From ‘palay’ to ‘kanin’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

From ‘palay’ to ‘kanin’

GREEN IS the color of the season. Green is often associated with De La Salle University as blue is with the Ateneo de Manila. Green used to be associated with Gilbert Teodoro as blue is to Mar Roxas and yellow with Noynoy Aquino. When I had Rizal’s boyhood home painted green, citizens of Calamba saw red. The reason for my decision was that Rizal’s name (sometimes spelled “Risal”) is supposed to have come from the word “racial” which refers to a green field ready for harvest. Because of my ignorance, I had the Rizal house painted green, only to be told later that when palay is ready for harvest it is golden, not green! Now all things relating to the Rizal sesquicentennial (150 years) carry green as a motif.

Rice came to mind again the other day in a Chinese restaurant when we couldn’t decide whether to have plain boiled or “white rice” or the different varieties of fried rice: yangchow, scallops, salted fish, pork, chicken or vegetable rice. A wider array of choices also greets shoppers in groceries who have to choose between different types of white rice or between white, red, brown rice or a mixture of them. There is also long grain rice, fragrant rice and other choices that make me wonder what “ordinary rice” is today.


We are bombarded with so many choices today that some people look back with nostalgia to the time when things were simpler, when Coke came in only one type, and didn’t have to decide between Regular, Diet, Zero or Cherry Coke. Sugar used to be a choice between white or brown before Splenda came along. Salt used to be fine or coarse, but now we have rock salt, iodized salt, sea salt, table salt, cooking salt, Himalayan, Pangasinan, etc. We are confronted daily with many choices that confuse and confound us, a thousand options blown away by one choice. Life may be richer in our time than the time of our heroes, but it is definitely more complicated.

I was thinking of rice and how Westerners only have to know raw or cooked rice while Filipinos have a whole vocabulary for their staple food that differentiates between bigas (raw rice) from sinaing (boiled or steamed rice) to kanin (cooked rice). Because rice is an important part of Filipino life, we tend to see and eat it but rarely notice the words and the culture that come with it.


Early Tagalog dictionaries compiled by Spanish friars from the 17th to the 19th centuries yield a lot of words for food, the most number of references being to rice and fish, which reflects the diet of our ancestors. Going through my old notebooks, I came across many words related to rice. For example, “quilao” which we use today to refer to fish served one step from raw as in kinilaw by being cooked without fire, but pickled in vinegar. “Quilao” in 17th century Tagalog meant cooking rice slowly in water, a rather rare word unlike “saing” which is putting rice over a fire.

In these days of rice cookers, we hardly burn rice (unless you disregard the cooking instructions) so the words “agom” and “alimpuyoc” have fallen into disuse. Even the smell of burning rice, “angi,” has practically disappeared from our experience and vocabulary.

This reminds me of my childhood when my mother shocked her in-laws in Pampanga by asking the kitchen staff to bring out the tutong or burned rice. Eyebrows were raised in my grandmother’s house each time she asked for tutong since it was considered rude or a sign of desperation to serve something scraped from the bottom of the caldero since it suggested that one did not prepare enough rice for the guests, or worse that the cook didn’t know how to cook rice properly. Tutong was deemed fit only for the pets and was not even given to servants. However, there are people who would recycle tutong into a sweet merienda with brown sugar. Well, the rice cooker has made all this part of history as it cooks rice evenly so no more tutong.

One of the challenges to my parents’ marriage was kanin. My father preferred his rice wet and soggy, while my mother wanted it dry and easy to separate on a plate (we have a 17th century term for it: bohaghag). Like many Filipinos in a different age, my mother mistrusted the one cup rice to two cups water ratio, preferring to measure the water level on a pot with the lines on the palm side of her fingers. Thus to avoid quarrels over the rice, she tilted the caldero on the stove to produce both soft and bohaghag rice. If the spoiled Kapampangan husband made a fuss, he ate canned goods alone.

Both terms for frying rice—“sangag” and “bosa”—were used in the 17th century, but a more specific term was “balantogui” which was left-over or pre-cooked rice dried in the sun and later fried or re-fried. I wonder if ancient Filipinos served this sweet as they did in my grandmother’s household. “Binolaclac” from its root word “bulaklak” described fried or toasted rice that burst to resemble blossoms.

I have written a number of columns before on rice and rice terms and I can only hope that the people at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños can interest young scholars into writing papers on the relationship between rice and Philippine history, rice and Filipino culture.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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