By Rafael Besa | Banner Design by Paulina Linarez and Samantha Palanca
Food has a special way of binding families and communities. It is not simply a necessity that is independent from any emotional or sentimental consideration. Such reductive statements neglect the millennia of cultural development our world has gone through, and the role it plays in bringing people together, as the various minute yet significant aspects of these meals help create an ambience of comfort, honesty and even belonging.
In the Philippines, food is prepared in the spirit of community and familial love regardless of the size or significance of the occasion. Within our own literature, it has even commonly been regarded as a respite from the mundanity and stress of daily life—a means to relive the comfort of past, far more simple years. No matter the era, literature on Filipino cuisine always connects the value of their dishes to memories of happiness through wistful reminiscence. Be it a birthday, a religious holiday, a celebration of success or a simple get-together, Filipinos go out of their way to make their meals special. Food serves not as a distraction nor conversational “noise” but an accentuation of the positive emotions conveyed and shared throughout the event, helped along further by the presence of any familiar dishes that remind many of home.
Yet if such intimate and intertwined traditions are so ingrained in our collective psyche and identity as Filipinos, why is the preference for Western food or other foreign alternatives, sometimes at the expense of our own creations, so strong within the wider sphere of contemporary cuisine? Has social media and the sheer convenience of fast food joints diminished the importance of Filipino cooking traditions and its fusions of salty, sour and strong herbal flavors that distinguish us from other cultures?
Are these concerns even relevant for the many working class Filipinos whose obligations have taken away the necessary time and mindset to appreciate the intricacies of cuisine, a trait that past generations still had the luxury to enjoy? These questions tie in with questions on national identity, with this phenomena in cuisine serving more as a symptom of detachment from one’s roots in relation to more pragmatic concerns rather than a deliberate attempt to sideline traditions. Most true among the youth of today, preferences outside of those most exposed to home cooking or street food culture are more likely to favor non-Filipino styles of cooking, with many consuming foreign media and cuisine over local counterparts. Convenience plays a large part in this dissonance as foreign media, the biggest mechanisms of contemporary influence, rely on “bite-sized” mediums such as YouTube shorts, Instagram, and advertising.
However, instead of further complicating this issue, it might be worth focusing on the very medium that best describes some of the most important aspects of Filipino heritage: literature. Not to dismiss technological innovations (the choice between literature and online media is hardly an either-or type of situation), but sometimes they only serve at best to deliver a surface-level approach to the appreciation of our traditions and an electronic platform would still fall short in encapsulating the intricacies of culinary history.
Filipino writers such as Amy Besa and Doreen Fernandez have more than made their mark in the study of our culture in relation to the popular topic of cuisine. Thus, they among many others will be honored here through a list of some chosen literary works. We hope that there are some titles that catch your eye and feed your appetite for understanding our cuisine.
With an almost motherly tone, “Memories of Philippine Kitchens” draws out the child in all of us through an exploration of the fusions that inspire Filipino cuisine and the memories each dish carries whether it be simple home-cooked meals or the celebratory events characteristic of Filipino culture.
Written by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, the owners of the Purple Yam restaurants in New York, Manila and many other locations throughout the country, the book serves as a love letter not just to their roots as Filipinos but to the friends and family that make all these possible. The authors stress the versatility and simplicity of Filipino cooking through their expertise in the culinary arts. Which points to our cuisine’s greatest strength: It is a fusion of different cultural influences, which makes it familiar to many. Such endeavors breathe new life into the appreciation of our culture and teach us that the breadth of our culinary identity is more complex yet very much grounded than many would think.
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The late acclaimed scholar and food critic Doreen Fernandez presents a collection of essays that examine regional specialties, notable culinary figures and the various cultural aspects that helped the development of modern Filipino cuisine. Fernandez provides an in-depth presentation of a more pervasive style of cooking through the various spaces, history and nuances of the Filipino diet, even going for a literally grounded perspective by exploring the slang, culture and significance of street food cuisine whose minute aspects set us apart from other nations.
Tikim also provides a degree of awareness on the wider state of local food literature and punctuates the almost scholarly elaborations with Fernandez’s own recollections eating the different foods that defined her younger years. As a gateway to the true scope of Filipino culinary development, “Tikim” is an essential piece of literature that brings out the foodie in all of us.
Bryan Koh and Felice Prudente Sta. Maria delve into the inner workings of Filipino dishes in this book, which is conveniently divided into chapters representing the different aspects of Filipino life such as breakfast (almusal), street food (lutong Kalsada), condiments (sawsawan), and foods prepared solely for celebration (pang-pista). Beyond favorites like champorado and caldereta, “Kain Na!” also explores the different dishes and peoples from Visayas and Mindanao.
Perhaps the book’s strongest message is how our cuisine is a fusion of influences as a reflection of our shared history, acknowledging guidance from the Malayans, the Chinese and the Spanish. “Kain Na!” is a guide to Filipino culinary heritage and makes sure to note where the different specialties can be best enjoyed. If there’s one word that Koh and Sta Maria wish to emphasize through this work, it would be diversity. Whether it be something that can be enjoyed right around the block or a craving that can only be satisfied through a journey outside the city, “Kain Na!” more than showcases a side to our cuisine that makes it distinctly Filipino.
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Chef Tatung Sarthou provides an unconventional direction to “cooking Filipino” by not limiting himself to national or regional classifications, instead offering a more general introduction that allows beginners a great degree of insight into Filipino culinary culture. Going through the different methods of cooking alongside his personal experiences, Sarthou imbues his scholarly work with a passionate care that only a first-hand perspective can provide.
More than anything, it highlights the intimate and organic processes involved in the realm of Filipino cooking; needing one to “feel” and act along the creation of the dishes akin to the more traditional ways of preparation. The photographs, stories and advice provide a more personal touch, tempered only by the skill and depth granted by Sarthou’s research.
Photo from edushopph.com
Through the eyes of an adventurous couple curious to experience and understand Filipino cuisine, “Linamnam: Eating One’s Way Around the Philippines” serves as a guide for anyone dedicated or similarly intrigued about the state of Filipino cuisine and the unique history present in each dish. “Linamnam” shows how the time-tested recipes and the people that serve as the stewards of these traditions still hold much relevance today. Tayag and Quioc show the uniqueness of each regional style from the influences of the Ilocanos and their own inclinations towards Kapampangan traditions. Through their work, the couple welcomes all those receptive to the appreciation for the regional customs imbued in each dish as well as individual contributions to the overall image of Filipino culture and identity.
This book explores the work of one of, if not the most, important figures in Filipino cuisine: Maria Ilagan Orosa. A Batangueña technologist and war heroine, her service to our country during the Second World War included the creation of Soyalac (a highly nutritious powdered soybean drink), calamansi juice powder, and a condiment present in almost every Filipino’s dining table: banana ketchup. Beyond Orosa’s contributions to local cuisine, her intellect and dedication to the cause of national freedom helped save many lives even if it ultimately came at the cost of her own. Yet despite this almost mythical significance surrounding this modern Filipino heroine, “Appetite for Freedom” does not fall short in conveying her genius and curiosity, whether it be through the exploration of Orosa’s medical inventions or to the increasing relevance of her work even now more than half a century later.
Photo from filipinofoodcrawl.com