To some, the gist of “Filipino style” has always been about sweetness. There’s our sweetened abobo, the sugars added to tapa, the sweet sauces in lumpia, and that staple of Filipino kitchens: banana ketchup. While pasta purists would frown upon our Americanized, Hispanicized, hotdog-heavy interpretation of spaghetti Bolognese, it is something that we could, perhaps, take into consideration in our search for identity.
The Filipino-style spaghetti, for me, is not a dish brought about by the idea of “sweetness” in Filipino cuisine. Rather, it is dish made from the cupboard. There are many variations to the Filipino-style spaghetti that speak to its origins in the eccentricities and quirks of the Filipino kitchen: hot dogs, for one. Canned tuna, for others, and still for others cans of corned beef thrown into the mix. The thing with Filipino-style spaghetti is that it is not deliberately shopped for: in many ways it is an analogue to Creole jambalaya. We put whatever we have in the pan.
While it would be a gross understatement – disrespect, even – to say that “there is no Filipino cuisine,” the dishes that we have appropriated for ourselves as a legacy of colonization and fragmentation are themselves best characterized by assembly and substitution more than the rigors of taste. While the French would demand only the best of rascasse for bouillabaise, sinigang na isda isn’t very particular with the kind of fish thrown in. There is no recipe: there are just takes on a recipe.
This is not to say that our cuisine is careless: rather, it is adaptive. It is not to say that we are not protective of our own cuisine: rather, it is to say that that passing Filipino food can be created anywhere where there is a stove, a pan, and some familiar ingredients.
Such is the quirkiness of Filipino-style spaghetti, which counts Vienna sausages and SPAM as perfectly acceptable additions to a red sauce that is also as adaptive and flexible. It is somewhat an extension of our penchant for “making do,” which finds its extremes in bahala na but finds its place in our kitchen.
Even in the poorest of households where celebrations are often so Spartan, spaghetti can be made. The noodles may be a bit soggy and the sauce watery with its hotdogs sliced so thinly, but it is still – indisputably – spaghetti. “Sweet,” because of all the sugar thrown in to make the dish more festive, palatable, and to save on other savory ingredients. It is a dish that finds its roots in improvisation more than the tradition of taste.
The way I see it, our cuisine is one marked by the quest for identity. There is only one “Filipino-style” dish that finds itself in the vernacular, and that’s spaghetti: the rest being more or less regional (like Cebu lechon, or Bicol Express, for that matter). That’s nothing to be disappointed about or frowned upon, but the fact that the national take on spaghetti is a product of so much of the indigenous and the colonial all in one dish should help us come into grips with the realities of who we are, more than say, halo-halo. It’s more than Del Monte’s Tetra-Paks of Filipino-style spaghetti sauce, but in the methods and ingredients and the occasions where this particular dish is served wherever a Filipino may be.
Doreen Fernandez once wrote, “Traditional ways are wonderful; but new ways, when applied with understanding and sensitivity, can create a dish anew – without betraying the tradition.” Filipino-style spaghetti, and all our other culinary stylings like laing pizza and our takes on insert-meat-here a’la pobre, is tradition. More than the haughty idea of tradition, though, is that Filipino cuisine can be made with anything and anywhere: and that taste is a matter of a cuisine alive in the act and practice of cooking more than the formulations and calculations in a cookbook.
* – Inspired by “Mythologies” by Roland Barthes