Looking Back

7,000 islands with 28,000 ‘adobo’ variations

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Teaching A course on food in Philippine culture to Japanese students has opened my eyes to what we eat, why we eat, and what our cuisine reflects about our history, leading to ideas on what we think we are as a people. My Japanese students were assigned to try Philippine food, and the easiest way to do this is to sample the street food outside St. Ignatius Church on Sundays: lugao, pancit, barbecue, banana-Q, all sold together with phone cards, Pinoy movie magazines, banana ketchup, Eskinol, and rubbing alcohol in the familiar green bottle that makes you remember, “Di lang pangpamilya, pang-sports pa!” The stalls outside this church on Sundays present a slice of home in a foreign land; in early spring you can have adobo under the cherry blossoms. With winter approaching, I’m thinking of trying Japanese tinapa, tuyo, or daing na bangus because I won’t risk eviction by cooking these in my apartment.

My students went the extra mile: They looked for turo-turo tucked away in different corners of Tokyo, one interviewed his Filipino friends, some tried cooking adobo by following a recipe on YouTube. I also asked them to look up the CNN list of 50 foods that define the Filipino. We are an archipelago, and in Spanish-period dictionaries, the food-related terms in our languages are mostly related to rice, our staple food, and fish from river and sea. Why is it that in the 21st century, fish and rice are listed way below meat dishes that are predominantly pork, followed by chicken and beef?

Preparing my lecture was a challenge because I wanted to use pictures that flattered our food, which is far from photogenic. Adobo is always brown and oily. How could I entice my students to try dinuguan, balut, betute or kamaru? My students were an adventurous lot and tried Tokyo turo-turo, and one of their striking observations was that Pinoy “restaurants” were small and seemed to cater only to Pinoys. In contrast, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian restaurants, for example, can be found all over Tokyo catering to a general or curious public, not just homesick nationals abroad.

Reading the papers of my students and listening to their experience of tasting Philippine food made me realize how the tastes and eating habits of Filipinos have changed in the past two or three decades. In the past, Filipinos would not go out to eat Philippine food that they enjoy at home or in the homes of friends. Today there are many restaurants that serve Philippine food, mostly the cholesterol-rich staples of fiesta fare. One can credit the late Lorenzo Cruz for bringing the Pampanga food of his father, E. Aguilar Cruz, to Manila. He was one of the first to serve: kamaru (mole cricket), betute (frog minus the head and stuffed with ground pork), palos (freshwater eel cooked in coconut milk), etc. These were viewed as gastronomic exotica in Manila, but old folk in Pampanga would say that these were common country fare that wouldn’t have been served to guests at a party.

Food ways have changed because we now have fast food and ready-to-eat Pinoy goodies. Big food companies like Magnolia and Purefoods distribute pre-packaged food all over the country, changing the way we eat. Clean, air-conditioned supermarkets are now preferred over wet markets. Fresh produce is harder to get than blast-frozen chicken, shrimps, meat, etc. One does not even have to know how to cook because we have “instant” food preparations now. Leche flan, kare-kare, paella, etc. come in packets that have the simplest instructions like: “Just add water.”

In Pampanga the generic term for food is pamangan. The Pampango fixes his menu around the nasi or steamed white rice, which is the staple food of Filipinos. The asan (which can mean fish, “asan danum,” or meat) must contrast with the bland nasi. So you have, among other things, nilaga or liga (boiled pork or chicken or combinations of these with seasoning, potatoes and cabbage), sigang (Pampango for sinigang, a dish with pork or fish with broth soured by tamarind, kamias, santol, etc.), arobu (Pampango for adobo, pork and chicken sautéed in garlic and soy sauce), asan danum (any type of fish fried, grilled, or in soup), tidtad (Pampango for dinuguan, and, unlike the Tagalog kind, uses pork tripe, bituka, etc. and gets its name from tidtad, meaning “chopped”), to name a few.

These foods are basically the same everywhere, but what makes food different in each region is worth further study and observation. Food is something we see every day and we rarely give it a second thought, unless we are comparing it with something else. I studied the food of my father’s province for my undergraduate thesis, and now I’m learning about food from the eyes and palates of my Japanese students.

Food is not just for eating; it is a language that expresses the history and identity of a people. Maybe the Filipino search for that elusive thing we call national identity can be found not just in history books but also in the adobo and sinigang on our plates. The problem is that we have 7,000 islands and over 28,000 variations of adobo. Where to start is part of the fun.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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