Taking It Slow: The Slow Food Movement In The Philippines
A few years back, it was rare to find ingredients such as brown rice, quinoa, or edible flowers in the supermarkets and restaurant menus around the metro. Often, one could only get these in speciality stores with high mark-ups. But the scene has changed through the years as the Philippines, slowly but surely, began to embrace the slow food movement.
“The signs are all around!” says an excited Chit Juan, Slow Food Councilor for Southeast Asia and co-founder of ECHOstore, the sustainably sourced natural product outlet. “The number of farm-to-table restaurants is increasing, more and more chefs are using homegrown ingredients; and Philippine produce is drawing the interest of renowned chefs whenever presented in international food festivals.” An exciting revolution is happening in the food world, and the Philippines, with its wealth of indigenous products, is playing a major role. Indeed, homegrown ingredients are more accessible now than they were in the past.
The slow food movement started in the 1980s in Italy as perhaps a kneejerk reaction against fast food. To date, it has more than 100,000 members worldwide. Espousing natural and organic produce, the movement attracted many proponents of healthy eating. Its influence reached the Philippines sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, when a few food advocates like Mara Pardo de Tavera and Ipat Luna began speaking about it. At that time as well, Baguio farmers were already holding a slow food festival under the movement’s Terra Madre project. A network of food communities that practice small-scale and sustainable production of quality food, Terra Madre counts about 2,400 units worldwide. On one of her sourcing trips for ECHOstore, Juan stumbled onto the Baguio Terra Madre Festival and the slow food movement. She signed up for membership (“There were 104 others from the Philippines who were already members then”) and remains today a staunch advocate. “We learned that there were slow food pioneers who have written books on the subject in the early 90s like Mara Pardo de Tavera, Felice Prudente Sta Maria, and the chef Beth Romualdez. In 2012, Reena Francisco [one of the three co-founders of ECHOstore] and I went to Turin, Italy where we met other slow food advocates from the Philippines. They started the Slow Food Manila chapter and soon after, Reena and I went to Salone del Gusto Terra Madre in the following years,” shares Juan.
In the Philippines, the movement has a little less than 200 registered members as well as Slow Food Youth network with almost 100 members, too. “There are slow food chapters in Negros, Baguio, Pangasinan, Cebu, and Manila that joined the World Food Expo (WOFEX) since 2014 and every August there after; and in Madrid Fusion Manila through the invaluable support of then Department of Agriculture (DA)’s former undersecretary Berna Romulo-Puyat, now secretary of the Department of Tourism.
Two years ago, during the muchlauded culinary event, Madrid Fusion Manila, a huge food hall was turned into one amazing gustatory experience. All told, there were about 100 unique dishes, most of them debuted at the event. Foodies indulged in bringhe balls with taba ng talangka (glutinous rice balls with crab fat) by Him Lord Nuym; tapa (cured meat), egg yolk cream, rice cracker by Margarita Forés; and tiny tapsilog with sunny side-up quail eggs by Glenda Barretto, to name a few. The local chefs played to the max, to the delight of the guests as well as the foreign chefs who joined the festival. Apart from the interest in slow food among the chefs, also most noticeable was the increasing number of producers of indigenous food products. A farm in Cavite specialises in growing edible flowers. Paula and Niko Aberasturi, the couple behind DowntoEarth, raise native grass-fed cattle and free-range pork, and grow heirloom and miniature vegetables in the rich foothills of Mt Kitanglad in Bukidnon. From the government side, the DA has an initiative to grow adlai, a quinoa-like grain substitute for rice and corn in Mindanao—in Luzon.
According to Juan, the country has over 64 products listed in the Ark of Taste (www.fondazioneslowood.org) like batuan, kamias, duhat, barako coffee, Benguet Arabica coffee, adlai grains, kadyos beans, and heirloom rice from Ifugao and Kalinga. The numbers went up exponentially since the exhibition at the Madrid Fusion Manila 2016 where only 24 foods belong to the Ark of Taste, a worldwide compilation of foods endemic or indigenous to a region and which are in danger of extinction.
While many on the list are truly rare and have never been on the general public’s radar, there are a few whose precarious existence was a surprise. Turmeric or yellow ginger is one, likewise barako coffee (the Liberica variety), the souring agent kamias, and the small fish tawilis.
