Listen to your food
Have you noticed how holiday eating in the Philippines, especially the Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) meal, is now often marked by anorexia or bulimia?
The health-conscious, sometimes forced by circumstances like high blood pressure or diabetes, will sometimes turn paranoid, avoiding anything that’s sweet, salty, fatty, or too much of a stimulant—no tea, no coffee … and lots of alcohol since that “isn’t a stimulant.” (I’m joking about the alcohol, I think.)
On the other end of the spectrum are the more traditional: Feast we will (and I’m being polite and avoiding the noun-turned-verb, as in the lechon staring at you). Another term is “patay gutom,” as in eating like it’s going to be your last meal, or that you’re going to run out of food. Heaps of food are stuffed into the mouth (there’s your lechon image again), washed down with as many drinks as possible, almost like there’s a competition on how fast you can engorge yourself.
We need to bring some sense back into eating, and this is where I want to share very simple advice I picked up recently: Listen to your food.
Last October the University of the Philippines Diliman was privileged to host a forum with, and a lunch for, two French gourmet masters, sponsored by the French Embassy. One was Georges Halperin, a physician and long-time expatriate in Asia, with a teaching position at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong. The other was Jacques Puisais, whose topic, “Marriage of Wine and Food,” explains why he is called “the poet of wine.”
I asked the UP College of Home Economics’ Hotel, Restaurant and Institute Management if it could organize the event and its chair, Raymund Gerard Guerrero, and the faculty immediately said yes. As the day of the event approached, I could tell there was growing anxiety. The French are known as gourmands, but I suspect the faculty and students were thinking of the food critic in the cartoon “Ratatouille,” head up in the air, snooty and hypercritical.
After the symposium we had lunch prepared by HRIM students. I had seen the menu beforehand; the courses’ names were designed to intrigue—for example, “Pinangat Terrine with Coconut Emulsion” as a starter, and, for dessert, “Lambanog with Dragonfruit and Honey.” As the meal began, I felt ever so slightly nervous because on my left was Georges and on my right was Jacques. How does one feed such luminaries?
Caught in translation
The French Embassy provided a translator, but how do you translate Filipino food?
Our first challenge was the “Lansones Sago’t Tarragon Gulaman.” Tarragon is, well, tarragon, but how do you translate lansones, sago and gulaman into French?
The anxiety quickly faded as we realized that Georges and Jacques were the most congenial people you could ever meet. I realized that what mattered most was the way our two French guests were intent on “translating” the food, Georges into biochemistry and Jacques into tastes and flavors.
That was where the listening came in. Jacques drew a circle with his finger to show how the food first makes contact with our tongue, and then the flavors move toward the brain. Savoring the food requires slow eating, because you have to listen, each ingredient with its own “voice,” yet blending with the other ingredients.
With the terrine, Jacques marveled at the way the local macadamia nuts (more on this later) enhanced an appreciation of the pinangat (red snapper in this case), the coconut meat, and the taro leaves in the background, but still vital to give the dish a unique quality. As the meal unfolded, I realized that listening to food is more like listening to music, with the notes coming together, sometimes louder, sometimes softer.
Georges, the physician and physiologist, brought the listening, and translating, to another level. He and I spoke another language—of the natural sciences. When we were served basing lalake he read the description, which mentioned samak bark and Java plum mixed with the basi (sugarcane wine). I translated Java plum as duhat, which of course meant nothing to both our French visitors, but I explained that samak and duhat are actually cousins (both belong to the botanical genus Syzygium) and had high levels of tannins, which made the basi dry and lalake (male). (We later got basing babae, which has the same ingredients as basing lalake, but is sweeter. Hah, there we go again with gender stereotypes!)
Shuttling between English and French, between biochemistry and culture and society, I thought of how we can listen to food differently; maybe a chemist can even imagine the molecular geometry of the foods. What’s important is that we ate slowly, enjoying a meal from the beginning to tres bien! (very good or galing-galing!), which was what our students called their dessert: “Sweetest pineapples of Cagayan de Oro, mantecado ice cream topped with Cagayan de Oro honey, mountain coffee and cashew nut sans rival.”
The food doesn’t always have to be so sumptuous. Think about that ordinary but iconic Filipino food, adobo. The term, incidentally, is not unique to us, being found all throughout the Spanish-speaking world, adobar meaning a marinade or a sauce, but our adobo is different from that in Latin American countries with its mixture of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, peppercorn and bay leaves. Try listening to adobo next time and tune in to how the salty, sweet and sour come at you, and come together.
If you learn to listen to your food, you won’t need MSG (vetsin) since there are so many other types of umami (flavor enhancers) out there, from cheese (our kesong puti is fine) to mushrooms. Experiment with different spices, and our many varieties of vinegar, and you just might produce a culinary symphony, which is what we got from the UP students.
Do keep samples of what you cook to show your guests. We had to stretch our imagination trying to explain what kalamansi was because the students had used up all their stocks. We settled on petit citron or little lemon, which, I found out later in the Internet, turned out to be correct. The students also still need to show me the local macadamia nuts, which they also used up in the cooking.
The point is to listen to your food, and to listen to people. During family reunions, I used to love going to the kitchen to listen to my aunts while they cooked. Many of them are long gone now, but when the younger ones (also now in their 50s and 60s) get together, we remember the aunts and the meals they prepared, sometimes with nostalgia, because no one prepares them as well as they did. (We also remember the kusineras, the family cooks, also long retired, or gone.)
Much has been written about the low incidence of heart disease in Mediterranean countries, including France, Italy, Spain and Greece. Lots of nuts, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices instead of salt, olive oil and red wine (in moderation), have all been described as the secrets of this health diet. But medical researchers aren’t able to measure the other component of the Mediterranean diet—slow eating, with people taking time to be convivial. Our two Frenchmen, Georges and Jacques, told us one more secret: That of listening to your food as you cook, prepare and consume it.
To your health then, tonight at the Noche Buena, and to many more meals.
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