Republic of Taste
The hubby and I have been “honorary” Caviteños for over a decade now, even if, because of the terrible traffic on weekends and our desire to be with our grandchild, we haven’t been able to visit our weekend home in Alfonso for quite some time.
Still, perusing “Republic of Taste: The Untold Stories of Cavite Cuisine” by Caviteño extraordinaire Ige Ramos, I felt a twinge of regret at not having explored more of our adopted province. Especially since Ramos brings readers on a culinary tour of Cavite through memory, photography, recipes and anecdotes.
In his foreword, popular historian Ambeth Ocampo observes that while the history of Cavite is oft written about due to its role as the cradle of the revolutionary government and a catalogue of revolts and revolutions, Ramos has instead “chosen to trace Cavite’s past through its food and in the process found a history rooted in its food: how geography determined the products of the land, and how waterways explained physical mobility and the transfer of Chinese, Spanish, Mexican, American and Japanese influences over the centuries that gave shape, color and taste to their distinct food.”
In a series of essays, Ramos writes of a childhood marked by special dishes prepared for special occasions, as well as by everyday dishes born of convenience and the availability of ingredients in nearby markets.
During the book launching, one of many hosted by Ige’s friends and colleagues in the food world — this time by Andrew and Sandee Masigan of XO 46 Bistro at S Maison — Ramos described public markets as “museums of food,” where even the casual visitor can catch a glimpse of history, culture, geography and folkways just by browsing the various fruits, vegetables, seafood and condiments sold by vendors.
But where markets offer the raw ingredients, it is in the homes of Caviteño families and, lately, in restaurants that have “rediscovered” the value and appeal of home cooking, where one can find the fulfillment of the art of the province’s cuisine.
In a section on “Platitos de Condimentos,” Ramos writes of the various side dishes (not unlike the Korean “banchan”) that are employed to enhance, contrast with, deepen and lift the flavors of the main dishes. From such simple fare as mashed tomatoes lifted from the cooking pot and seasoned with fish sauce and even crumbled chicharon, to more complicated sides like pickled mangoes, pickled radish and a salad of fresh tomatoes and salted eggs, the condiments enrich the dining experience. Writes Ramos: “From my parents’ point of view, and no matter how basic the food was, having many plates on the table signified abundance. But more important was the fact that the family was partaking of and enjoying every minute of the meal.”
Another interesting section in “Republic of Taste” is a chapter titled “Terno-Terno, Tono-Tono.” It is, says Ramos, a distinguishing feature of Cavite cuisine, although I had read of food pairings from an old cookbook considered basic reading for Pinoy home cooks.
Anyway, the food pairings operate on the same principle as the “platitos de condimentos,” with the distinct flavors of a dish complemented by, contrasted with, or enriched by a companion offering. Some samples: the nutty kare-kare paired with the sour and savory adobong baboy; sinigang na bangus with the okoy (fried papaya fritters); sinigang na hipon (shrimps in sour broth) best with binagoongang baboy (pork cooked in salty shrimp paste); sinampalukang manok (chicken cooked in tamarind both) with fresh lumpia.
The dining experience is one fraught with variety and contrast, the salty with the savory, the soupy with the crunchy, the rich-tasting tempered by the clean and simple.
Those who disdain Filipino cooking as “peasant food” with no sophistication or subtlety need only read Ige Ramos’ take on “terno-terno, tono-tono” to realize that on the contrary the Filipino native palate (and not just the Caviteño version) is complex and multilayered, capable of appreciating complication and contrast, diverse and divine.
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