As a curious food writer who wants to rediscover Filipino food and reintroduce Philippine cuisine to the world, I have often asked myself this question: what is Filipino food? Of course, growing up in a Pinoy family has made me appreciate whatever my mother would prepare for us: kare kare, crispy pata (the perfect pair for my father’s San Miguel beer), tinolang manok, nilagang baka, katnga (a.k.a. laing, a Bicol dish made of gabi leaves/stalks and coconut milk), callos, bopis, boiled camote tops picked from our garden, and many others.
After some research, I found the answer in a small book I bought on sale for an unbelievable price of P10.00. Entitled “Lasa: A Guide to Dining in the Provinces” by Edilberto N. Alegre and Doreen G. Fernandez, this book is truly a gem, especially for those into food history. There I found the article “What is Filipino Food?”, a piece that has inspired me in my personal quest. Hopefully this will also help you understand and appreciate better Philippine cuisine.
What is Filipino Food?
by Doreen Fernandez and Edilberto Alegre
It is a question not easy to answer. Is it pork adobo, brown and rich, eaten with hot white rice? Is it siomai and siopao in the neighborhood merendero? Is it chicken relleno on a fiesta table, stuffed with olives and sausages? Is it sinigang na kanduli in a broth misty with miso? Is it a buko pie or a chicken salad? Is it all of the above?
Still, the variety and the search for identity demand that the question be asked. And it is best answered by a look at history, or at food through history. What the Filipino eats today is Filipino food, of course, but the sources and influences that shaped this food will clarify its nature.
Before contact with any foreign culture, the Filipino was eating the food available from his landscape. Two products of the landscape stand out, as being very important to Filipino food.
Rice. The first is rice, which is not only a staple, but also the background of the rest of the food, and therefore the shaper of tastes. A preponderance of salty and sour dishes suggests the importance of their being eaten with rice. A dish like kare-kare, and a relish or sauce like bagoong, are both premised on the bland background of rice.
Rice is also the basis of many rice cakes, sweets, and wine, as well as the center of celebrations. Old dictionaries prepared by Spanish friars reveal a majority of food words referring to rice – rice in all its stages and forms, in all its uses, with all its containers, processes, and products.
Coconut. The coconut, the other important element, supplies leaves for roots, ornaments and toys; midribs for brooms; husks for scrubbing; and of course, sap for wine, and flesh (young or mature) for food. Dishes like the Bicol laing and pinangat, the Ilonggo binakol, the Quezon pinais and all the lumpiang ubod and ginataan of different regions, are fruits of this tree.
The availability of rice and the coconut has shaped much of Philippine native food.
Fish and Seafood. With more than 7000 islands surrounded by waters, and threaded by rivers, brooks, streams and canals, it is easy to understand that the Filipino’s first and favorite ulam is water-bred. Fish and seafood are indeed the primary Philippine food. The old dictionaries reveal that there are vastly more food words referring to fish than there are to chicken or meat.
Because these fish, shellfish, crabs and crustaceans are so near, so available, and so fresh, they are cooked in the ways most logical, namely as simply as possible. Such dishes as halabos na hipon, inihaw na bangus, and kilawing dilis, are the result – dishes in which very little is done to tamper with the freshness.
Vegetables. The fields and forests are another source of freshness – thus the galaxy of greens, fruits and roots which constitute the Philippine vegetable lexicon. Although there are reliable perennials available year-round, there are also seasonal vegetables, and together these constitute bounty and variety. Roots like gabi and camote; leaves like pechay, kulitis, alugbati, kangkong, mustasa; seeds like kadyos and mongo; flowers like katuray and kalabasa; fruits treated as vegetables, like bananas and langka – the great variety shows how well the Filipino knows his landscape, and how imaginative he heaps it.
Animal Life. The animals found in these fields and forests are another food element. Not only are there pigs and chickens, goats and calves, but also the less tame deer, wild boar, civet cats (musang) – and the “exotic” fruit bats, mole crickets, locusts and iguanas.
