As the people feel the mad, chaotic rush of the Christmas season, we are once again reminded of the Christmas feasts we have attended and enjoyed, relished and eternally cherish. Memories of these Christmas get-togethers and family reunions revolve not only around the Christmas tree or the belen but also around the family dining table, where lavish dishes are prepared and laid out. In an effort to celebrate the birth of whom Christians consider their Savior, various dishes are laboriously prepared and joyfully consumed.
Many of these dishes, particularly those from old households, are actually reflections or manifestations of a clearly colorful and blatantly Christian-Hispanic heritage. Recipes that date back to the time of the Spaniards and boasting of Spanish or Hispanic names decorate our buffet tables during this season that until recent decades, was steeped in tradition and solemnity. Many of the ingredients and procedures used for the embutido, morcon, lengua estofada o con champignon, galantina, pavo and the lechon de leche were Hispanic and considered foreign by local culinary traditions. Likewise, as a Hispanic people, let us not discount the beverages that accompany our dishes: cerveza, vino and sangria. As we end all our meals, we also have the Spaniards to thank for bringing us coffee and dessert. Through the Spaniards we developed a baking and confectionery culture that I believe is better than in other Southeast Asian countries.
And yet, they are also very Filipino. In this day and age of globalization and of the Internet, we realize the uniqueness of our culinary heritage in the Asia-Pacific region. Although Hispanic, it is also very original. In fact, I would like to assert here that being Hispanic is indeed an intrinsic part of our own heritage. It cannot and shouldn’t be denied or forgotten. As compared to the spicy and sour flavors of our Southeast Asian neighbors, our savory, decadent and complex dishes triumphantly proclaim the Hispanic but also Malay (and Chinese!) influences that serve as the threads to our colorful quilt.
The Fil-Hispanic table is a table we ought to preserve and support. It is the last bastion of our cultural identity that is pronouncedly Hispanic. It is the table where Filipinos, and their Hispanic family dynamics, share bread and drink, talk about their lives and open themselves up to greater possibilities through conversation and discourse. The Hispanic heritage that is enshrined in Philippine cuisine, and even table manners, though much more highlighted during the Holiday Season, is no doubt, a telling indication of our country and people’s unique story. In this side of the planet, instead of chopsticks, folks use cuchara and tenedor, but they also have dipping sauces such as toyo (soy sauce), patis (fish sauce) and suka (vinegar). However, our uniqueness shines forth in how we make use of these borrowed or great contributions to Filipino cuisine. Instead of simple using vinegar, we add garlic, ground pepper and onions as well as red chili to make it packed with flavors. The ingredients are no doubt Hispanic. On the other hand, some Westerners are either appalled or impressed at how we cut into meat by using our spoons!
Nick Joaquín, the most celebrated Filipino English-language writer, championed the causes of Hispanism, asserting that one of the most important gifts received by the Filipino people are the “revolutions” initiated by the Spaniards in our lives, one of which is the guisado, the sautéing of tomatoes, garlic and onions in oil (Culture and History). With the arrival of the Spaniards, our cuisine flourished and became more flavorful. From merely boiling and broiling, we began to learn how to roast, tenderize, fry and sauté. In this part of the world, a small European-influenced cuisine was playing host to lavish feasts that portrayed the archipelago’s smiling people, a race that loved to celebrate and show-off. Within the storied walled city of Intramuros, countless cocidos, calderetas, sopas, asados and whatnot were made not solely on ingredients from Spain but also from China, the Spice Islands, Latin America and of course, the Philippines. Manila, being a major entrepot in the past due to the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade, attracted skillful Chinese cooks who created delectable dishes with Spanish-names and Hispanic ingredients.
From the late 1800s though, many of the country’s illustrious families were able to send their sons, and eventually, their daughters, to Spain, France, Switzerland and to many other countries. When they returned, they further animated and colored our culinary heritage. But this was without ignoring the Hispanic nature of our tables – they actually enhanced and enriched this. They built upon the wisdom and experience of 300 years of Hispanic cooking.
However, in recent decades, many of the old recipes brought down through the years, have been threatened by the new global trends that treat food, for a lack of a better word, callously. And with this new way of treating food came the compromising of an entire cultural heritage that bore it. The undermining of Fil-Hispanic heritage comes daily as Filipinos, uninformed and foolishly convinced of the Spanish regime’s purely evil character, tell others that there is nothing original in Filipino culture not to mention its cuisine. Many Filipinos fail to explain the beauties of Filipino cuisine simply because they do not know it, simply because they do not know how to put into words our cultural identity.
This pathetic failure to differentiate Filipino cuisine from Spanish cuisine (or Latin cuisine) is caused by an immature view of national identities. Some believe that Japanese cuisine is a purely Japanese enterprise, immaculately produced in Japan. There are people who strongly assert that we cannot call our cuisine original because French cuisine, unlike ours, was purely influenced by all-things French, that Italian cuisine is unique because everything in Italian cuisine is Italian. This is, however, blatantly wrong. All the great cuisines and all the culinary heritages were influenced by other regions, countries, peoples and traditions. There is no pure culture; there are only better marketed/advertised ones. And this is where we fail.
Instead of placing the Hispanic heritage of our food, we bastardize and malign this, simplistically saying that we “borrowed” these from Spain and Mexico. But this proves futile as the ingredients, flavor-preferences (we like it a tad sweeter), procedures and the presentation have differed since these were introduced. We have cultivated a richly Hispanic cuisine without blindly copying – these have become naturally part of our people’s history because we chose it to be so. Our women, our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters learned to develop these dishes with their own talents and preferences, making sure that the Hispanic nature of the dish isn’t lost. For example, we may have been influenced by the Chinese in eating noodles (pancit), but we add an original twist by adding achuete, bell peppers, etc from Latin America. Although we received from the Spaniards the gift of making and eating breads, we didn’t blindly copy their bread-making procedures. Instead of creating almost rock-hard breads, we used the technology to create soft (some use the term “hukmoy”) and fluffy breads, something which we prefer.
Today, as countries and races’ unique beauties are being grayed out by the Internet and globalization, all the more would it be beneficial to share and proclaim the unique values, heritage and aesthetics of Filipino cookery, proudly sharing and at the same time, innovating a cuisine sadly ignored. We have to stop calling our food “borrowed” and “unoriginal” and recognize and maximize its natural Hispanic-ness infused with our Asian roots. This edge of Philippine cuisine, often displayed ostentatiously during the Christmas season, should inspire and cajole us to continuously research, preserve, maintain and celebrate our culinary experience as a people of an archipelago, composed of more than 7,000 islands.
This enterprise of keeping our food’s heritage constantly alive obliges us to recognize our culture as a Hispanic people found in the Southeast Asian region which is also comprised of individuals that have Chinese, Malay, and Spanish ancestries and also Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim religious orientations.