Looking Back

What’s cooking in our heroes’ memoirs

/ 05:07 AM January 24, 2018

Anyone who takes the trouble to re-read Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” for pleasure, many years after surviving the high school and college courses dedicated to a study of these novels, are in for a surprise.

If you read the contemporary translations by Leon Ma. Guerrero, Soledad Lacson-Locsin, Harold Augenbraum or Virgilio S. Almario instead of the condensed and censored versions prescribed for use in high school, you will encounter the hero’s humor that pushes the narrative forward.


The many food references alone are fascinating because these suggest that Rizal could cook, or at least knew the process enough to explain what meals and levels of freshness he demanded from his cooks. Two of them were interviewed before the war: a certain “Asing” interviewed by Vicente Sotto in 1913, and Faustino “Tinong” Alfon interviewed in 1929. The former was a Chinese cook then in the service of Jose Ma. Basa who had earlier worked for Rizal in Hong Kong barely a year before he returned to Manila in 1892; the latter was both Rizal’s cook and handyman sometime during the hero’s Dapitan exile from 1892-1896.

Tinong narrated that Rizal had a predilection for lanzones and mangoes, that are mentioned in his correspondence with his family. For example, while he was detained aboard a Spanish ship in Manila Bay in August 1896, he sent his family a long wish list that included four pieces of Laguna cheese of very good quality (quesong puti), three pots of foie gras, 24 mangoes and lanzones. In another letter from Dapitan in January 1896, he asked for cinnamon, miki, sotanjun, bijun, cloves and soy sauce. Noodles were regularly sent to him when he was a student in Europe and it seems that he would contribute pancit when asked to bring a dish for potluck dinners with other Filipino associates. In February 1896, Rizal asked for tokwa, munggo and small dried fish (dilis perhaps?) complaining that “sometimes we have no viand.” According to Tinong, Rizal’s meals usually had three dishes one after another starting with a Filipino dish like sinigang or paksiw followed by a Spanish dish, and ending with something mixed or “mestizo,” whatever that means.

According to Asing, Rizal’s Chinese cook, his master was not delicado (fussy) regarding food. He ate everything, but was very moderate. He did not prefer rice over bread but had both served at breakfast and dinner. Wine was hardly served at his table according to Asing: “Not a drop of alcohol, Dr. Rizal was like a fish: He drank nothing but water.” This must have been difficult for him in Europe, and we have a letter he wrote his family from Germany where he related ordering beer “so as not to attract attention to myself.”

A historian of the 19th century is fortunate that our heroes did not have cell phones and left letters, diaries and other writings that can be mined for food references. For example, on Feb. 22, 1899, at the beginning of the Filipino-American War, Apolinario Mabini sent Emilio Aguinaldo a memorandum that read:

“I would like you to know also that yesterday I received a bill of lading for you, certifying that the Jefe in Dagupan had sent here a quantity of puto seco. I forwarded the bill to the Military Administrator, but he has not sent word whether he has gotten the puto seco from the train.”

While in exile in Guam on May 24, 1902, Mabini complained about prison food: “We are given plenty of flour, rice, coffee and sugar of good quality for which we are grateful; but from the time of our arrival here [January 1901] we have been fed on canned meat and canned tomatoes of which we are not only fed up but sick as well.” Mabini said the canned meat caused nausea and vomiting not just for him but his companions as well. His health improved when prisoners were allowed to buy fresh meat, chickens, eggs, fish and vegetables from Agana that supplemented the frozen meat from the US military commissary sent from time to time.

Bookstore shelves are bursting with cookbooks of all kinds and it is important to have more than recipe books for Filipino dishes, but books on regional cuisines, and books that trace how our food developed from the prehistoric Tabon man to the fusion dishes so wonderfully styled and photographed in our food magazines. Show me what you eat, as they say, and I will tell you who you are.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Apolinario Mabini, Asing, El Filibusterismo, Faustino Alfon, Jose Rizal, Looking Back, Noli Me Tangere, Vicente Sotto
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