Dispatches from the Buffet Table

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It’s like the medieval Great Hall, Filipino Style: with all the sweetness and the sourness of the Filipino attitude, and those hotdogs decorated with marshmallows, skewered on halved cabbage heads.

The Filipino buffet, to me, has almost always taken a rather familiar route.  I’m not talking about hotel buffets or all-you-can-eat specials at restaurants, but the typical Pinoy one: the common putahe served to celebrate everything from a wedding to a funeral.  It almost always includes rice, some form of pancit, some form of lumpia, and a whole array of foods that can be made from pork or chicken in various states of food warmer-aided coagulation; seasoned and enhanced with various degrees of MSG, save for macaroni salad and buko pandan somewhere in the end of the line.

Huwag na kayong mahiya, the host says, kain pa kayo! Not that one turns a snobbish eye to costly party food (no matter how economical the buffet is), but the polite recalcitrance comes from that quaint Pinoy trait of deference.  Once somebody musters up the courage to start eating, the rest of the guests file up for the meal.

It is in the buffet where the pila is respected the most: say what you will about Filipinos cutting the line or being impatient, but the respectful attitude surfaces when one is in the presence of food.  There’s a certain refined art to getting only what you can eat: a spoonful of rice, a piece of shanghai, a shred of chicken breast, a few slices of lechon kawali, and a smattering of pancit, and the guest moves away.

Then there are the middle-aged women in silk blouses studded with fake rhinestones, toting Oleg Cassini factory run-off purses, walking by with pa-sosy airs right by the humble (and humbled) neighbors. The scent of the food from the buffet table becomes overpowered by the smell of Chinchansu and a suffocating excess of perfume.  They start piling sandwiches, chicken drumsticks, bihon, and all sorts of other treats as they hurry back to their tables.  They eat daintily, preserving some measure of class, but not without the pa-simple style of stuffing the entire plate into plastic bags, or foil tucked inside their bags.

Eating at the Filipino buffet requires a bit of manual dexterity.  Cutlery is in short supply since neighbors invite neighbors who invite close friends and relatives – who happen to be your uncles and aunts from your cousins’ godparents – so one has to make do with plastic spoons and forks.  The household and the guests of honor use plates and proper cutlery; the rest eat from paper plates with plastic kubyertos. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, save for the chismosa clique at one end of the room raving about how bad the food is or the affairs taking place at the next table.  I have never seen anyone used to knives and forks eat heartily from a buffet; it’s all a matter of the most elementary of eating skills with the most rudimentary of tools.  In this case, the rice can sop up the sauce from the afritada so that you can eat it more conveniently later.

The food itself is fair fare.  It’s not Sofitel Spiral or Manila Peninsula, but passable, edible, and for certain foodstuffs not to be touched by the hands of a chef (like pinapaitan and dinuguan), delicious.  Yet there are always some quirks to the meals in the buffet: the half-cooked carrots of the caldereta, the floury consistency of the fish fillet, the garbanzos in the menudo feeling a bit raw in the mouth.  The remainder of peas, almost always canned in gold-colored tins, left in many paper plates,is not the testament to the skill of the cook: but that the kakanin and the pancit bihon almost always never have any leftovers.

Towards the end of the buffet the dishes are piled in the sink for washing, the paper plates dumped into the garbage bags, and the Great Hall, Filipino style is ready for revelry.  Out comes the karaoke machine…

But that’s another story.

* – Photo sourced from Josh Root

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