To understand a cuisine, the question to ask is not “What do we cook?” Instead, it should be, “Who does the cooking, and why do they do it in this particular way?”
You must understand more than simply the recipes.
– Chef Sean Brock, Heritage (Artisan Books, 2014)
When Brock talks about eating “nothing but ramps and cornbread” for several days, pickled watermelon rinds, and the local farmers and producers he works with, you understand the underlying principles that drive his quest to spread the love about Lowcountry cooking. Among many great passages from this phenomenal tribute to Southern cooking, I heartedly agree with one from the book’s jacket text: “Brock’s domain may be in the American South, but preserving one’s heritage and regional ingredients should be a mission for people everywhere.”
This is spot-on how I feel about Filipino cuisine!
Heritage is a wonderful book to sit down with, as much for the stories Brock so passionately tells of people and cooking in the South, alongside time-honoured techniques for making fermented foods, pickles and pork rinds, and learning about the terrain, history and tastes of rural Virginia and South Carolina.
Flipping through each page drew me closer to Brock’s message. After meeting culinary historian David Shields, for instance, he shares, “I knew a lot about food, but I didn’t necessarily know about what people call ‘foodways’ – all of the connections between material culture, agriculture, economy, taste, and regional preferences that make up what we might call a cuisine.”
As I embark on each week’s research topic for my Exploring Filipino Kitchens blog, I find I always walk away with more questions than expected about foods I admittedly don’t think much about.
Take bananas, which we toss into our grocery basket most weeks. An everyday food, sold everywhere from supermarket chains to corner stores and coffee shops everywhere in the world. How has a banana, which only grows in tropical climates, made its way into a 24-hour convenience store in downtown Toronto, shiny and blemish-free?
According to a review of The Wild and Cultivated Bananas of the Philippines, “There are currently 91 banana cultivars in the Philippines classified and characterized by the authors as primarily of local origin. Forty-one of these are described for the first time. Majority of these cultivars are found only in isolated areas, nine of which are grown by hill tribes and their fruits do not even reach local village markets.”
Doesn’t that just make you want to trek those mountain hillsides and find plots of banana trees (which are technically fruit from the flowering end of a pseudostem)? The blandness of supermarket Cavendish bananas – grown for visual appeal and transport stability – don’t stand a chance of competing with tree-ripened heritage banana breeds of the Philippines. I would love to take detailed tasting notes of cultivars such as the dessert-ready bungulan, the stout, symmetrical cardaba (popular for banana chips and banana-cue), and what I remember from my childhood most, the latundan – a fruit freckled with brown spots, about the width of an adult hand and riddled with sweetness from within.
In a burst of olfactory memory, the smell of breaking one banana from the bunch is making me crave a latundan banana, badly.