I am writing this because, as historian Ken Albala says, “the history of cooking methods, recipes and food customs can help us become more responsible consumers who get greater pleasure from what we eat.” In reading historical books about food, he ventures that “armchair time travel…transports us to a strange, exotic place that might inspire new ways of eating today.”
Because articles like this can reach entirely new audiences, thanks to the technology that allows us to share knowledge so quickly (and intimately) online. And because I have been so taken with a project called The Filipino Food Research Collective, gathering champions of Filipino food for the purpose of documenting Philippine foodways, then presenting that information in beautiful ways.
And because, above all, I learned so much within Felice Sta. Maria’s 320-page compendium of Filipino food history that I feel it necessary to share how one book can make you think of an ordinary subject in entirely new ways.
At the same time I was reading The Governor General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, I also started watching a Great Courses online series titled “Food: A Cultural Culinary History”, taught by Albala. Progressing through the book and the 36-episode series felt like I was taking a university course on the history of Filipino food (something I would sign up for!).
It made me think of how awesome it would be to connect Filipino food researchers and historians with the people who are now bringing their interpretations of Filipino food to life across the globe - because we need to participate in traditions to keep them alive.
“Philippine cuisine thankfully continues to evolve sensitively, creatively and, hopefully, with expanded understanding and revelation,” writes Sta. Maria in the book’s epilogue. “As our kitchens…and Filipino cooks shine in the international food and beverage profession, it is now time to take stock of the enlightenment that our tables offer as they nurture both body and soul.”
Here are some of my favourite passages from the book. I hope you find them enlightening, as I did!
On Culinary Contrivances (Chapter 4)
“Native culinary aids are fashioned from tropical woods, coconut shell, bamboo and rattan,” Sta. Maria writes, at the beginning of an entire chapter devoted to utensils found in Philippine kitchens. She writes about cooking pots and pans and how in 1521, explorer Antonio Pigafetta recorded that rice prepared “under the fire in bamboo…lasts better than that cooked in earthen pots”. On earthenware jars, bowls and pitchers, she lists 87 (!) terms that are used across the Philippines - some more than others - to this day. Of mortars and pestles, she talks about brass models called bowayawa made by Maranaw craftsmen, “characteristically decorated with okil motifs and sport both a handle reminiscent of the sarimanok bird’s tail, and a spout.”
What I especially enjoyed was a passage describing how cacao beans were processed in the Philippines, when they first made their way to the islands aboard the galleons that sailed from Acapulco. “Dried, shelled beans were hand-ground over a granite metate made by Chinese stone carvers who copied the Aztec prototype called metatl,” Sta. Maria writes, and melted chocolate dripped into a bilao below.
There is extensive information on knives, cutters and scrapers; spoons, stirrers and turners; sieves and filters; moulds (largely wooden and inspired by Christian iconography); cups and glasses; plates, trays and sauces; as well as special utensils such as steamers and baskets “developed regionally for use in different hunting, farming, fishing and travelling activities.”
On Food for the Gods (Chapter 10)
Though pigs, chickens and root crops figure heavily as food offerings across the Philippines (from tribes who worshipped animistic figures to Roman Catholics today), no other food rivals the popularity of rice cakes as a preferred offering for the gods.
“The earliest rice cakes were puddings either cooked in a pot, wrapped in leaves and boiled, or steamed in bamboo tubes,” Sta. Maria writes. “They were also baked amidst glowing embers while shod in bamboo joints or thick leaf wrappers.”
Glutinous rice (the grain of choice for imparting the spongy, sticky texture which characterizes Philippine rice cakes) is best consumed right after harvest - milled, soaked overnight, then ground in a rotary quern or mortar and pestle to make galapong, or rice flour dough, which forms the base of all rice cakes.
Sta. Maria lists over 80 different types (with a few corn and cassava derivatives) in her “rice cake round-up”. These include:
bibingka and its regional variations
busi, popped glutinous rice or corn thrown into liquefied sugar, then formed into balls
dodol, a Maranaw delicacy of coconut milk, brown sugar, durian pulp and rice flour
kaskaron, a sweet puff made of rice pounded into a powder and boiled in sugar
opia, ornamental cakes from Ilocos studded with black and red sesame seeds, shaped like miniature men and horses
panarra, the generic term for deep-fried empanadas whose pastry is made from rice flour instead of wheat (filled with shredded green papaya or bottle gourd flavoured with shrimp, pork, onions and garlic)
puto and its variations
suman and its many more regional variations, such as patupat in Pampanga (wrapped in buri or pandan leaves), budbod in Cebu (wrapped in banana leaves), ibos in Bicol (wrapped in palm leaves), sumang balinghoy (made with grated cassava), sumang mais (made with corn flour) and sumang saba (with pounded bananas, coconut and panocha, thickened with cassava)
On Paschal Preparations (Chapter 12)
No one argues that Spanish cooking has intrinsically woven itself into Philippine culinary history; what was new to me was the idea of framing the diversity of Filipino food specifically through Easter and Christmas delicacies, prepared for the country’s most widely-celebrated holidays.
