|Kaon ta! (Let's Eat!) |
"Those who are food lovers eat here!" ("Dito kumakain ang masarap kumain." This is the slogan that adorns every other bill board in the capital, Manila.
It belongs to Chow King, one of the country's most successful fast food chain, but it could equally sum up Filipino cuisine and related customs.
But what makes Filipino cuisine so unique? In my relatively short time here, one thing is certain; history and Mother Nature have combined and evolved to produce what is known today as Filipino food.
Food is one of the liveliest areas of popular culture and has been receptive to foreign influences, and to change. Chinese traders, the Spanish, the British and in the 20th century, the United States, have all left their mark on the local cuisine. The signature ingredients of their Southeast Asian neighbours are present too.
I posed the same question to Fe Quijano, 58, a regular shopper at the Carbon market, Cebu City:
"For me as a Filipino, we like its taste, it's to our liking. Unlike American food which is bland, it has real flavour. I love the market too; food is always fresh and you can haggle!"
|Angelina Mendoza with her harvest of macopa fruit.|
Carbon Market is a heady concoction of scents both aromatic and sometimes nauseating, but it's a colourful and lively experience. Traders and stall holders swap stories and call out to shoppers offering their latest treats. Crispy dimsum (deep-fried pork dumplings), rice cakes and sticks skewered with barbequed pork all tickle one's appetite.
But let's get back to the essence of this versatile cuisine. The Philippine archipelago has conjured a people with a stubborn sense of regional identity. The scattered island geography sustains multiple culture and with it, distinctly different cuisines.
|Cooking over a firewood stove|
Each of the fourteen regions maintains its own gastronomic delights from balut (a fully formed chicken foetus that is carefully peeled - best taken with lashings of San Miguel beer) to mouth-watering pastries in Manila, to sweet dried mango here in Cebu to painted red duck eggs.
Malay, Spanish, Arabic and Filipino ingredients and cookery collide on daily basis in some of the most unexpected ways but nearly always work; the only exception for me so far has been the cheese ice-cream!
Eating is done frequently. On an ordinary day, there are generally five small meals to munch through: breakfast; morning merienda (10 am snack); lunch; afternoon merienda (4pm snack) and dinner. Filipinos eat from morning til night, supported by rice cakes, nuts, and sugary snacks in between.
At the heart of the Filipino eating tradition is the sawsawan: the mixing and matching of cooked foods with salty, sour or savoury dipping sauces.
|"The scattered island geography sustains multiple culture and with it, distinctly different cuisines. "|
The myriad of table sauces on tiny plates turn the bland rice and the simple roasted seafood and meats into a meal that suits the palette of everyone. The most common condiments are: patis (fish sauce), toyo (dark soy sauce, suka (native vinegar and far sweeter than European vinegar) and bagoong (fermented shrimp paste).
These conspire tastily with garlic, ginger, red chili, peppercorns, onions and kalamansi (small, walnut sized citrus fruit).
In the last decade, fast food culture has spawned a number of successful businesses. Filipinos joke that the third word their offspring learn after "mama" and "papa" is "labee". Those able to afford it, treat their children to a distinctly Filipino variation of the classic hamburger at 'Jollibee' a fast-food chain with over 400 premises nationwide.
Moreover, its market coverage is growing at a phenomenal rate with new branches opening up as far away as the United States, Brunei and Viet Nam. I have to admit a soft spot for Jolly shakes!
|Ilagas (forest rats) can reek havoc in local crops|
But it would be a gross error to write this article without drawing attention to the poverty faced by millions everyday from the slums of Manila to the remote rural upland communities of Mindanao.
According to the Population Commission, over 30 million Filipinos wake every morning not knowing where their next mouthful will come from (some 40% of the electorate). Even in the aftermath of the typhoons striking the Philippines last year, rice prices remained stable. But landlessness and rapid population growth have only intensified the problem.
"Isang kahig, isang tuka, we call it" says Maimai Colis, 40, referring to the way chickens scratch and peck at the earth for food scraps. Its a miserable metaphor to describe the daily search to put food on the table. Many of those that do manage to sustain themselves will perhaps survive on no more than a kamote (a type of sweet potato) or a small amount of rice.
Rice, although the staple diet of many together with a little dried fish, is actually in shortage. Sadly, many of the innumerable indigenous rice varieties have all but died out and gandor, known as the finest quality rice in the archipelago is more than often exported.
Food and food security of the poorest of the poor, will remain an integral and ever changing part of Filipino culture. I hope to report on how people are empowering themselves to improve their lives and those of their community in a future article.
In the meantime, to the question 'What makes Filipino cuisine so unique?' All of the above. I for one am very much looking forward to trying other regional fare across this diverse archipelago.
Try a Filipino Thirst Quencher!
|Enjoying a cocktail in the Philippines|
Fresh Mango Shake
2 ripe mangos
3 cups of crushed ice
Sugar / milk (optional)
Peel the mangos and scrape off the flesh, using a knife. Put the mango flesh in a blender and add the ice. Blend at medium speed to mix the ingredient. Add sugar and milk to taste if desired. Pour out and serve immediately!
Salabat - Ginger Iced Tea
Good hand full of ginger root
5 cups of water
1 cup of brown sugar
Slice the ginger root and boil all the ingredients together. Add more water if the tea is too strong. Strain and leave to chill in the refrigerator.