Book Review: Kain Na by Felice Prudente-Sta Maria and Bryan Koh
Food is an element that has drawn the Filipino people together since time immemorial. From the ceremonial feasts staged by the mountain tribes of the Cordilleras, to the whole pigs roasted everyday by lechoneros in Cebu, and even to the mix-and-match 'silog [fried rice and egg] combos offered everywhere from roadside stalls to mall food courts, food is part and parcel of the nation's identity. Ironically, many Filipinos are absolutely unaware of the rich diversity of dishes prepared and eaten throughout the archipelago.
Kain Na!, the newest release from independent local firm RPD Publications, means to rectify that particular situation. Penned and researched by Felice Prudente-Sta Maria, one of the country's foremost food writers and historians, together with Singaporean baker/author Bryan Koh, the book is a delectable, appetising foray into Filipino food culture in twelve chapters. Watercolour illustrations by artist Mariel Ylagan Garcia further add to its charm and appeal.
Each chapter in the book represents a specific aspect of culinary culture: Almusal (breakfast), Lutong Bahay (home-cooking), Meryenda (snacks), Lutong Kalsada (street food), Panghimagas (dessert), Pulutan (bar chow), Pang-pista (food for festive occasions), Inumin (drinks), Sa Panaderya (baked goods made at local bakeries), Kakanin (native rice cakes), Mga Sawswan (sauces and condiments), and Mga Sangkap (ingredients).
It is a charming presentation of dishes that are both dear and familiar: favourites like champorado (spelt tsampurado here) made with grated tablea de cacao and topped with fried salt-fish or adobo and kaldereta are scattered throughout the pages. These join regional delights like budbud kabug (steamed millet cakes wrapped in banana leaves) and torta (a dense, eggy cake made with lard) from the Visayas and tiyula itum, the lemongrass and burnt coconut beef stew of the Islamic South. Each dish presented is identified and its phonetic pronunciation given directly beneath; a paragraph describing the food follows, sometimes with a short explanation of its origins or the etymology of its name.
Kain Na! also presents how the Philippines - a melting pot of both Eastern and Western cultures - fits into the cultural makeup of Southeast Asia. Similarities with the cuisines of the Pan-Malayan peoples (Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia) can be seen in dishes like the Cebuano puso (rice steamed in banana leaf-wrapped bundles similar in shape to an anatomical heart, hence the name) which calls to mind our regional neighbours' ketupat and lontong; sapin-sapin (a varicoloured rice dessert) which is virtually the same in style and substance as the equally colourful kue lapis; and the Tausug/Subanon delicacy daral (fine rice crepes wrapped around a sweet filling made with shredded young coconut) which possibly has its roots in the Indonesian kue dadar albeit sans the pandan for colouring and flavouring the crepes. It also presents the impact of colonisation as seen in the myriad noodle dishes brought in or inspired by the Chinese, as well as the rich stews and hearty breads adapted from the Spaniards.
It should be noted at this point, however, that this is not really a comprehensive resource along the lines, say, of Glenda Baretto's Kulinarya. For one thing, much as the reader may be tempted to try to replicate the dishes presented within in one's home kitchen, there are no recipes to try. Likewise, hunting down certain items - case in point, Cavite's bibingkoy (a mochi-like dessert) or the pancit choco en su tinta (an Oriental noodle dish darkened with squid or cuttlefish ink) - could be a challenge as only the provinces of origin have been mentioned; there is no mention of specific locations or outlets where these specialities may be sampled and savoured.
But this detail notwithstanding, Kain Na! is a beautiful way of celebrating the rich diversity of Philippine cuisine - a diversity that is threatened by the proliferation of copy-cat western fast food joints that have been popping up on street corners nationwide. Likewise, it doubles as a scrumptious introduction to Filipino food for those who have yet to taste and enjoy the many flavours, aromas, and textures it offers in both key cities and distant provinces.
- Photography Marga Manlapig