So why, exactly, am I so obsessed with finding out the history of food I like to call my own?
In quick, layman's terms, I think it is because of this - because I can't stop thinking of dishes I want to make on my own, and the pull of the taste and memories around food becomes stronger the longer I am away. I sincerely believe that Filipino food is damn good. It's more than the gelatinous blob of tepid adobo sitting under a heat lamp for six hours - it's the real stuff, the stuff that should be cared for and preserved, that I feel ardent about protecting and exploring, in the only way I know how - by taking to the internet.
I've been thinking about baked goods today, and in particular, uraro - a light, crumbly biscuit shaped like fat ladyfingers, made with arrowroot flour. In an essay titled "In Search of the Perfect Uraro" by Viol de Guzman (Savor the Word, Anvil Publishing), the writer talks about visiting an uraro bakery in the town of Liliw, Laguna. Through the years I've eaten uraro, I had no care for what they were made of - finally discovering now that the popular pasalubong (take-home) treat is made from a root flour! Was this another example of how the interesting history and origins of food that most Filipinos have at least tried gets lost on younger generations who know delicacies mostly by name, seldom by substance? It has the ability to become a moderately political issue too, I think, because until you're well off enough to have the time to think about where uraro comes from, like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a person's priorities lie with getting food on the table and securing a roof above their head.
With the artisan food movement's traction globally and a market for stripped down, traditional Filipino cuisine both in the Philippines and elsewhere, I think about whether that's what the internet can help do. Can talking about all this reboot our relationship with the food we love from the ground up, and make it worthy to be proud of our cuisine and its native roots?
"The uraro of yesteryear was a mixture of pure arrowroot flour, rendered pork fat, only the yolks of duck eggs, sugar and milk," says de Guzman. Today, uraro is made from a mixture of arrowroot flour (more often replaced with cassava flour or tapioca as arrowroot is expensive and scarce in the markets), sugar, milk, margarine and eggs.
Who keeps these traditional recipes alive? Do we lose most of them, if not all, due to cost-saving measures which I see the reason for, but is still sad nonetheless? De Guzman adds:
"Changing the recipe is a definite loss for Filipino cooking. Arrowroot flour made uraro light, delicate and easy to digest. The dark orange-red yolk of duck eggs gave its rich color. But it was pig's lard that elevated it into coveted gifts to visitors during town fiestas. An elderly woman whispered, passing on this culinary secret: pork fat, it made all the difference. It made uraro melt on your tongue."