I gave this talk as a resource speaker during the MAFBEX Manila Foods and Beverage Expostion last June 13, 2012. The contents of this speech are from academic research and were based on my own experiences, observations and travels around the Philippines and in Asia.
1.Filipino Flavor Profile : Tamis (Sweet), Alat (Salty), Asim (Acidic) – Being a tropical country, food spoilage and food safety is our biggest concern. The Philippine climate and temperature falls in the HACCP danger zone temperature ranges of 5-60 degrees Celsius. Bacterial growth causing food borne diseases cannot survive in environments that are too sweet, salty or acidic. Prior to refrigeration our ancestors didn’t know this but they figured food lasted longer if they cooked it in different forms of sugar, salted it, and added acid such as vinegar in “paksiw” or souring agents like calamansi juice and tamarind in “sinigang”. These earliest forms of food preservation attributed to the Filipino flavor preference of SWEET, SALTY and ACIDIC.
2. The nose knows – Langhap sarap was an advertising campaign made popular by local food chain Jolibee. It is noticeable that Filipinos smell their food before eating. The Filipino habit of smelling food before consuming was really to check for spoilage and is still a practice today.
3. Use of Sawsawan (dipping sauces) – Our ancient cooking methods were very simple like boiling, grilling, roasting and steaming. Today this is known as SUTUKIL -sugba , tula (tinola) and kinilaw. The use of sawsawan or dipping sauces are meant to enhance the flavor of these very simple dishes. It is still customary to use an assortment of dipping sauces in the Filipino table. The staples are combinations of soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, calamansi and at times chili. Personal preference for the condiments used would depend on the culinary region.
Our Southeast Asian neighbors love chili sauces and sambal. Filipinos on the other-hand do not like extremely spicy food (hot) and are conservative in the use of overpowering spices.
4. Flavor Juxtaposition – Juxtaposition is defined as the placing of compositional elements side-by-side, with the intention of comparing or contrasting them (Merriam-Webster). Flavor juxtaposition is a Modernist Cuisine trend of contrasting different flavors or textures ( ei: salty with sweet, sour and sweet, soft food with crunchy) of our foods. It has however has been a part of our food culture and is not something new. Such are the combinations of the following dishes: kare-kare with bagoong (oxtail peanut stew with shrimp paste), tuyo with champorado (salted fish with chocolate rice pudding), dinuguan with puto(pork blood stew with steamed rice cakes) , chicharon at suka (pork cracklings with vinegar), monggo at printing isda (mung beans with fried fish).
5. The sweet tooth – Filipino food is known to be sweet. Our love for sugar is the result of being one of the biggest producers in the world.In its abundance we use it on everything. Often food is too sweet and needs to be toned down for the international market. We put sugar in almost all our dishes, perhaps to counter balance the sour and saltiness of our food. To a certain extreme we even put sugar in our spaghetti, and our 3-in-1 coffee sachets tastes more of sugar than coffee.
6. Naming our dishes – Filipino dishes are named after the cooking method. This naming convection uses the “cooking method” first and then the “ingredient” used. For example: pritong manok ( fried chicken), tinolang manok (boiled chicken), inihaw na isda ( grilled fish).
7. Eating with hands – Our ancient ancestors believed that eating with our hands gave connection with food and the earth. It is also considered a non-violent way of eating, thus in the modern Filipino table only a spoon (to scoop rice) and a fork is set-up. For convenience using the hands is socially acceptable when eating seafood like crustaceans and finger foods like chicken.
8. Rice is our staple – rice is the staple food and most important crop. Eating rice is so important that no grain should be wasted and left in a plate. In the Philippines a real meal must consist of rice, therefore a sandwich is considered only a snack. Filipino breakfast is heavy and is served with rice. This tradition was done to provide farmers with nourishment needed for field work. Kakanin (rice cakes) signifies stickiness of the family or close family ties. Throwing rice to a bride and groom during a wedding symbolizes blessings of fertility and of prosperity.
9. Biodegradable packaging – ancient Filipino food was cooked and wrapped in banana leaves, pandan, palm leaves, coconut husks, bamboo, breadfruit leaves, and other forms vegetation found in the forest. Clapots were used in cooking to prevent reactions from food with acid. Pottery, carved wood, stone slabs, large shells, and baskets (kaing) lined with banana leaves were used to serve food.
10. Austronesian Ancient Food Culture – In the Austronesian migration pattern theory (4000-2000 BC) it is believed that there is a shared evolution of race, language and culture with the following Austronesian nations: Taiwan (Formosa), Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Pattani region of Thailand, Chamic areas of Vietnam, Cambodia and Hainan Island. “All native Southeast Asians are closely related culturally, genetically and to a lesser degree linguistically” – Anthropologist Wilhelm Solheim II
Observed similar food cultures with our Southeast Asian neighbors:
Fish sauce -called Patis (Philippines), nuoc cham (Vietnamese), nam pla (Thailand)
Shrimp paste –Bagoong (Philippines), Belcan (Malaysia), Kapi (Thailand)
Kare-kare – sounds like curry, most curry recipes have nuts
Halo-halo – Ice kacang (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore)
Gulaman – Agar agar, Gula Melaka palm sugar with sago or jelly (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore)
Use of coconut milk
Shared method in the production of rice cakes (Indonesia and Borneo)
Similar ingredients – calamansi, lemon grass, kang kong, ginger, tamarind, rice flour
Use of banana leaves to wrap and cook food
Rice as staple
11. The Foreign influences:
CHINESE – Chinese traders introduced frying, soy sauce, eating noodles for long life
Comida China is Chinese food that has become Filipino staples: Siomai, siopao, taho, hopia, pancit, miki, mami, lomi , lumpia, congee, balut, etc.
SPANISH – Introduced fiestas, tomatoes, peppers, rich stews, dairy based desserts like leche flan. Lechon or roasted pig became the center of a lavish feast. The Spaniards introduced Catholicism and introduced many pork dishes. Eating pork was a way to identify the Muslims who were averse to such a diet.
AMERICANS – The Americans introduced processed, canned and fast food. In the 20th century, the Philippines became the only non-tea drinking culture nation in Asia. Our colonial mentality and hot tropical weather gave preference to soft drinks, making us one of the biggest consumers of cola in Asia.
A positive contribution of the Americans to our food culture is the emphasis on food safety and sanitation standards. Such strictness in hygiene was implemented in American franchise restaurants and was later adopted by the local restaurant industry.
12. Return to Philippine Regional Cuisine or Island Foods –Most guide books would describe Filipino food as having strong Spanish influence. Although this may be true, in an age of globalization there is an awakened appreciation to go back to our roots known as Filipino Regional Cuisine or our real identity “island foods”.
In the past “lutong bahay” or everyday home-cooked food was considered ordinary. Spanish and western food were served during parties and fiestas because they were deemed as special. Filipino food took a back-seat until the proliferation of culinary schools in the Philippines during the late 1990’s.
Today’s new found interest in regional cuisine has created kulinarya tours all over the country. Provinces are proud to showcase their culinary heritage and hometown delicacies. Such unique specialties have evolved because of a region’s geography and topography, climate, availability of produce and ingredients, and customs.
Just like Italy, in order to understand Filipino food, one must break it down into the understanding of the different Regional Cuisines: Ilocos and the Mountain Province, Central Plains of Luzon, Southern Tagalog, Bicol Region, Central Visayas, Westren Visayas, Mindanao, and the food of Muslim Mindanao.