On Good Friday, “no housework was allowed…so everyone, down to pot washers, could focus on spirituality.” This prompted the need to have food prepared the day before - enter escabeche, whole fish marinated in a seasoned sauce, made for next-day consumption. Of this Lenten dish, Sta. Maria writes, “the Chinese interpretation (with fish dipped in batter, fried in oil then bathed in a sweet-and-sour sauce with strips of ginger, red pimientos and carrots) became the Filipino prototype, rather than the original Iberian version which kept cooked fish in a wine or wine-vinegar sauce overnight.”
For Easter Sunday in 1877, an Intramuros pastry shop called La Mallorquina advertised “delicious, unrivalled, butter-soaked ensaimadas” to its clientele of Spanish elite, cementing the sweet brioche’s place as a dessert of luxury for many middle-class families.
Christmas brings a slew of treats, popularized across the islands by travelling missionaries. For example, though farmers had long harvested pirurutong (glutinous purple rice) just before the new year, the practice of serving puto bumbong (that “singular delicacy of special rice steamed in short bamboo tubes”) after mass at dawn was one brought about by priests - and now Christmas in the Philippines is unthinkable without these purple cakes, generously topped with shredded coconut, brown sugar and butter, enjoyed early in the morning with a cup of salabat (ginger tea) or tsokolate (hot chocolate).
“No Yuletide table was complete without a show of summertime fruits preserved in light to thick syrups,” Sta. Maria adds, especially for “santol harvested after Maytime…a common Christmas feature.”
Those with relatives in Pampanga were regarded lucky to have reliable sources of pastillas de leche (a soft candy made primarily of milk and sugar) and, during the American occupation, sans rival (a cake made of rich buttercream and chopped cashews pressed between layers of coffee-flavoured meringue). Families in Bicol enjoyed mazapan de pili, a riff on the Alicante region of Spain’s renowned turron and mazapan sweets.
On Pansiterias (Chapter 15)
“Pansit is a linguistic Filipinism. Even observant Jose Rizal noted in his travels that pansit was missing from Chinese and Japanese vocabularies,” writes Sta. Maria. Of its etymology, she says that one linguist “traces the term to pan, meaning ‘to cook rice or make noodles’, and sit, referring to ‘food’ or a meal”.
In 1866, Pansiteria Antigua opened in Binondo, Manila - one of the city’s earliest documented public eateries devoted to making pansit. Sta. Maria writes, “Pansiteria Antigua had a wide selection of short orders…most popular of them was pansit canton for which patrons waited in long lines around 11 am and again at 5 pm.”
Prior to World War II, Antigua’s menu also included dishes such as sopa de tiburón, sopa de nido, sopa de ho to tay, cameron rebosado, pinsic frito, cameron con jamon, lumpia de Shanghai, bijon tostado and lumpia grande (a further post will have to delve into the origins of these dishes!). Lauriat menus, which offered a set menu per table, were a popular option for families dining out - “Antigua’s peacetime Php 30 lauriat would cost Php 4,000-5,000 in 1984”, Sta. Maria writes.
I loved reading about the variety of noodle dishes served at these pansiterias, which sprang up around Binondo’s Chinatown and eventually across the Philippines. I learned that pansiterias were often two-floor establishments, where take-out orders were taken on the ground floor and main dining areas were above; that the busiest periods of service were “close to merienda when noodles were favoured (particularly by card and mahjong players)”.
At another place called Pansiteria Ilang-Ilang, Sta. Maria writes, “the morning menu consisted of hot, quickly cooked dishes: bachoy, fish ball soup, kutya (similar to pork chops) and bitsu-bitsu.” She furthers that other Chinese competitors served “am with typical side dishes like salted cucumber, century egg, dried fish flakes and chicken bits.” In the evening, Ilang-Ilang served “pansit in variations more varied than at tea time: lomi, bison guisado, miki guisado and sotanghon.”
Such a range of choices! I can only wish pansiterias such as these existed today - that would be amazing to set up and introduce to new audiences. Done right, there is so much potential, I think, in resurrecting these pansiterias to serve the noodle dishes (and accoutrements) they historically became known for.