The Filipino Appetite

What strikes me is that, by the time I became aware of the world outside my suburban bubble in the early 2000s, no one card to expound on Filipino food. What was ‘hot’ were the cool new restaurants that sprung up in places like Glorietta in Makati, Manila – restaurants in a big outdoor complex from every corner of the world, with one sit-down place serving ‘traditional’ Filipino food. Though we all loved our corner street food stalls, and frequently hung out there still to snack on fishballs or kwek-kwek (quail eggs deep-fried in an orange tempura-like batter) in between classes, the kids who I went to college with all trained to study French techniques, made dishes that tried to recreate what was happening elsewhere in the world. And I get it – to raise our level of prosperity, to compete with the world, the Philippines’ top cooking schools taught what modern chefs needed to do to become employed in hotel kitchens and cruise liners around the world. But I never learned to cook sinigang for myself – nor do I remember ever being taught anything in school, formally, of the history of our food, fragmented as we are as a nation. It was just assumed that everyone would know about it, or know someone who could tell you ten essays’ worth of information about traditional Filipino cooking.

As Manila (and the Philippines) catches up to the rest of the world, and urban sprawl begins to creep out of cities where call centres have successfully taken off, as dense communities pile atop each other and a generation of middle-class Filipino kids grow up dining in expensive restaurants for their birthdays while eating packaged sinigang mix at home – I wonder whether many other young people really know what it’s like to eat Filipino. Yes, food is cool and trendy, and people post pictures of their food on every online platform possible – but do we realize how rich, enticing, and emotionally satisfying it is to eat with our mouths, hands and hearts? I feel silly writing about how all this is making me reconsider the food I have such a strong connection with, much simply by memory. My family loves talking about food. My dad tells a story about lechon – about how he remembers my grandmother coming back with a piglet from the palengke (market) in January, and how with his nine other siblings they raised the pig and fattened him up to be a succulent lemongrass-stuffed hog in time for Christmas. We talked about what parts of the pig go into sisig, that dish of chopped, boiled and grilled pig’s ears and cheeks, utterly grossing my Canadian-raised teenage sister out – and I find myself wondering whether other people find this interesting as well.

I’m unsure of what I intend on doing with these notes, but I do want to get them down. I want to figure out why in my head, I feel like I can turn this around, to bring awareness of Filipino food to a larger audience. We have so much to share, techniques that food magazines and bloggers dedicate pages and countless photographs to; a respect for ingredients, cooking practices and knowledge passed down generations, on techniques that include grating coconuts using a dedicated coconut-husking bench, backyard sources of plant and animal food, hands-on butchery and nose-to-tail cooking, not letting a scrap go to waste – like fads, these concepts and popular thinking streams on food circle back to their roots, of recognizing the immediate and real bounty of everything that can be grown, harvested, and eaten around you – no matter what part of the world you’re in.

Here are passages from one of my favourite writers, Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, from an essay called “Slow Food” (Savor the Word, Anvil Publishing) that I’d like to share.

When Nita, my cook, goes home to Gapan, Nueva Ecija, she always returns bearing a native, free-range chicken which she had chosen live in the market, taken home in a net bag, and boiled lightly in water and salt at her sister’s home. With it she brings the souring element: dahon ng sampaloc – the tiny leaves and flowerets picked from tamarind bushes.

The resulting dish, sinampalukang manok sparked with ginger bits, is ambrosia. It is not sinigang na manok, which is soured with boiled and mashed tamarind fruit. This is chicken – and its liver, gizzard, heart and blood – tenderized and flavoured with tamarind sprouts and flowerets, its sourness at a gentle edge, its tastiness uniquely pleasurable.

The is slow food, Philippine style, and I am ready to campaign door-to-door to make sure that food like this is not endangered, is not erased from collective memory, is preserved for Filipinos of the future, along with other dishes like it.

Doreen has inspired me to write more.

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