Filipino food

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

They say that “familiarity breeds contempt”, and in many cases that is indeed true. As far as human experience though, the saying doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to food. Of course, that isn’t to say that most of us are able to eat the same food every day and not become sick of it (children and ice cream are the exception to that, as parents would know). What I mean is that food – what we eat, how it tastes, how it’s made – is genuinely important to many of us, and the food that we grew up eating has a particularly special place in our hearts. It’s a taste that is not diminished by our proximity or exposure to it… instead, for many of us, it becomes part of our identity.

This is one of the reasons so many people can become passionate about the tastes of home, why talking about what foods we love (or hate) can spur such spirited discussion. Food is rarely “just” food – it’s a memory, a symbol, a refuge. In one of her essays in her book “Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture”, the celebrated food writer Doreen Fernandez wrote:

“How did I hope to evoke understanding? Not by exact description but through memory. Only one who has experienced sinigang can tell the exact pitch of sourness that is perfection. Or the precise difference between souring by sampaloc and souring by kamias. Or the bounce with which a fresh ulang or prawn meets one’s bite. To convey the taste of sinigang, one must draw on the culture of seafood, on the Southeast Asian predilection for the souring that refreshes, on the native wisdom that decreed that fresh seafood be cooked simply, and on memories of home.”

It was not sinigang but pinakbet that gave me that taste of home. Eating it always brings back memories of the house where I grew up in where the Ilocano pinakbet is a staple. I remember coming home from school to the smell of fish bagoong seeping out of the kitchen window and I would instantly light up. I knew at once that my favorite pinakbet will be served for dinner, much to my siblings’ dismay since they do not like vegetables. I, on the other hand, love the different tastes and textures of the vegetables in pinakbet – the bitter ampalaya, the soft and sweet squash, the crisp string beans and the mildly bitter yet sweet eggplant. Until now, no other dish has equaled my love for pinakbet.

Food has always been an important part of Philippine culture – and what qualifies as Filipino food has also been just as contested as the definition of Filipino identity itself. Given our history of colonization, and the way that those in Metro Manila and those with privilege have tended to dominate discussion about what is and is not culturally important, this is hardly surprising. Yet just as the concept of Filipino identity feels most genuine when it is broad and inclusive rather than narrow and selective, the same also applies, in my opinion, to the concept of Philippine cuisine.

The Spanish influence in many quintessentially Filipino dishes (and their associated traditions) is readily evident, and these are not the foods of our indigenous Malay ancestors, nor of the many that lived in areas too remote to be reached or too poor to afford the expense of colonial food and tradition. It’s important to acknowledge this fact, to know the diversity in what Filipinos have experienced as their own, and to acknowledge what through the years we have made our own. We Filipinos are experts at taking what has been imposed upon us and owning it, subverting it, improving it, and this is as true of our food as it is for the likes of jeepneys.

A love for good food is one of the things that can bring us, sometimes literally, to the same table. It should, I think, be a unifying force rather than a divisive one. Philippine cuisine – in a manner similar to Philippine mythology or folklore – can be hard to describe because shared motifs can be expressed through a hundred regional variations, and I believe this malleability and diversity is a strength rather than a weakness. Because food is so important to us, it’s valuable to know the history of our cuisine, the specifics that lead to differences in preparation or preference, to properly acknowledge foreign influences. Yet this shouldn’t be done to exclude, or to look down our noses at others out of a misguided notion of “purity.”

The food of our heritage feeds not just the body, but the soul. It reconnects us to a past without which we are incomplete, even if we have grown beyond it or moved past it. But just like other aspects of our intangible heritage, in many places it is in danger of being lost. Maybe not in the big cities where recipes have been encoded and franchised – but those do not represent the entirety of Philippine cuisine. In the margins, in the places where traditional ways are being encroached upon by the endless march of modernity – documentation and protection is needed.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention a more basic need – before food is a cultural artifact, it is a means for sustenance and survival. Food insecurity remains a pressing problem for so many citizens of our country – according to the World Food Program 64 percent of our population is chronically food insecure. The landless poor, the indigenous, those with unpredictable income and in areas highly susceptible to flooding and drought, are particularly insecure. This is an unacceptable number which calls for structural changes and clear governmental plans, especially with the worsening weather conditions due to climate change.

As Filipino Food Month draws to a close, the best way we can honor our culinary heritage is to protect not only the cuisine at the margins of society, but also the people on the margins who never know from day to day whether they will have food on their tables.

The most important kind of Filipino food is the kind that feeds the hungry.


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