It’s Nutrition Month and in past years, I used to write about the need for better Filipino meals in terms of nutrients like protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
I thought I’d be more anthropological today. Food is, after all, the most biocultural of human needs, the best example being the way we feel hunger when we travel in western countries and endure several days of very full, but rice-less, meals. We protest the sandwiches, dismissing them as snacks, not meals.
Hunger is supposed to be physiological, an empty stomach sending a signal to the brain that we need to eat. Or at least that was the conventional explanation in medicine and the health professions. Through the years, research has shown that there are other mechanisms at work—psychological, social, cultural. Even the physical dimension varies across individuals, and seems to be at least partly genetic, meaning some families are “by nature” more bulimic (tending to be constantly hungry) and others more anorexic (as with members of my family, which is noted for almost never being hungry).
But I want to be even more specific here about the biocultural aspects of food, and the term “palate” captures this so well. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two main definitions of “palate.” The first is: “The roof of the mouth, separating the cavities of the mouth and nose in vertebrates.” Talk about being biological. The second is: “A person’s ability to distinguish between and appreciate different flavors.”
I used to think the Filipino palate was conservative in the sense of not wanting to try anything new. My foreign friends used to describe our food as dull, drab and “brown,” because every dish had soy sauce in it.
But when you think about it, maybe the problem with the Filipino palate is that we in fact depend too much on outside influences. Our main dishes, including their names, carry the Spanish, American and Chinese imprints.
Today, our meals are dominated by instant and processed food-like substances—at the cost of a loss of knowledge about local traditional foods that are more nutritious and actually better-tasting, but which the elite dismiss as inferior.
I thought of this column over breakfast, when I was taking hot chocolate prepared from tableya produced by Malagos in Davao. It’s unsweetened, and is made from a Trinitario variety that produces a thicker beverage. I added a little sugar and milk and topped it off with kalingag powder.
Kalingag? That’s a cinnamon variety that comes from Mindanao. I first encountered it some 40 years ago in Mindanao while doing research on medicinal plants, and I never forgot its aroma, which comes from essential oils. It’s these oils that account for its being used for the common cold and indigestion.
Last Sunday at the Legazpi Sunday market in Makati, I was thrilled to see someone selling kalingag powder. The vendor told me it went well with a chocolate drink.
And indeed it did, with just a pinch working wonders. While sipping my Mindanao Cinnamon Cocoa (see how renaming it transforms the palate?), I had a sudden and strange craving for Mindanao’s version of kinilaw, raw seafood cured in spices and citric acid from fruits. (The English-Spanish term is “ceviche.”) I immediately remembered one of the important ingredients—sua, a citrus fruit larger than kalamansi but much smaller than suha—but had a senior moment in figuring out the other.
I googled “Mindanao” and “kinilaw” and found an article describing Filipino chefs winning prizes last March in Madrid Fusion, an international gastronomic competition, with three different versions of kinilaw. If you missed that news item, here are the three pièces de résistance:
Myrna Seguismundo used a Batangas version of lobsters, shrimps and oysters seasoned with fresh kalamansi juice, chopped onions and ginger and fermented fish paste, garnished with fresh mango and avocado.
Then there was the Visayan recipe of Margarita Fores, using sea bass with kalamansi, chopped onions, ginger, red bell peppers and toppings of crushed crisp pork skin and chopped black olives.
The third version came from Fores and Seguismundo—the Mindanao sinuglaw (a portmanteau of sinugba and kinilaw), using grilled pork belly and fresh tuna with chopped onions, ginger, pepper. And there they were, the magic words: Sua and tabon-tabon (Atuna racemosa), a fruit that resembles but is much harder than the chico.
I realized that since becoming a University of the Philippines administrator, I’ve rarely been able to travel, which means no sua and tabon-tabon. I suddenly wondered if this intense “hunger” for sinuglaw was similar to paglilihi, or pregnancy cravings!
We have to think about how future generations might lose a rich gastronomic heritage, overwhelmed as they would be by the assault of fast foods and processed foods… and a still strong colonial “west is best” mentality. The best antidote is for them to taste real Filipino food.
I’m not going to be narrow-minded here and insist on “indigenous” foods; what’s important is to discover what we can grow here. It can be parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme grown in your backyard, but don’t forget, for example, the different ginger varieties we have—luya, dilaw (that’s turmeric), torch ginger (eaten in Thailand and Malaysia but not in the Philippines), and many more.
There’s an emerging field called neurogastronomy, which looks at the way our palate, our tastes, are imprinted early in our brain. Some researchers suggest that this happens even in infancy—meaning that if your children are raised on junk foods, they will prefer those junk foods over good (nutritionally and palatably) food.
I vacillate between despair and hope. When I adopted one of my children, she was so hooked on junky snacks that I had to cut up fresh vegetables and put them into junk-food packs to get her to eat! Today, among the kids, she has the most curious and adventurous palate, in restaurants and in the kitchen. I did buy the kalingag with her in mind.
We need to do more to create pride in local foods. A few months back I wrote with pride about how a class of hotel and restaurant management students at UP prepared a spectacular feast for the French Embassy, using local ingredients and dishes as the base.
I’m on leave for three days next week. We’re off to Mindanao, an anorexic father and a bulimic son, to rediscover our roots there, partly via the palate. I’ll be reminding relatives not to send us back to Manila with durian and mangosteen candies, something I’ve been doing for years now, long before the mass poisoning in Surigao from bacterially-contaminated candies. I try to explain to relatives (and expectant friends here in Manila) that durian and mangosteen taste best as fresh fruits, not as sugar-loaded candies.
I look forward to the day when fine-food stores and restaurants will cater to a discerning Filipino palate, offering the best of Filipino local ingredients and dishes so we can prepare the finest meals for our guests, and for our families.
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