I love to eat. My entire clan is composed of ardent devotees of the dining table. Likewise, I have friends who, like me, vow our undying allegiance to the service of good tasting food (and drink!). We’re not gluttons, mind you. But there’s something in eating AND cooking that keeps my family and friends high in life; its magical powers keep us talking about food, criticizing and critiquing, relishing and devouring. With such passion for food, we then look at eating on a higher level. Preparation, the crockery and cutlery used, presentation, silverware, service, freshness of ingredients and most importantly, taste, all contribute to the success and experience of eating.
Perhaps the act (or ritual) of eating has been with humanity since time immemorial. In order to survive and to maintain the body, people of different cultures had the innate instinct to feed their bodies and quench their thirst. Thus, they ate raw animal meats and tried and tested different vegetables, plants and even roots. But in the history of humanity, people learned to combine foods.
“This went well with that.” “That tasted awful.” “Those round things there are pungent!” “Its juice is heavenly!”
And thus, the art of cooking. Ever since humans learned to develop their palette, ingredients were added together, food coloring agents employed, preservatives utilized and different cooking styles were discovered. Our sense have since evolved and the various tastes, textures, aromas and even sounds of foods have enriched the human experience of life.
Some dishes assault us immediately upon making contact with our tongues while others reveal their true flavors only after chewing lengthily. Sometimes, even before putting the food into our mouths, we can already “taste” the dish by simply smelling or staring at it. The sight of steam rising from a bowl of hot minestrone, the sound of crispy lechón skin and the visible thickness of tableá chocolate titillate our bodies even before actually tasting these.
But eating is also a social affair. Due to one’s company while eating, the lowliest of foods can be transformed into delectable dishes. Fun parties can make finger foods look and taste marvelous and with juicy stories shared over delicious meals, lively dinners can be remembered for years. However, if the people in the gathering are as dry as prunes, then even the tastiest dish wouldn’t be able to redeem the affair.
Fortunately, foods’ magical powers are unpredictable. A good meal can transform people while a foul dish can destroy communities. The sense of taste is not only about a dish’s sweetness, sourness, spiciness, bitterness, saltiness or blandness. The sense of taste is also the sense of metaphor, the sense of history and the sense of heritage that dwell within us. Some foods’ tastes have been associated with seasons of the year (e.g. Puto bungbong during Simbanggabi dawns in December). Food has also played roles in the phases of a person’s life. A birth (and birth anniversaries) are celebrated with feasts, just like baptisms, weddings and even, deaths!
In pre-Hispanic Philippines, the natives, according to the late food expert and English professor Doreen Fernandez, prepared their meals by steaming, broiling, fermenting, and boiling. From these techniques sprung many dishes we Filipinos still enjoy. An example would be the “kinilaw” where fresh mackerel-type fish (not white meat, usually red) are cut up in chunks, dipped into vinegar and eaten literally raw. The fish pieces were never soaked in the vinegar. The key then was the freshness of the fish. Another common dish we Filipino enjoy today is the “pacsiw” or stewed fish or meats in vinegar and ginger.
Of course, a stronger reminder of our pre-Hispanic cuisine would be none other than the rotten “bagoong”, fermented shrimps or small fish. Antonio Pigafetta, the official chronicler of the Magellan Expedition of 1521, wrote in his log how the native Filipinos ate rotten, stinking food. That was the bagoong, Sr. Pigafetta, a siding that complements our Kare-Kare, green mangoes and other items.
When the Spaniards arrived, things changed and the Filipino kitchen has since been revolutionized. As the eminent Nick Joaquin wrote, the art of sauteing garlic, onions and tomatoes (guisado) was a Spanish gift which has elevated Filipino cuisine ever since it was introduced. With the Spaniards came sauteing, frying in oil, roasting, relleno (stuffing) and baking. Indeed, when compared to other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines’ dessert tradition and baking skills are exceptional. The new “bakery” (i.e. BreadTalk) fads in our neighbors are very recent. The Philippines, however, has been relishing the sweet delights of Europe and utilizing Western baking methods since the Spanish era. With our leche flans, pastillas, ensaimadas, cakes and also local kakanins, and so many other dishes, our ancestors expanded the Pinoys’ choices for desserts.
Of course, many of most memorable “lola” dishes are Spanish or Hispanic in origin. Difficult and tedious cooking methods which entail hours of tenderizing and boiling are hallmarks of these dishes. We have callos, caldereta, Sopa de Fideos, relleno, jamon, morcon, galantina, cocido, etc. The arrival of pepper (pimiento), bay leaf (laurel), sugar (azucar), cinnamon (canela) and many more enriched our Southeast Asian taste buds and opened our imaginations to the ostentatious dining halls of the royal courts of Europe and the dining halls of the noble houses of the aristocrats.
