Season to taste

Season to taste

When I was 9 years old, I tasted something new.

I was visiting the Philippines with my father. Red-hot charcoal gently smoked beneath black-crusted metal in a crackling mini-grill standing to the side. My aunts and older cousins were gathered around with plastic cups filled with fizzling Coca-Cola as my father and his friends drank Red Horse beers. As I peered over to look at what was cooking, I saw sticks of bright red sausage steaming over the embers.

What’s that?” I asked, pulling on my father’s sleeve.


“It’s a Filipino hotdog.”


I thought hotdogs were American.”

“There’s American hotdogs, yes, but there are Filipino hotdogs, too. This one is sweet. Anyways, you’ll like it. Try it later, pupung.”

He ruffled my hair and turned to continue drinking with his friends as the Cavite sky lay dimly lit by swimming starlight. When I ate rice with that red sausage, the sweetness welled up not just upon my taste buds, but slowly clenched around my heart. I did not know it then, but it was a universal flavor held by food from all cultures—the lovely, dainty relish of love.

As I grew up, I was slowly taught that people fell under different terms, like shifting labeled boxes. Filipino, Thai, Chinese, Malay. Then, they sorted these boxes into endless shelves: Asian, Hispanic, White, Black. And so it was obvious that food, too, fell under different categories, a strange little rule every chef and consumer seemed to follow. The wonton mee from the Pontian restaurant near my childhood home in Singapore, for example, lay smothered dry in a sea of black sauce, while there was a milder version simmered in pork broth in the Chinese restaurant downtown.

I pestered my Thai mother about this question of mine as she was cooking dinner one night. I watched her stir a piping-hot pot of tom khaa, a soup similar to tom yum that possessed a unique addition of coconut milk that colored its soup a tangible white. She said, “Each culture’s food always has its own taste. Here in Singapore, everything is mild. In the Philippines, they like sweet and salty flavors.”

“Like what?”


Like your father’s spaghetti with banana ketchup in it.”

My mother had forced my father to let her raise me with her more sour recipe, refusing to serve sweet spaghetti in her own home. I would only eat it at the birthday parties of my father’s Filipino coworkers. “That’s because all food is seasoned to the taste of the chef.” My mother said gently, “That’s why every dish tastes a little different. They’re like children.”

My mother’s lesson was a nugget of wisdom that would be periodically unearthed whenever I sat down at a table to eat a new meal. I remembered her words whenever I looked to the side at recess to see my Chinese classmates eating soy sauce fried noodles, how they ate a little differently, holding their chopsticks differently from how I held mine. It arose gently in my thoughts as my father happily chewed on prata, sopping up curry as he used his hands to shovel food into his mouth rather than using a spoon and fork.

It became more obvious when I was spirited away on a plane to move to the Philippines, home to a plethora of cuisines both recognizable and unknown. Filipinos are different from my Singaporean friends—they ate meals as a large family, while most of my friends would often eat in their rooms. I realized what my mom was trying to tell me: much like how food tastes different according to how it was prepared, people from different cultures were much the same.

The taste of love was familiar whenever I ate something I had never eaten before. That flavor, not just relegated to the sweetness of that red hotdog or the sour creaminess of my mother’s tom khaa, was love and care carried across a thousand generations, and boiled, grilled, scorched, and mixed into food: a language that transcended the barriers of the wordy classifications of origin and skin. Regardless of seasoning, spice, or texture, food became a carrier for the soul of cultural ingenuity: a vessel in which we, the foreign traveler, could peer into the keyhole and embrace a world we previously would never dare step foot in. And once we do, we can find the little similarities between our cultures. The same textures, tastes, and scents between the food we grew up with and the food from a street restaurant, swimming in a country across the seas: because while all food was made to nourish and sustain human life, they are all seasoned to taste.

Languages may have barriers, and foreign cultural traditions may be difficult to grasp: but food remains stalwart in its enduring openness. Perhaps, then, food is the ultimate vehicle for cultural understanding.

“Do you like it?” My father asked as he took a swig of his beer. Far away from my old home in Singapore, I, now 19, sat on a monobloc chair, chewing on barbecue. The meat tasted sweet. Seeing the smiles of my relatives around me, the sweetness of the meat I would otherwise steer away from somehow became milder, and a warm feeling gathered in my stomach.

“It’s different,” I said. “But it’s still delicious.”


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Regina Sara Zalameda, 19, is a biracial student studying at Southville International Schools and Colleges.

TAGS: alcoholic beverages, Philippines

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