I sometimes think that if a French chef – and a well-respected one at that – starts to make gentle reminders about how Filipinos should preserve their own culinary identity, it behooves us to rethink our whole cultural identity in terms of food.
Take halo-halo, for example: back in grade school Civics class, our teachers reminded us that halo-halo is the quintessential Filipino dish, because it incorporates all the influences of our foreign colonizers into a distinctive, delicious, delectable Filipino dessert. “Ice from China, ice cream from America, confections from Spain.” While dried, rotted meat (etag) and the joys of saluyot are hardly things we serve in Filipino restaurants, it’s pretty difficult to establish the roots of Filipino cooking, where a dish could be properly established as “Filipino” without debating on the colonial origins of a particular dish.
I’m not a culinary anthropologist – and I’m more than willing to be proven wrong – but the Filipino kitchen, I believe, is the batalan formed in the images and likenesses of centuries of colonization, which among our Asian neighbors should make us unique. Indigenous cooking has all but vanished in the cookbooks never written in the communal kitchen, known only in secret family recipes and ones shared in communities; recipes that would not find themselves in the Filipino restaurant. Filipino cuisine is bricolage, a lot like sinigang or adobo, where ingredients are combined together to form a meal that satisfies stomach and soul.
Colonization and imperialism has brought into our kitchens things we use to make Filipino food: the saffron for arrozcaldo, the soy sauce for adobo, the hot dogs for embotido. Filipino cuisine is the first “fusion:” the combination of different techniques, styles, methods, and ingredients that result in dishes only found in the Philippines. The Chinese knife chopping the onion in a European mince, mixed together with Spanish-style tomato sauce and American ground beef and hotdogs served over Japanese-style noodles, served as spaghetti in a birthday party for children. Fusion, to say the least.
The things in our cupboards and kitchens – and in a larger sense the cupboards and the kitchens themselves – are colonial. They make food here, making them Filipino, yet the differance being that they make food that didn’t originate from here.
Yet there will always be debates and arguments about the origins of a dish, from something as simple as similarity to something as convoluted as an ingredient’s history. Lechon, for example, is not unique to the Philippines because many other cultures have broiled the whole pig. Or kilawin; our ancestors may have eaten fish raw and flavored with indigenous ingredients, but it bears similarities and congruences with something like, say, ceviche.
Yet what of foods served in the cañao? The many medicinal herbs boiled and prepared to soothe the cold or the aching stomach? The vegetables and fruits and their parts that are eaten here, and not anywhere else? Indigenous cooking: roasting over open fires, the offerngs in atang, fermentation, the catalog of kakanin, can we say they originated here? Definitely.
Surely one can make the case for balut being the most famous Filipino dish – it’s hard to think of any other country where it is eaten on a regular basis – but it behooves the eater to look beyond the conventional to explore the many dishes, document them, and replicate them. The integrity of cuisine comes with knowing how they are made, not just from appreciating flavors and food-review catchet we have so grown accustomed to reading in cookbooks and in the papers. For Filipino cooking to sustain integrity, we must document, we must appreciate, and more importantly, we must cook.
“Revisiting the indigenous” is the battlecry of the conscientious anthropologist, always in search and in the struggle for lifeways and artefacts that make the cultures of our peoples unique. It is not enough to say that Filipinos have developed their cooking only through combination: like morcon and kare-kare, and the lowly fishball at that, we have succeeded in the dialogue of cuisines. Yet in indigenous fruits and vegetables, the rituals that surround roasting and feasting, the herbs boiled and prepared to heal, we could find something more than just satisfaction, but a rediscovery of our identity and heritage.
In a way, it satisfies us. In another way, it liberates us from our oppression. More than that, it takes us out of the kitchen, and back to the batalan. Not solely for the sake of eating, but true enough, for the sake of living.