The only known freshwater sardine, Sardinella tawilis exists only in the Philippines, specifically in Taal Lake, Batangas province. It could be fried, smoked, skewered and char-grilled, or wrapped in banana leaves and simmered with kamias. A meal in Taal will usually include this prized fish on the menu. However, because of several factors like overfishing, habitat pollution, and a constant threat of volcanic eruption, the continued existence of the tawilis is threatened. And since it has no other known sources, its disappearance from the Taal Lake would mean global extinction as well. The tawilis is thus not just a fish for food, but a food that presents many issues—environment protection, fishing habits, food propagation and consumption—all of which, and more, are embraced in the global concept of slow food.
Another passionate, vocal, and effective advocate is Berna Romulo-Puyat. “I first heard about slow food in 2012 when Gaita [Forés, chef and restaurateur] came to my office asking if the DA could participate in the slow food conference in Turin, Italy, by sponsoring a Philippine booth,” she recalled.
Being the alternate chairman of the National Organic Agriculture Board created in 2010 (the chairman is the sitting Agriculture Secretary), Puyat got curious and researched on the concept of slow food. “What I discovered excited me,” she said. “The slow food philosophy runs parallel to what we were doing in the department [back then]. Like slow food, our initiatives are aimed at promoting food that is good, fair to both consumers and producers, and cares for the environment.”
Puyat liked the aspect of the movement that encourages consumers to be co-producers as well. “You just don’t eat a food but get interested in those who produce it. When you meet the producers, you become part of the production process,” she said. Though not everybody will have access to the food producers, Puyat’s former post in the DA mandates her to go out to the provinces almost every week, talk to the farmers, and ask them what they need. But making a big leap forward, she not just listened to the farmers—she planted with them as well.
On one of her early farm visits, Puyat brought Forés along. They went to the Cordilleras, to the famed rice terraces, and joined the upland farmers in planting rice. They stayed for hours under the sun, their hands blistered by the rough palay seedlings, their feet in galoshes soaking in mud, and their backs aching from bending. “Remember the children’s song that goes ‘magtanim ay ‘di biro’ [planting rice is never fun]?’ It is so true. Only when you actually plant will you realise the blood, sweat, and tears that go with every grain of rice,” she said. As a result, Puyat said that she and Forés have become more careful not to spill a single grain of rice on the table or leave any rice on the plate.
In her regular travels to the regions, Puyat has not only seen the treasures from the earth but has learnt a wealth of stories about them as well. She gushes, for instance, over the heirloom rice from the Cordilleras. With around 300 varieties, the rice has been grown by generations of upland farmers. They are purely organic and harvested, on the average, twice a year, with the exception of a prized variety called tinawon, which is harvested only once a year. Puyat also appreciates the rice of the Cordillera Region for the interesting culture behind it. “About 90 per cent of the heirloom rice farmers are female,” she said. “While the men are assigned to do the hard labour in rice production, the women are tasked to be the seed keepers, to do the planting as well as the harvesting. Because women, generally, have a good eye for detail, they are also entrusted to do the sorting of the seeds.”
Like the tawilis, the heirloom rice, which also belongs to the Ark of Taste, is a story of what the slow food movement is all about. “If we, as consumers, begin buying indigenous rice from the Cordilleras and if our chefs show us more interesting and delicious ways to cook it, then our upland farmers will continue planting this precious commodity native to our soil,” Puyat said. “When this happens, the heirloom rice will no longer be endangered, we would have saved our rice terraces [a UNESCO Heritage Site], and we would have helped the women farmers of the Cordilleras.”
From the farm to the store to the table—this is the food network that the slow food movement would like all its indigenous produce all over the world to establish. Moreover, the movement promotes organic farming, a respect for the seasons and the environment, and an appreciation of the traditional way of producing and cooking foods.
As more and more become aware of these exotic and indigenous foods as well as traditional practices and ways of eating, the better the chances of these products lasting forever. When there is a demand in the market, the farmers will not only continue propagating but will be encouraged to stay with traditional techniques because these are what make their products unique. Like the yellow cattle, which Juan said might be in danger of being crossbred if the market demand is not there.
“It’s just a matter of letting people know that these products exist and, through our chefs, show the people how these foods enrich the cuisine,” Puyat said.
Slow food advocates are, indeed, getting somewhere, as the movement graduates from a mere concept to actual practice. This revolution proves once and for all that there is nothing fast about slow food—except its growth.