash your food with his bare hands and then give it to you as is, and raw? Yuck!

Going back to the hotel’s pretentious adobo, could they not have used leimpo from a medium-sized pig, ergo not so fatty? "Maybe it is the pig that we ought to look into and change instead of the cut," I whispered to chef hubby. If and when the adobo looks right, it will (somehow) taste right. But what is a medium-sized pig? Even our all-time fiesta favorite lechon comes in different sizes in different regions. (Compare that to the Chinese suckling pig which is served only in one size all over the world.)

Regarding the Malaysian’s question as to why our adobo is always different: "Well, to start with, we have 7,100 islands and each island and region cooks dishes differently,’’ I answered. "Our food is interesting because it comes with an element of surprise unlike other cuisines which are so predictably boring," I said, half serious, half in jest.

"But who wants surprises when one’s hungry?" she asked. (She had a point.)

"Maybe that’s it. I always wonder why I see no Philippine restaurants abroad when I see Filipinos all over the world," interrupted her American hubby. "There is nothing distinct in your food. In my 10 years here in the Philippines, I still do not recognize the dishes, more so recall their true taste and form that I miss when I am back home," he said.

"That’s because Philippine food is the most wonderful food in the world," I said proudly. They, of course, protested. "Because it’s full of wonder," I added. "You wonder what it is, you wonder what you will get and you should rave about that wonder until you reach home." He almost hit me.

Seriously, now, of course I know what he was saying. The tempura, nasi goreng, bulgogi, tom yam khung, satay, Hainanese chicken, sweet and sour pork, etc., look and (almost) taste the same wherever restaurant and part of the world you are. (Don’t tell me you have not noticed that?) You could even tell the filling of Chinese dim sum by its shape and color. Siomai and harkow are always four pieces per serving, while siopao always comes in twos. The Chinese will never change that. Why is our Philippine food so unique that it is different every time, even in the Philippines?

Maybe it is because of our colonial past that we feel inferior; or else it is our known Filipino hospitality that we always want to please (our foreign) guests; or maybe it’s our easygoing nature that we are never black and white but always grey; and thus we cannot standardize anything in the country. Or perhaps all Filipinos are creative (or stubborn) artisans, who want to always create and redesign whether they are assembling a chair or cooking. (Just last week, I saw a photo of an adobo with pechay.) Or our kusineros always want to outdo one another. If one makes barbecue with four slices, one will want to make his with five or six slices. Or we are ahead of our time. Some countries are only now offering variations in their popular dishes. (Singapore, for example, now makes roti with cheese and cream.)

I love Filipino food very much. Our traditional cooking is delicious and something we can and should be proud of. We are the only country in Asia that has Spanish influence in our cuisine. I do not agree it looks sad and unappetizing because it is all brown. All cuisines are mostly brown because that’s how meat naturally turns to when cooked. And besides, to name a few, we have orange kare kare, yellow birenghe, black adobong pusit, white paksing bangus and green munggo and laing. And we certainly have more varieties than Korean cuisine, so it is not a question of varieties either.

Some experts say that we must, first of all, develop a standard or recognizable look on our dishes so they will be known and accepted here and abroad. That is what the other countries did and succeeded.

But pessimists say it is not in our Pinoy culture to follow. Maybe that is why we have great artists, especially in the performance arts. The Philippines, they say, is a country of artistic leaders and not of followers.

If it is indeed true that Pinoy restaurateurs cannot cooperate and follow, we have another choice. Panindigan na natin (strong conviction) na iba ang Pinoy. We then use our creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and market our food as the world’s most "wonder-full" food from 7,100 islands. Its inconsistency or special variations or arbitrariness (depends on how you look at it) becomes its number one asset. (Our kare kare alone has five kinds, i.e., oxtail, laman baka, patang baka or baboy, twalya and the fifth is the mixture of all.) And we know we have succeeded when foreigners and Filipinos alike will conveniently label any dish they do not recognize as a Philippine dish. I know it sounds ridiculous, but maybe it will work. Iba ang Pinoy eh.

The third choice is we do nothing about it and continue to wonder why our very delicious and wonderful food does not attract the tourists and why you cannot find adobo in Europe. And why we are probably the only country in Asia in which our five-star hotels do not have restaurants that serve all local cuisine.

The choice is difficult, but one that our (food) leaders must make and the rest of us must follow. Standard? Wonder-full? Or Bahala na?
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Comments of any sort are welcome at maryann@digitelone.com.
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