Before we had refrigerators
One of my Japanese foodie friends warned me about Tokyo fastfood joints like the “kaiten sushi” that tourists find quaint: Plates of sushi roll out on a conveyor belt and you just take what you want; when you are done, a waitress checks the number and color of the plates on your table and gives you the bill. The problem with this is that one cannot be sure how long the sushi has been traveling on the conveyor belt, exposed to the air and the patrons’ breath. In a real sushi shop, the fish is freshly sliced and placed on freshly rolled, vinegared rice.
Avoiding conveyor-belt sushi is a warning I have heeded, but eating at rice-topping joints like Yoshinoya or Matsuya is something I indulge in because of the quick, cheap meals. My foodie friend found me out once and said that if I continued eating at these fastfood joints, my palate would be ruined beyond repair. I thought this a rather snobbish thing to say, until I reflected on the history behind everyday Filipino food.
Pork or chicken adobo (from the Spanish “adobar,” which means to marinate or pickle in vinegar) is cooked in vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, soy sauce for coloring, and a dash each of salt, pepper and MSG for perfect seasoning. Contrary to popular belief, adobo is not a Spanish dish; it was already in the Philippines when the colonizers arrived, but they forgot to list what the pre-Spanish Filipinos called it. The Spanish called the dish “adobado,” which we later shortened to adobo.
Adobo is not the name of the dish but the process of cooking, and the cooking was meant to preserve the meat in an age before refrigeration. It is the same with breakfast staples like tapa, tuyo, daing, tinapa, longanisa, and tocino that are air-dried, salted, or smoked to preserve the food without refrigeration. We eat these with fried rice and egg in the morning, not realizing their long history.
Sinigang, a common Filipino dish we used to cook from scratch, consisted of pork or fish cooked in a broth made with fresh tamarind boiled and mashed (although some people prefer tamarind for pork and guava for fish). Today, people cook sinigang with instant broth from a cube or a sachet. It makes things as easy as 1-2-3, but it is no longer authentic. The taste may approximate that made painstakingly from rice washing and fresh tamarind or guava, but it is not the same. I am old enough to remember how upset I would be when served instant sinigang. Up to a time I could actually tell the real from the instant, but then over time, instant sinigang has ruined my palate beyond repair.
A fond childhood memory of summers in Pampanga was going into the kitchen for a snack: From a bell jar filled with bagoong—salty, pink, fermented shrimp paste—we fished out cooked pork. It was probably binagoongan, but I remember that we could scoop out of the bagoong, not small pieces of liempo or pork belly, but whole pork chops! Eaten with leftover rice, it was heaven on earth. If there were microwave ovens then and we heated up this snack, it would have been perfect.
I am old enough to know that some common Filipino dishes were not cooked simply to be tasty but, rather, for preservation. Before the coming of ice plants and refrigerators, Pampangos were forced to preserve their meals and, necessity being the mother of invention, gave us tocino, tapa and longanisa that are still popular today. Mangoes were kept in molasses to keep for a year and still be crisp. Monggo, garbanzos, beans and macapuno are aptly called “sweet preserves.” Pickled eggs and vegetables (i.e., achara) served as side dishes to certain foods. So did burong asan, or fish preserved in fermented rice—a side dish that could keep for months. Unfortunately, buro or balaw-balaw is an acquired taste; some people are turned off by it because it resembles cat vomit.
Even hearty soups like nilaga and sinigang could keep for days without refrigeration, and were said to get better and richer with each reheating.
Please indulge me. I have been fiddling with food in the past week or so, trying to find Filipino identity on a plate and my palate.
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