Much ado over adobo
Long before the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority came up with the present count of 7,641 islands that comprise the Philippines, almost all Filipinos knew the number to be 7,107 or 7,100. That count must have resonated with Ferdinand Marcos, who had a fetish for the number 7 and always made important decisions or timed significant events to fall on dates with 7 or multiples of 7. The proclamation of Martial Law was dated Sept. 21, 1972 (21 being three times seven) and Imelda’s custom car plate was IRM 777. If we become a Chinese province, feng shui may dictate a revision in the number of Philippine islands to read 8888.
We have always left nation-branding with the Department of Tourism (DOT). Its most memorable campaigns were “Wow! Philippines” and “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” While DOT lures tourists in with the promise of sun, sand, and smiling people, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) wants to do its share by promoting Philippine food to global diners. To do that, it has to first define Philippine cuisine, but people are resisting this as an attempt to “standardize” one of our most basic dishes—adobo.
Just like our flag and currency, our food is like the calling card of the country. It expresses who we are, how we want to be seen, and perhaps even who we want to be. Some countries have a unique or particular dish: burgers for the US, sushi for Japan, curry for India, paella for Spain, tom yum for Thailand, pho for Vietnam. Singapore has appropriated Hainanese Chicken rice for its own. If you are to believe Wikipedia, there is a debate on the Chinese national dish, whether it is dim sum (Southern China) or Peking duck (Northern China).
Wikipedia also once listed lechon as the Philippines’ national dish. Today, lechon is off this list, which now mentions adobo, sinigang, sisig, pancit, and halo-halo. Pioneering food historian Doreen Fernandez once challenged partisans of adobo with an essay proposing sinigang as the national dish, but some people objected, saying the sour soup is not available in some regions, unlike adobo which seems to be everywhere.
Contrary to popular belief, adobo was in the Philippines before the Spanish conquest. Unfortunately, adobo’s native name was not recorded, leaving us with a dish described with the Spanish verb adobar: “to marinate, pickle, or cure with vinegar.” Adobo is technically not the name of a dish; it is a process, a way of cooking. Adobo is a Philippine dish, not a Spanish one.
Adobo is one of the pre-Spanish ways of cooking developed as humans in this country evolved from primitive to civilized state, from indio to Filipino. Primitive people ate things raw. Cooking came about when they discovered and tamed fire. The first cooking method was roasting over an open fire. The next step in civilization was boiling, which required fire and a cooking vessel. People cooked to eat and also to preserve food, in the age before refrigeration and dehydration. Adobo preserved food by having it pickled in vinegar, or keeping the meat fresh and safe from vermin under a layer of lard. Traces of ancient food preservation can be seen in the typical Filipino breakfast: Salt dried and preserved fish into tuyo (dry) and daing; smoking gave us tinapa; drying gave us tapa; and curing gave us tocino and longanisa.
The DTI clarified that it is not out to “standardize” our cuisine. Rather, it wants to define it by breaking it down to its elements. This is where the problem lies. When you talk food, you are dealing with tastes that are legion and subjective. You have to deal not only with history and process but also with nostalgia. You can’t out-argue someone who claims “my adobo is better than yours” or “my lola’s adobo is better than everyone else’s.” Charles de Gaulle once remarked about France: “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” De Gaulle would be overwhelmed by the Philippines, with at least 21.8 million adobo recipes and variants based on the estimated number of households in the Philippines today.
Our Asean neighbors have defined and promoted their cuisine abroad, leaving us biting the dust. Defining adobo is easy, but promoting it abroad may be harder. Asian cuisines are presented well, the pinnacle being the Japanese bento box. Adobo is brown, not photogenic. Healthy eaters won’t find green leafy vegetables in it but pork and chicken swimming in an oily sauce pungent from vinegar and garlic. The better question should be: Do we want to be represented by adobo on the global table?
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