The above elements – rice and coconut, vegetables, fish and seafood, and animal life – show that Filipino native food is drawn from the abundant landscape, by people who know its seasons and cycles intimately. For these the cooking methods used are simple – steaming, roasting, broiling, pickling, simmering.
Indigenous Philippine food is thus a healthy cuisine mainly of fish and vegetables, of some fowl and meat, all of it cooked simply in dishes like sinigang na kanduli sa miso, kinilaw na tanguigue, pinasingaw, pinangat, tinolang manok. This we can call the Malay matrix of Philippine food.
Indigenous cuisine predominates in homecooking, but is also found in urban restaurants. It is in the provinces, however – in the upscale or moderate restaurants, in the market or streetside carinderia and pondohan, in the once-weekly tabu or tienda, and especially in the homes, that the contours and specificities of this cuisine are best seen. In the markets one sees what is available, and which go together (often they are sold together in piles or bags). In the eateries one finds what is demanded daily, what is consumed first, what is most popular. One also recognizes the blending of the local and the migrant – the food of the region coexisting with that of other regions. Here too, one notices the standard (perhaps already found in Metro Manila) and the special, even the rare. It is in the indigenous cuisine in the provinces that one discovers the horizons of Philippine food – its many expressions and permutations, its few limits and vast parameters.
With history and foreign relations necessarily came cross-cultural contact and influence. Trade with Arabs, Indians and Chinese brought in new dishes that eventually came to be adopted by Filipinos, adapted to their tastes, and indigenized. The Arab influence is mainly visible in Mindanao; the Indian influence is minimal in food, stronger in art and crafts, and also mainly in the south.
Chinese. Since the Chinese traders have been recorded as active in the Philippines since at least the 11th century, the Chinese influence in the Philippine cuisine is one of the strongest felt. This is often indicated by the words used, and seen not only in such dishes as siomai and siopao, pesa and lugao (the Cantonese porridge called by a Spanish name, arroz caldo) or in the use of soybean products (soy sauce, tokwa, tahure), and some pork cuts (liempo, kasim), but also in cooking implements (sianse, etc.) and methods. Stir-frying may have been the first kind of frying to enter Philippine cooking.
Spanish. Colonization by Spain brought with it not only Spanish dishes, but a whole new technology. Guisa, or sauteening in oil with condiments, was introduced. The concept of richness in food was also new: olive oil, tomato sauces, and sausages were certainly foreign to the native taste and budget. (The native dishes are quite austere “lean cuisine”, being boiled, broiled, roasted or steamed).
This is where most Filipino fiesta food comes from. Paella, relleno, mechado, cocido, puchero, morcon – the very names speak of their Spanish origin. Also the desserts: brazo de Mercedes, leche flan, castillos, torta del rey, borrachos, etc.
The famous adobo, which many consider the quintessential Filipino dish, is said to have Mexican origins. (For many years Spain governed the Philippines through the viceroyalty of Mexico.) The Philippine adobo, like all indigenized products, has become become quite different from the original Mexican adobado, because it has been transformed by adaptation to local ingredients, occasions and tastes. The local adobo is made of pork, or pork and chicken, or livers and gizzards, or squid, or even bayawak. It is cooked with garlic, bay leaf and peppercorns. It can be saucy or fried dry and crisp. It keeps well without refrigeration; it is easily transported (with rice) for travel.
American. American colonization left its own mark, most visible among the young. Convenience is its chief legacy: salads and sandwiches, freezers and pressure cookers, barbecues and casseroles, and of course, fast food.
What is Filipino food then? All of the above, indeed. Just as any culture that is living changes and remain dynamic, so does food change. Filipino food is Malay, as the indigenous dishes are. It bears the marks of Chinese, Spanish/Mexican, and American influence. The dishes from these cultures were not copied verbatim, but adapted, indigenized, Filipinized. The result is this wealth of sinigang, siopao-siomai, adobo, relleno, salad, barbecue.
Filipino food is a repertory. On an indigenous matrix – an ethos of freshness, a predilection for taste combinations like sweet-sour and salty-tart, a daringly flexible usage of the natural landscape – are grafted qualities absorbed in cultural interaction. In the indigenization of all these, always and exuberantly, it defines itself as Filipino.