Why Filipino Cuisine Is One Of The Richest Food Cultures In The World
When Asia Society proposed a book on Philippine cooking in 2008, the initial plan was to follow the model of Thailand where some dishes were chosen to promote the cuisine. But talks with Filipino chefs (especially those involved in the project), some food writers, plus many in the food industry were averse to the idea. The questions mostly asked were: who will say this dish is better than the other or why that region and not my region?
Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine (Anvil Publishing, 2008) chose instead to identify dishes cooked all over the country. Its purpose was to show the proper way to cook those dishes,
When it comes to food, Filipinos are regionalistic. It was only by chance that the chefs involved in the book came from different provinces so at least that showed some representation of the whole country in terms of dishes and preferences and ways of cooking.
Because the Philippines is an archipelago, one can conclude that interaction between islands must have been limited before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. And then during the Spanish occupation, travel by land and water to other areas was restricted, each person carrying a cedula (identification paper) and requiring not only a travel permit from the local government but from the friar of the local Church.
With limited interaction, it is no wonder then those different languages, customs and cuisines developed in each Philippine region. The kind of cuisine, as well, depended on many factors—the lay of the land (if the place was landlocked and had no or limited access to the sea); what plants were grown and animals found in the region; and later, Spanish influence on the cooking.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that any discussion on regional cuisine focuses on the differences.
The northern area of the big island of Luzon, where the Ilocos provinces (Norte, Sur, La Union, Pangasinan) are situated, is known for mostly vegetable dishes. The reason being, the limited arable land is mostly grown to cash crops like tobacco and sugar with the remaining areas for vegetables and root crops.
Limited arable land in the Cordilleras in the middle of northern Luzon did not, however, deter the ancient peoples known collectively as Igorots who live in the Mountain provinces to create a space to grow rice on the mountainside. The rice terraces, until today, yield traditional rice varieties. Their food, however, consists mainly of root crops. There are no pasture lands, so meat was limited and the big bovine, the carabao, was only slaughtered for special rites.
The eastern part of Luzon faces the Pacific Ocean. Big fish such as blue marlin and swordfish are landed especially in that longish strip of the province called Quezon (named after its distinguished son and first Commonwealth president).
In the Cagayan Valley region in the northeast, the big river called Rio Grande de Cagayan is where the most prized fish in the country, the ludong (lobed river mullet), can be found, its eggs favoured as its most delectable part. It is a protected species and catching it during its spawning season is prohibited. Belonging to the region is Batanes. The group of islands in the northernmost part of the country is home to the Ivatans, its ethnolinguistic group, whose food is mostly for survival, like the salted dried arayu (golden dorado), because most of the typhoons that hit the country pass through there.
The Central Plains of Luzon, the provinces facing the West Philippine Sea, and many provinces in Southern Luzon are dominated by the Tagalogs whose dialect form the bulk of the national language, Filipino. In the old days, travel by land in the area was supplemented by travel through rivers and lakes using the casco, a
flat barge with masts and rigs that transported goods from farms of one province to the markets of nearby provinces and from ships to other markets. Culinary influences travelled with those cascos, making the cooking in these places— Bulacan, Bataan, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Zambales—almost similar.
But there is one province in the Central Plains with a different dialect—Pampanga—with some words similar to the Bahasa of Indonesia. Like its language, Pampanga has also projected its cuisine as different from the rest of the area, such as the sisig described by its foremost cuisine promoter, Claude Tayag, as a salad of pig’s face that is boiled, grilled then sizzled and poured with a vinegar dressing. Some of the cooking is down-to-earth, like the fried adobo camaru (mole crickets).
Because of the many coconut trees in Luzon’s Southern Tagalog region, many dishes are cooked in coconut milk. Bicol is well-known for its dishes in coconut milk spiked with chilli. Why the region preferred spicy food, unlike most of the country, remains a mystery.
Unlike the big islands of Luzon and Mindanao, the Visayas are a series of small islands Most of the cuisine is similar and the three dominant cooking is shortened to a humorous phrase: “shoot to kill” for sugba (grill), tola (soup) and kilaw (raw seafood dressed in vinegar). This region is partial to marine food though Cebu is touted for its lechon even if the roasted pig can be found everywhere in the country.
Muslim Mindanao cuisine is more akin to Southeast Asian neighbours of Malaysia and Indonesia rather than to the cooking of its mother country because of religion, similar culture and shared history. The yellow rice is always a feature in their feasting. It should be noted, however, that yellow rice, called bringhe, is also cooked in the north for important feasts, and is part of the country’s Southeast Asian heritage.
Contributing as well to the culinary culture of Mindanao are the ethnolinguistic groups, the lumad, whose cooking uses the ingredients to be found in the fields and forests around them including wild animals like the labuyo or mountain chicken.
Towards the 20th century, migration, ease of travel and the invention of communications technology happened. Because of this, cuisine once limited to its particular area can now be found beyond its borders.
Many Ilocanos (the people of Ilocos), immigrated to Cotabato in the 1930s. The first group was led by General Paulino Santos who has a city named after him but shortened to GenSan. So Ilocos food and those from the Visayas found their way to Davao and the northern Mindanao provinces through migrants.
