A grocery list from 17th-century Manila | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

A grocery list from 17th-century Manila

Why do we have a love-hate relationship with the Chinese? Archeological evidence suggests that our trading relations with China stretches back over a thousand years to the end of the Tang dynasty—a millennium of contact resulting in present-day Chinoys (natural-born Filipinos of Chinese ancestry), Chinese words in Philippine languages, Chinese influences in our culture and food, etc.

However, not all things are positive, and Filipinos today have good reason to resent or be suspicious of China because of its incursions into our territory in the West Philippine Sea, and the social issues that come with Pogos and the visibly large number of overseas Chinese working in the country.


Growing up, I heard playmates singing a tune from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” replacing the Italian lyrics “La donna è mobile (Woman is fickle)” with “Hopiang di mabile, may tae sa tabi (Hopia unsold has poo on the side).” My mother always wiped down her plate, bowl, and the lip of her glass when we ate in Binondo. From an early age, we copied her until it became an ingrained habit. It did not help that utensils in a panciteria were presented in a glass of boiling water, reinforcing the notion that the place was unsanitary. Then, of course, there are the urban legends about cat meat in siopao (referred to as “sio-meow”), and Robina Gokongwei’s “snake twin” that traps unlucky customers in department store fitting rooms.

Much of our anti-Chinese sentiment flows from the Spanish period, which was marked by bloody Chinese revolts. The most serious of these caused many deaths in 1662. In 1593, Spanish Governor-General Gomez Perez Dasmariñas was killed by mutinous Chinese while en route to capture the Moluccas. Today, Dasmariñas is the most prominent business street in Manila’s Chinatown.


In 1590, Domingo de Salazar sent a report on the Manila Chinese to Philip II, stating that they sold “flour, sugar, biscuits, butter, oranges, walnuts, chestnuts, pineapples, figs, plums, pomegranates, pears, and other fruits, salt pork, and hams, and in such abundance that the city and its environs are supported thereby during the whole year and the fleets and trading vessels are provisioned therefrom; they bring also many horses and cows, with which their land is well supplied.”

Then as now, the Chinese were blamed for controlling the market and manipulating the prices of basic goods. To protect the people, the Cabildo of Manila issued the Arancel of 1674, regulating the prices of goods and services from rice suppliers, butchers, locksmiths, fishermen, sugar traders, and even buyo peddlers. The price list gives us an idea of what was sold in the markets at the time. Markets in Manila were then limited to the protected area inside (intra) the walls (muros) and also the areas outside (extra) the walls (muros) that were known as suburbs (arrabales) of Manila. These included the districts of Dilao (yellow from turmeric) and Paco (from pako, the crunchy edible fern).

The means of exchange were reales (Spanish silver coins), medio-real (half a real), cuartillas (one-fourth or a quarter of a real), and barillas (small copper coins used as fractional currency). While the earliest sample of a barilla minted in Manila is dated to 1728, these seem to have been around earlier, because they were in use in 1674. Weights and measures were salop, ganta, chupa, manojos (bundles), chinanta or sinantan, cate, quintal, libra, arroba, tanca, etc., which have me all confused.

One barilla could buy either 8 tomatoes or 2 lettuces, 8 eggplants or 12 fresh green cabbages, 12 fresh heads of garlic or 6 radishes, 4 small cucumbers or 2 big cucumbers or 4 lemons, 8 fresh coconuts or 12 dessicated coconuts. More expensive goods included: one large white squash or one small calabaza for 6 barillas, 1 medium white squash for 4 barillas, or one big calabaza for half a real. Ginger cost 3 cuartillos. One real bought either 10 chicken eggs or 12 duck eggs, 3 gantas fresh chili or 2 gantas dry chili, 12 gantas of “Salt of the earth” or 6 gantas of Sal de Sangley (Chinese salt), 1 chinanta of dried onions or 1 chinanta dry garlic, 2 gantas frijoles or beans or 8 gantas of grape vinegar.

A grocery list from 1674 helps us imagine the food people cooked with these ingredients. When the National Archives reopens, I will check out the 1674 Arancel more fully to recreate life in 17th-century Manila.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: ancestry, Archeological evidence, China, Chinese, Chinoys, Tang dynasty
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