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Looking Back

Fast food, slow food

/ 10:55 PM January 26, 2012

Surprising was the readers’ reactions to my last column. The reactions prove that one of the sure ways to get a Pinoy’s attention is to talk about food. The only topic that would probably make Pinoys stop in their tracks, aside from the latest political, show biz or society gossip, is sex. One of the comments on the column came from historian Dr. Norman Owen who asked about the link, if any, between the Pampanga “biringhi” with a similar rice dish from India called “biryani.” The former National Library director, Dr. Serafin D. Quiason, maintains there is a definite connection somewhere in history between these two dishes. This reminded me of the Indian actress and food writer Madhur Jaffrey, who told me to look up an Indian link to our own bibingka.

Food can be a fascinating area of research because it is not confined to a library or archive but involves dishes, meals and the magical process that converts basic ingredients into something special. French food philosopher Brillat-Savarin was quoted as saying that “the discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.”

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While researching into early relations between Japan and the Philippines, I came across Iustus Takayama Ukon, the Christian daimyo who was exiled to and died in Manila in 1614. I had only associated his name with a local Japanese restaurant and was pleased to connect him with a statue that stands in Plaza Dilao in Paco, Manila, that was a Japanese settlement in the 16th-17th centuries.

When I found out that Lord Takayama was a famous tea master, I remembered the slow, measured movements of the Japanese tea ceremony. The ritual turning of the vessel, the graceful wiping of the vessels with different kinds of cloth, and the contemplative sipping from the edge of the vessel and the sharing with others, weren’t these movements influenced by or had their origins in the movements of a priest in a Roman Catholic Mass?

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Spanish and Portuguese missionaries tried to convert Japan to Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries, resulting in the martyrdom of San Lorenzo Ruiz of Binondo and San Pedro Bautista, a Spanish Franciscan who once lived in what is now San Francisco del Monte in Quezon City. It was surprising to find out that something as Japanese as tempura was introduced by the Portuguese, and that the Japanese did not have deep-fried butter dishes till the Portuguese sailed to their shores in the 16th century.

There are so many foodies in town these days. Aside from the many cookbooks being published locally each year, we have a few that complement the pioneering works of Philippine food historian Doreen G. Fernandez. These books are works of reference that link food and history. These are authored by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Felice Sta. Maria, Fernando Nakpil Zialcita, Gene Gonzalez, Claude Tayag and Mary Anne Quioc. Because my mother taught all of us to cook during our childhood years, I learned how to tell if a dish will turn out well simply by looking at a recipe or by being told how a dish would be done.

Now that I use modern appliances and gadgets I remember old cooking tips from old cooks in Pampanga who would say, “Nung buri mung pamabutan ing carni dinan mung platu (If you want the meat you are cooking to become tender, put it in a plate) or “Nung buri mung masanting a color ing lulutuan mung matamis dinan meng pera (If you want the color of the fruit preserves you are cooking to look good, put in money).” Taken literally, an advice like this sounds ridiculous until one asks for explanations.

Traditional cooks, both male and female, know that one does not put in plates when boiling meat, rather one puts in broken pieces of China to hasten the boiling of water and the softening of meat.

Pampangos who make fruit preserves know that cooking kamias, for example, would result in an unseemly discoloration of the skin, unless it is cooked in a tatso or copper pan. In the absence of the copper pan or similar cooking implement, old folks used to mix copper coins with the fruit being cooked. These would be taken out when the cooking was over. This was the “pera” they were talking about and it was just as effective as the tatso.

Today we have no use for these tips because we have meat tenderizers and other sophisticated equipment to help with tough meat. You have instant meals in cans, in tetra packs, frozen or in bottles, all ready to eat by adding boiling water or simply placing everything in a microwave oven. A wide variety of artificial food coloring and seasoning is readily available and very cheap. Why bother to cook or bake at home when it is simpler to eat out or buy a ready-made dish from one of the gourmet markets in Manila?

The preparation of food in Pampanga is changing and a new generation has been reared on fast food that is now being slowly countered by groups advocating slow food and organic products. In my own time I have seen how food has changed and, maybe, all these experiences will inspire me to finally rewrite and update my undergraduate thesis on “Food in Pampango Culture” that was not just an academic exercise but also a way for me to trace my paternal roots in a province famous for its cuisine.

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TAGS: Food trip, food writer Madhur Jaffrey, former National Library director Dr. Serafin D. Quiason, French food philosopher Brillat-Savarin, historian Dr. Norman Owen, Lord Takayama, San Lorenzo Ruiz of Binondo, San Pedro Bautista
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