But instead of stressing the differences of each region, maybe the similarities should be considered when talking about food unique to the place. You will find the same dish in every region, province, town and even household but the supposed differences are only variations depending on available ingredients, produce, taste preferences and traditional cooking practices.
Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, the late eminent food writer, wrote in her book Tikim (Anvil Publishing, 1994) that “the Spanish and Mexicans saw the dish that the Filipinos were cooking, recognised its similarity to theirs and called it adobo de los naturales”. The adobo name stuck and is still causing confusion as to its origin and whether it is a dish or a way of cooking.
A chapter dedicated to adobo in Kulinarya corrects a misconception that it is a particular dish. It stressed that adobo is a way of cooking—braising or stewing in vinegar applied to many ingredients whether meat, fish and other marine food, vegetables, legumes like peanuts.
The resulting adobo can be dry, saucy, fried, with soy sauce, with or without bay leaf, with annatto to make it reddish or with turmeric to make it yellow. It is in Batangas province that one can find the reddish and yellowish adobo, one province which differed in the common ways of cooking it.
Sourness (asim) is the dominant flavour of Philippine cuisine. Adobo is, in essence, paksiw or the local word for stewing in vinegar. There are many dishes that employ this method. Kilawin in the north is the name for meats, like boiled pork or raw beef sliced thin, served in a vinegar dressing. There is kinilaw in the middle and south of the country which points to raw seafood and also served in a vinegar dressing. The many kinds of vinegar from region to region and province to province also spell differences in the sour flavour.
Sourness in boiled dishes come from fruits and leaves. Sinigang is how meat and seafood in broth is called in the Tagalog speaking regions where the preference leans toward very sour. In the Visayas region, they prefer mildly sour, calling the same dish tinola or tinowa.
If it’s not in the main dish, sourness is achieved through the many condiments complimenting the food. Chopped green mangoes, a squeeze of the Filipino lime called calamansi, a serving of pickled vegetables and fruits, fermented rice. The condiments personalise one’s food according to Fernandez. No wonder then that the cooking preference of Filipinos is highly personal.
Sourness, too, is in the many kinds of fermented food. A Maguindanaoan breakfast in Cotabato consists of fermented rice wrapped in banana leaf called tapay. Rice fermented with fish or shrimp is called buro in the northern provinces. In Pampanga, the buro is sautéed in garlic, ginger and tomato. In the Tagalog areas of Luzon, the buro is mixed with angkak, or red rice yeast, to aid in fermentation and add red colouring.
Pancit, the name given to noodle dishes, is cooked all over the country. It is a dish adapted from Chinese cooking using local ingredients. The variations are in the kind of noodle used, which could be two kinds in one dish, whether it will have so many ingredients mixed with it or none at all as in the habhab from Lucban in Quezon province.
The names given to the noodle dish may tell what kind of noodle is employed (bihon, canton, miki) and its place of origin (Malabon, Marilao, Cabagan), or the resulting colour, as in Cavite’s black pancit pusit [squid] and Manila’s all white pancit puti. Some names describe why it is called as such—like Santa Rosa, Laguna’s Pancit Grade One because it is a simple dish and pancit estacion because it was sold at the bus station in Cavite.
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KAKANIN NOT ONLY MADE FROM RICE
Native cakes or what is collectively called kakanin are made all over the country too. They vary according to the main ingredient, some of which are glutinous or sticky rice, root crops such as cassava and yam, corn, millet. These are mostly cooked with coconut milk and wrapped in various leaves into different shapes. Some are similar but take on a different name. Rice cooked in coconut milk and sugar is called in many areas as biko but is known as sinukmani in Laguna. Suman sa lihiya or rice cooked with lye in some northern provinces is called suman latik (syrup) in the provinces of Leyte and Samar in the Visayas. As with most food products, native cakes that were once made only in specific places are now done in other places because of migration and online cooking demos. Some examples are Dumaguete’s bubud kabog made from millet and Leyte’s morón, suman with chocolate mixed in.
For a rice-eating country and where wheat isn’t grown, the Philippines is unusual because bread, biscuits and cakes can be found everywhere and are considered part of the culinary culture. The book Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuits and Bakery Traditions by Amy Uy, Jenny Orillos and Jill Sandique (Anvil Publishing, 2015) documented the baking history of the country as well as the products, the bakeries and its owners.
Many of the breads are similar, such as the pan de sal and sliced bread (called Pan Amerikano or Tasty); but there are also those only done at the place like teren-teren (train) of Iloilo and the updated name LRT for the same bread in Aklan. Some biscuits are likewise identified with the place like the uraro of Marinduque and the otap of Cebu.
With so much variety in Filipino cooking, just focusing on differences misses the entire package. Raymond Sokolov in his book Why We Eat What We Eat (Summit Books, 1991) wrote, “Filipinos, isolated from one another by their many local languages and their island geography, are just beginning to learn about [the rest of the cuisine] in their multifarious totality.”
That was 30 years ago. It is heartening to note that Filipinos today, even those no longer in the country, have learnt and are still eager to learn about the diversity of the cuisine, the richness of choices and the connection to its peoples’ history.
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Neal Oshima's images were taken over the past several decades, and are part of a collection of prints donated to the National Museum, which are currently on display in in Vigan. They were also part of several food books including Memories of Philippine Kitchens, Naimas, Kulinarya and Markets of the Phlippines.