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Looking Back
‘Adobo’ in many forms

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:24:00 02/24/2009

Filed Under: Food, Human Interest, history

Food is the last thing that should be on my mind on Ash Wednesday, but I can?t help it. Why must meat taste exceptionally good on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Obviously, when you abstain from meat on these days, when you fast and take only one full meal for the day, any type of meat (or food) becomes better. Absence does make the heart and the taste buds grow fonder. But I shouldn?t complain. Muslims have their Ramadan, which is longer and more difficult than Catholic fasting and abstinence.

Food also came to mind early in the week because I found the Anthony Bourdain ?No Reservations? episode on the Philippines on YouTube, and I was glad that this eating show has finally made a stop in the Philippines after covering the rest of Southeast Asia. Our country and its food didn?t seem attractive enough for Bourdain and his producers, and we are lucky that a Filipino-American from New Jersey, with roots in Cebu, won a contest that got Bourdain here.

The interviews in Luzon with Ivan Man Dy, who took him to Dampa, and Claude Tayag, who took him to the goat and ?sisig? place in Angeles City as well as the barbecue chicken place everyone knows as ?Double Dead,? gave him a real taste of street food and ordinary fare. The dinner at Tayag?s by-appointment-only restaurant, Bale dutung (Wood house), in Angeles gave him the gastronomic fusion highlights of Kapampangan cuisine that every Filipino agrees is the best in the country, although I would think that Bacolod and Iloilo, which also grew rich in the 19th century from sugar, give Pampanga some competition.

A problem comes up when we are asked to define our food. We are a mix of so many cultures that we can get quite confused gastronomically. Ivan Dy said the ?national dish? is adobo. I used to think the same way too, until the late Doreen Fernandez suggested that it was something else in that landmark essay, ?Why Sinigang??

Come to think of it, we only have two ?national? things established by law: sampaguita as the national flower and narra as the national tree. Everything else, I think, was invented by National Bookstore in those gaudy postcards and teaching aids they have been selling since I was a boy. What is the national animal? Is it the tamaraw or is it the monkey-eating eagle whose indigenous name we have all but forgotten? What is the national fish? Is it ?bangus? [milkfish] or that smallest fish in the world from Bicol?

?Adobo? is a way of stewing with vinegar. It was used by the Spaniards to describe the food they encountered on the islands. What did we call ?adobo? before they arrived? That is lost to history.

One of the challenges in writing a history of Philippine food is the documentation. Ask any Filipino for his/her ?adobo? recipe and we will have as many kinds of ?adobo? from different places and palates. Charles de Gaulle is supposed to have said that it was difficult to rule France, a country with so many types of cheese. Wait till they see how many kinds of ?adobo? we have.

There are stray descriptions of food in travel accounts, from Pigafetta?s in the 16th century to current international travel guides like Fodor?s or Lonely Planet. Doreen Fernandez went into the 55-volume Blair and Robertson and the early Spanish dictionaries to find the base from which our cuisine springs, but the task is far from complete.

Sometimes we are lucky, as in the case of ?Recuerdos de Filipinas,? an album of photographs by Felix Laureano published in Barcelona in the late 19th century and recently translated from the original Spanish by Felice Noelle Rodriguez and Renan S. Prado, with all the photos enhanced and wonderfully reproduced by Rayvi Sunico of Cacho Hermanos. Laureano took pictures of Iloilo, and one of the things that caught my attention was a ?calenderia,? a makeshift structure, a lean-to with coconut fronds, raised from the ground that sold street food. The ?calenderia,? even if poor and miserable on its exterior, has everything inside. There, food and drinks are served to passing travelers. It has everything, from light tobacco, cigarettes, tobacco in leaf, for chewing ?buyo,? ?bonga,? ?mascada,? ?apug,? to white ?morisqueta,? ?puso,? ?inun-on,? ?sinig-ang,? ?lina-ga,? ?pakcio,? ?guinamus,? ?uga,? ?tinola,? ?inihao na manuc,? to frothy ?tuba,? ?nipa? liquor, ?vino sa lubi,? beer and soda water.

Aside from the dishes mentioned, there are ?tapa sang usa,? ?sang vaca,? ?isda nga minanticaan,? ?adobo? and ?escabeche? done in the style and taste of the country. For desserts and delicacies, there are: ?saging,? ?pina,? ?atis,? ?chicos,? ?limoncillos,? ?alfajor,? ?ticoy,? ?poto,? ?cuacoy,? ?calamay-hati,? etc.

Then he describes ?kari?:

?A common dish of the Europeans when they find themselves in the Far East. The ?kari? is made of chicken or of prawns. The chicken is cut up into pieces and fried in a pan with lard. When it turns half golden, one jar of coconut milk is poured into the pan and, as it boils, ?kari? powder is added. The powder is extracted from various aromatic and spicy herbs. One cooks the ?kari? sauce the same way with prawns as with the chicken. This dish is eaten mixed with a good plate of ?morisqueta? [rice].?

Is this curry or ?kare-kare?? If only we had more detailed historical sources on Philippine cuisine, it would help us to define not only what is Filipino food ? but also what it is to be Filipino.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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