piña / pinya

Illustration by William Hooker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A tropical fruit that’s yellow as the sun when ripe, delicately sweet (as I imagine honey tinged with tropical grass tastes like) and covered in prickly, swordlike leaves (capped by an equally thorny crown). Scientific name: Ananas comosus.

Pineapples are an example of composite fruit, which means that instead of growing into full-fledged fruit from seed (like an apple), pineapples are actually made of up to 200 tiny, berry-like segments that grow larger (and juicier) as they creep upwards the fruit’s central axis, spiralling to the top.

The Philippines grows three main varieties of pineapples. The Cayenne and Queen, known locally as the “Hawaiian” and “Formosa”, respectively, are most of what’s grown for canning. Both these varieties are long-established favourites for their balance of sweet and acidic notes, dense flesh, and pleasurable aroma. The Red Spanish variety, or “Philippine Red”, has a slightly more acidic flavour tinged with a hint of cardamom; best consumed fresh, the Philippine Red is also renowned for the quality of its delicate yet tensile piña fibres (spun from the plant’s leaves).

The Philippine Council for Agriculture and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARD) lists the following ways pineapples are consumed in the Philippines:

• fresh, sold whole or pre-sliced by your suki at the neighbourhood market or your local grocery store
• canned as slices, spirals, chunks, spears, tidbits and cubes
• crushed from the core, bits and pieces of pineapple flesh that don’t meet canning specifications
• juiced, from all of the above cuts
• as jams and jellies, by themselves or combined with other fruit
• as crystallized or glazed candy
• as wine and vinegar, produced from allowing pineapple juice to ferment with natural starters
• as a uniquely Philippine food product called ‘nata de piña’, a stand-in for gelatin in desserts that’s crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle (the wonders of nata to be discussed in a future post!)

From old world to new…

Here’s what I love about culinary history: you gain the right to be a sleuth, be rewarded with the clues you gather, and contribute to defining a region’s foodways.

What I’ve learnt is that pineapples were first cultivated in Brazil, where a number of wild varieties still grow in its lowlands. In The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press, 1999), food historian Alan Davidson writes, “No primitive form of the modern pineapple, which is almost invariably seedless, has been found, and the evolution of the fruit we know remains a mystery.” Cultivation spread from Brazil to the West Indies, he continues, owing much of its success to the pineapple’s resiliency to drought and ability to propagate from cuttings and shoots.

In 1493, Davidson writes, “Columbus’ expedition discovered the pineapple on Guadalupe, and were astonished and delighted by its qualities.” As European sailors brought pineapple cuttings back with them to the new world, gardeners worked on growing the exotic fruit for royal families (Sir Walter Raleigh called pineapples the “princesse [sic] of fruits”), establishing pineapples as a symbol of wealth and privilege among the English elite (which could explain why there is a pineapple atop the Wimbledon men’s trophy).

…then on to the global market

Next time you’re at the grocery store, pick up a can of Del Monte or Dole pineapples from the canned fruit aisle and notice its label; chances are high you’ll see it labelled a ‘Product of the Philippines.’

Pineapple slices, chunks and juice are shipped across the world from fields across the Philippines; in 2011, pineapple harvests reached 2.2 million tonnes sourced from over 58,000 hectares of farmland, according to the Philippine Department of Agriculture. To provide a visual, that’s roughly the weight of 850,000 elephants spread over 58,000 football stadiums. That’s a lot of goddamn pineapples!

Most of the Philippines’ pineapple exports are grown and processed in northern Mindanao, largely by the Del Monte and Dole companies. Over 50% of the country’s pineapples grow on the slopes of mountainous Bukidnon and across vast plantations in Davao, South Cotabato and General Santos, in fields far as the eye can see. Though the fruit is also grown in Luzon and Visayas, most of that harvest is slated for local consumption.

Piña-licious

Taking stock of Filipino food recipes with pineapples in them is an interesting point of entry. Many Filipinos are familiar with seeing chunks of fresh pineapple in a cold fruit salad, or beautifully glazed rings atop a sugar-crusted baked ham; both ways of consuming pineapples made to accompany and complement American dishes, tailored to Filipino taste.

With the consistent availability and affordability of canned pineapples, regional specialties such as pininyahang manok (chicken with pineapples and coconut milk) and sinigang sa pinya (a sour meat or seafood stew with pineapples) have also became common family dinner fare.

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