One of the assignments in my course on “Food in Philippine Culture” in Sophia University, Tokyo was for the students to sample Philippine food sold outside St. Ignatius Church on Sundays. I was surprised that some students sought out hidden Filipino “restaurants” around Tokyo, while a few followed YouTube recipes for adobo, cooking them at home and later reporting that Filipino food was greasy, brown and generally unhealthy by their standards. I raised my hands in surrender and explained that not all our food is that bad. I mean balut is quite nutritious despite its notoriety as one of the world’s most disgusting foods.
My Japanese students reminded me of G. J. Younghusband, a British officer billeted in a Spanish-run hotel in Manila in 1898, who was not particularly impressed by the food he was served as he indicated with a graphic description in his book “The Philippines and Round About” (1899): “The perennial menu consisted of soup, very thin and greasy, and presumably made from boiled dish cloths. As piece de resistance came a portion of venerable cow, the father or mother of all cows, such original nutriment as it possessed having first been boiled out of it and possibly sold as soup elsewhere. Next would come a nameless horror, which a confiding public was invited to believe to be an entrée; this article from a purely archeological and geological point of view had some interest, and might be of value [to a museum]… for exhibition. Some people maintain that it was made of fragments of Egyptian mummy; others said that we were merely using up the broken remains of [Admiral] Montojo’s fleet. For myself I prefer to keep an open mind and leave conjecture to the scientists.”
Boiled dish cloth? Fragments of mummy wrapping? Could Younghusband be describing a dish we know as ropa vieja (literally, “old clothes”). This is still served today but is often referred to as nilagang baka that has been boiled so long or reheated more than once, such that the overcooked meat is turned into disintegrated strips resembling the remains of an old rag. The soup in this dish becomes thick and oily as described above.
Younghusband reminded us of the recycled canteen food many of us endured in school. For example, the pritong manok or fried chicken today was yesterday’s adobong manok, and would become tomorrow’s tinolang manok. The possibilities are endless for a creative cook or a canteen owner who closes shop with lots of leftovers for recycling the next day.
Reading Younghusband’s restaurant review was like doing archeological work. After digging up artifacts, you sit and try to figure out the past from broken pieces of earthenware and some bones of humans and animals. He continued:
“Occasionally, a venerable fish was added to the feast, and the banquet closed with a weird dish called carey, which consisted of small chunks of some defunct bird, by courtesy understood to be a fowl, floating about in liquid train-oil slightly spiced.”
I thought this was kare-kare but since its main ingredient was some sort of bird, it must have been the Pinoy-Spanish version of chicken curry. If this was indeed an Indian type curry, did he have mango chutney? It also made me wonder what hotel Younghusband was in because I would presume chicken curry would be served in the Binondo hotel Fonda Francesca de Lala Ari (The French hotel of Lala Ari) made famous by Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere.” Crisostomo Ibarra lodged here at the start of the novel.
Younghusband complained that: “No butter seems to be obtainable, if one expects a yellow horror reputed to be manufactured from old cocoa-nut chips, and the sight of which would certainly give any right-minded cow delirium tremens.” In those days butter was imported in cans from Australia and much later from Europe; thus many cooks, including my mother, would refer to canned butter she used for her pound cake as “Brun butter.” It’s very Filipino to use a generic name for things: toothpaste of any brand is called “Colgate;” men’s underwear are rightly called “brief” (without the “s”) or sometimes “Jockey”; all refrigerators are called “Frigidaire” and all cameras used to be “Kodak,” thus our picture-taking pastime is called “Kodakan.” The canned butter my mother used was not the Danish Brun butter anymore, but an Australian brand.
From May 1898, Manila was under a US naval blockade and food supplies were scarce and expensive. Younghusband may be politically incorrect to 21st-century readers, but he described the Philippines and the Filipinos as he saw and understood them. It is significant that Younghusband made a trip to Malolos, Bulacan, then capital of the First Philippine Republic, and there he was all praises for a certain Union Restaurant that I have to research on. Before Younghusband’s interview with Emilio Aguinaldo, he ate in Union Restaurant and raved over a first-class omelet, Oxford sausages and café au lait. I presume that while Intramuros was close to famine and would eventually surrender to the Americans on Aug. 13, 1898, all the gastronomic goodies were in Malolos. Little wonder then that the legendary banquet menus of Sept. 29, 1898 were possible.
Filipino students who see the name Younghusband today think of hearthrob soccer players, so its good for them to meet another Younghusband from another century whose meals reflected the Philippines then.
* * *
Comments are welcome at email@example.com