Tasting history in a meal
Doreen G. Fernandez was not just my undergraduate English teacher; it was she who gave me a lifelong fascination for food as a marker of history.
Like most Filipinos I thought history was confined to the dull pages of textbooks and academic journals—that is, until Doreen showed me that history could be tasted and actually read during a meal, on a plate, or even with a bite of food.
In my undergraduate days, I did research on the food of Pampanga—not just as an academic requirement but also as a way of connecting to the culture of my father. In the beginning I tried to find the pure, unadulterated Pampango food—meaning, those devoid of all the foreign influences that came with the different colonial periods, only to realize that what Pampango food is today is the “development” through a long history.
Despite the different foreign influences in Pampango food—Spanish, Japanese, American, Chinese—one can see and taste that the people of Pampanga have made “foreign food their own, using not just local ingredients but also their taste buds to produce something new. Pampanga did not produce exact copies of foreign dishes because of a lack of ingredients or contact with the real dishes. Instead foreign food has been made to conform with the Pampango palate, making for their indigenization, which led to the formulation of what we now know as Pampango food.
The Spanish influence is the most evident in the Pampango cuisine. The Spaniards, in the country for over 300 years, introduced a lot to the Pampango culinary culture. This is seen when one eats “special” or fiesta food like biringhi, turron de casuy and tamalis.
Tamalis makes one think of the Mexican tamales, “a kind of small dumpling made of Indian meal seasoned with chili wrapped in the husk of Indian corn and boiled in oil.”
The Pampango tamalis is different, even in shape; it is square and made up of ground rice with chicken, ham and egg, the amount of filling depending on how special it is. The more special the tamalis, the more ingredients it contains. It is wrapped in layers of banana leaves and steamed. Whether the Pampango saw real tamales or not is not clear, but our tamalis is definitely not the thing Mexicans would imagine it to be.
Turron de casuy is similar to the Spanish turron Alicante which is a long, rectangular block of hard nougat with almonds and honey wrapped in an almost invisible but edible film. Turron de casuy must have been made to simulate the Alicante; but having no almonds, cooks use cashew nuts instead. Instead of big blocks, turrones de casuy come in small bars similarly made of nougat. It is brownish and wrapped with an edible wafer that looks like paper. Food historian Mariano Henson wrote that “one of the ways to distinguish a Pampango from a non-Pampango in a dinner table is when a guest peels off the wafer from the turron de casuy.”
Biringhi sounds the most exotic of all. But when one sees it on a fiesta table, one will think it is a Spanish paella. While the Spanish paella is made of saffron-colored rice with chicken and pork topped with bell pepper and lemon, biringhi is made of malagkit or glutinous rice instead of ordinary rice. It has chicken, pork and chorizo, but instead of saffron, ange is used, which gives it a distinct color of green. Sometimes gata or coconut milk is added to make it richer than the Spanish paella.
To complicate matters, one of my professors, the late Serafin D. Quiason, said that the biringhi was not based on the Spanish paella but rather on the Indian biryani rice dish.
The United States colonized the Philippines in the early 20th century and brought along new culinary aesthetics, but this did not catch on as well as Spanish influence because the Americans were here for a shorter period and perhaps because Filipinos cannot live on bread. Rice is the staple, and most Pampango do not feel satisfied or mabsi when they eat bread.
All these ideas came to mind over the weekend when I was treated to a number of different restaurants, and in each I ate to experience not just food but the culture and history that came with it.
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