Looking Back

Goulay, paxio, houlam in 1837

Of the many traveler’s accounts of the Philippines in the 19th century, one that is full of detailed information is the two-volume Les Philippines by J. Mallat, published in Paris in 1846. While a translation from the original French is readily available from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, it is worth the trouble to visit a library with rare Filipiniana if only to see the hard-to-find illustrated “Atlas” that accompanied Mallat’s text depicting the different types of people in the Philippines and the costumes they wore.

Food is often overlooked by readers distracted by the fascinating tables on Tariff Duties in the Port of Manila in 1837; Table of Characters of Old Tagalog Language [baybayin], Tables of Common Words, Sentences, and Dialogues in French, Tagalog and Visayan; and last but not least a Synoptic Table of Clothes Manufactured in the Philippines. There are three short sections in Mallat’s work that describe food in the Philippines before the Spanish conquest, the food of Filipinos during Mallat’s visit and the food of the Chinese as well.


Then as now, rice is the staple food and taken instead of bread by the Filipinos. In pre-Spanish times they ate a lot of fish from the sea and the rivers. They hunted for game like stag, wild boar and carabao, the meat of which was often dried in the sun into tapa. Coconut was the most useful and this observation goes all the way back to Pigafetta who chronicled the Magellan expedition in 1521. Mallat also says that banana was plentiful and needed no cultivation. There were about a dozen different varieties that were often picked before they ripened, grilled and eaten with rice.

Mallat’s description of food he encountered in the early 19th century is worth revisiting here:


“The Indios nourish themselves principally with split rice in water called canin in Tagalog language and morisqueta in Spanish; it is the bread of the natives of this archipelago… Two chupas of rice of which one is equivalent to the contents of a drinking glass, when cooked, suffices a man for a day. Their favorite dish is goulay; this is stew made of meat or fish with a little tamarind, to which is added the leaves of certain plants varied accordingly to taste and cultivated in gardens surrounding their homes. Sinigan is another stew very similar to the goulay, and whose soup is drunk, as the meat is eaten. A lot of dried fish is eaten in all provinces, and fresh fish is so abundant that often the Indians catch it only the minute the rice is placed on the fire, all of which is quite convenient since all the villages and even the smallest isolated houses are always situated on the shore either of the [sea] or of a lake or river. Their seasoning is salt, pepper and the aromatic paxio. Houlam is also one of their favorite dishes.”

It seems that if we were transported in a time machine to the Philippines that Mallat visited in the late 1820s, we would be familiar with the food served then. Lechon is described as “suckling pig roast on a bamboo spit hung in the open on two stands above glowing coals, is a dish reserved for big occasions and is served with a good-tasting brown sauce. Indios are so temperate that they are satisfied with just their rice seasoned with a little red pepper [sili] or a small pepper the size of a barley-corn, which causes a burning sensation in a delicate mouth, or else with a little honey or sugar.”

Mallat describes in detail how the Indios eat with their hands and how the Chinese eat with chopsticks called “sipit.” He also described our love for “sawsawan,” describing “the principal dish surrounded by different sauces flavored with tuba [or coconut] vinegar, fruits pickled in Castile vinegar [achara] and Chinese soja of which they are very fond.” Elsewhere Mallat mentions “quechat.” [In the cookbook of Juliana Gorricho, ill-fated mother-in-law of Juan Luna, it is called “quechap,” but it is not the sauce we know as banana or tomato ketchup today; rather it is a liquid seasoning made of pounded shrimp that is probably what we know as patis today.]

Then as now the Filipino had dessert because Mallat records that:

“When the meal draws to its end, various sweets are brought, called matamis, such as the calamai de coco, the Buri sugar from Laguna, the brown panocha or preserve from Chierta and honey in the mountainous regions; after this a tabo or coconut cup full of water washes down these various dishes and everything ends with the cigarette and the inevitable ichu or buyo, a chewing concoction of areca betel and slaked lime.”

Things have changed somewhat since Mallat’s time. We have more choices for dessert today. Lechon can be had anytime from our shopping mall food courts. We have a choice to eat Pinoy-style kamayan, Chinese or Japanese-style with sipit chopsticks or Western-style spoon and fork, always adept in all three ways. Reading about food and foodways is always interesting especially in the changes in meaning: goulay was a soup like sinigang; paxio was an aromatic seasoning; ketchap was patis. Only ulam seemed to have retained its meaning over time. Comparing our food with food from the past is a way of reading history and knowing how much we have changed—or remained the same—from our ancestors.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]


Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.
View comments

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: filipiniana, History, J. Mallat, Juliana Gorricho, lechon, national historical commission, Philippine history, Synoptic Table of Clothes Manufactured in the Philippines
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2020 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.