During this time too, the Mexican, Chinese, Indian and Japanese cultures also influenced and added color to our growing cuisine. The Chinese gave us kinchay, pechay, kangkong and soy sauce while the Mexicans brought in achuete, chili peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, guava and everybody’s favorite, chocolate. The Japanese, as a minority in the San Francisco de Dilao district (Paco), brought in the cooking technique of eating with ice. We thank them for our heavenly halo-halo.
The Galleon Trade, which plied the China-Manila-Acapulco-Seville route, facilitated this cultural exchange and culinary revolution.
Thus, people ignorantly belittle Filipino food as nothing more but “fusion food”. They think there’s no original Filipino food because of the many influences it has adopted. But alas! No culture is pure! All cuisines have been influenced by other cultures!
Take for example the example of our pancits colored orange or yellow. Obviously, the noodle is a Chinese legacy. On the other hand, the coloring agent, achuete, is a Mexican ingredient. However, it is only in the Philippines where noodle dishes have achuete! It is originally Filipino and its taste is uniquely Filipino. Our Halo-Halo, though Japanese in origin, is Filipino because of the different local ingredients mixed together.
Our cooking techniques too of sauteing with soy sauce and bagoong or patis or of combing soy sauce and vinegar are Pinoy. People also try to identify what is the Filipino taste, and some would opine it is sweet. Others however believe it is sour. Indeed, many of our favorite dishes are sour or have souring agents to the horror of our Southeast Asian neighbors who live by spicy foods. Sour foods, as you should realize, are actually cooling agents. They freshen the palette and cool our throats.
It is on this aspect actually that Filipinos need to market our country and our heritage. We are different from our neighbors in this region of the world. Some might say, “So you’re food’s Latin American?” Not quite since Latin Americans heavy use of corn and beans is not really evident in our cooking. Ours is a unique, savory cuisine that fuses many contrasting flavors perfectly.
Why can’t we market the unique Filipino taste with vigor and pride?
Because we lack love for country. Because we are not proud and knowledgeable of our heritage. Because we think anything Filipino is baduy.
These same problems cause our dissonance with our own senses, in particular our sense of taste. Our disconnection is heavily caused by our colonial mentality that “cheapens the Pinoy tongue”. Suddenly, you have Pinoy households made up of pure Pinoys who prefer Korean beef stew over adobo. These days, you encounter young children of middle class “well-traveled” families who vomit at the sight of kare-kare, dinuguan, or adobong pusit. Is it pretension? Is it hostility to culture?
Perhaps. But one thing is certain: our problem with regard to the (lack of) consumption, preparation and preference for our own flavors and dishes leads to our confused identity. I find absolutely nothing wrong with loving and relishing foreign dishes and tastes. But these should never replace our indigenous preferences because our localities, our heritage and history relate so much to our sense of taste.
There is the threat of banality and the triumph of instrumental rationality, a rationality that prioritizes utility over substance. The threat of banality can be best seen in the cafeterias of today’s Filipino college students where students simply patronize the most boring, disgusting and shallow foods. Shallow in the sense that the preparation and ingredients have no depth and vibrancy. They eat yellow-colored rice smothered with the gravy of their fried viand, and drink powdered-fruit juices that if you really discern its content, is nothing more than cold red-colored water. Kadiri. You have the “rice toppings” options, minced meats with vetsin dumped unceremoniously on a heap of yellow-colored rice. Nakakaawa.
Such is the banality of our senses. And sadly, this generation has become numb to these things. We just accept things, then “go back to work” (instrumental rationality).
But how about substance, character and meaningfulness? How about spirit and joy? How about the body’s full potentials? How about passion, skill and technique?
The sense of taste, like any of our senses, relates to many aspects of our humanity. If we taste something, sensors are activated and suddenly, our brain functions vigorously. When we eat, it is not only our digestive system that is working but also our nervous, respiratory, circulatory and other systems. But eating becomes or is an experience simply because of the things we conjure in our mind while eating. Memories, reflections, insights and dreams might suddenly appear in our senses. The food then suddenly becomes sweeter or spicier, more fragrant or more pungent.
Tikman, namnamin, nguyain, kainin.
The sense of taste hecho ayer.
*If you have plans of hosting a dinner party for family and friends, I highly recommend this blog entry of a good friend wherein she lists some good dinner party tunes. Good music, of course, enhance a dish’s flavors and makes meals more memorable. Here’s the link: http://biancarodriguez.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/dinner-party-songs/