“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” 1
—Jean Anthelme Brilliat-Savarin
"'They monkeyed around with the language. Monkeyed around with names.
Of people, of places. With dates. And now, I can't even remember. No one remembers. And even this even this will be forgotten. They will hide it under another name.
No one will remember.'" 2
"Our materials are perishable: language and memory-uncertain, imperfect. But they fit well the volatile nature of this, our self, for they can change as fast as we can, as we flicker through myths and identities, unravel the impact of colonialism on our selves, and go through our metamorphosis. Memory, most of all, anchors us, for, though it is fragile, it is also the longest umbilical cord."3
Suman moron, delicacy from Leyte of ground glutinous rice and cocoa
wrapped in banana leaf and cooked over a fire.
When I was 23 years old, my mother and I went on a one-month exploration of Europe the summer after I graduated from UCSD. Amongst all the countries I was most excited to visit, Spain had been on the top of my list. My senior thesis was critical analysis of Philippine colonial history through the lens of gender in Filipina-American literature and I wanted to dive into learning more about the history of our colonial ties. During our visit to the Royal Palace of Madrid in the Throne Room, above me, frescoes of Tiepolo of the gods of Olympus while the other fresco depicted the kingdom of Spain and parts of the world that were Spain’s colonial lands. Excitedly, I asked the tour guide to point out which figure represented the Philippines. She responded, quick to dismiss my question in order to continue to exalt the greatness of Tiepolo, ”Philippines is not anywhere here. It was not that important to Spain.” History right before my eyes, stung at my core, painted through the eyes of the victor.
It wasn’t until years later, when I picked up the seminal Philippine-American cookbook, Memories of Philippine Kitchens where I truly understood how this tour guide’s perception of Philippine relations came about. Amy Besa points out that, “Philippines, distant colony of Spain… relied on government bureaucracy in Mexico to rule the islands (it is often claimed that the Philippines was a colony of a colony.)”4 Essentially, the Philippines could be considered the forgotten stepchild in the eyes of the Spanish monarchy. Official accounts of history is one where, through the complex relationships between the archipelago and the colonizers (Spain and America) is also melded with that of Japan, China, and the Muslim traders that landed in pre-Colonial Philippines.
Many second generation Filipinos focus on the Spanish-Philippine relationship when digging into history. Though much of dominant historical narratives are written about the colonial relationships, one could craft a different narrative in examining history from an alternative lens. From 1565-1815, the Galleon Trade route mapped arterial conduit for the exchange of culture between Nueva Espana (Mexico) and Manila (Philippines). This represented 250 years, where approximately 60,000 Filipino traveled under brutally forced conditions on the route discovered in 1565 by Andres de Urdaneta from Cebu to Mexico. The Galleon Trade provided Spanish colonists in Mexico and the Philippines with one of the most lucrative sources of income, exchanging luxury goods such as silks and porcelain aboard 2,000 ton ships from Asia to Mexico via Manila, all against the standard of silver mined in Mexico and Peru. Through this context, Filipinos became the first Asians to set foot in the New World. While the Spanish became rich in silver, the Philippines’ pre-colonial history as shipbuilders, artisans, gold miners, sailors and farmers were erased as Filipinos became subjects of the colony-within-the-colony and eventually resisted and fought for their own independence.5 Though this triangular trade did not economically benefit the native people of neither of the colonies, the wealth lies in the culinary traditions that are vividly represented in the kitchens of both Mexican and Filipino families.
“Eventually, [s]he improvises on it, thus creating a new dish that in time becomes so entrenched in the native cuisine and lifestyle that its origins are practically forgotten.”6
Tsokolate and churros.
Looking into the kitchen is my re-mixed attempt to [re]member, to find stories of connectedness, not of plunder and erasure but of hybridization and exchange, and thus, what Doreen Fernandez explains as the indigenization of Filipino cuisine. Food serves as an integral part of my own process of remembering: Demonstrating to my sixth grade class how to make lumpia for a class project and learning that I loved teaching about food. . . The pleasure that overwhelmed my tongue after tasting my first atis purchased at a roadside stand on the way to Baguio . . . Preparing the last meal I would cook for my grandfather before he passed away. (After three years of becoming a pescaterian, I used from memory how to make adobo.) The smile on his face as he chewed carefully, telling me, masarap, it is delicious. . . I can still taste the spicy tomato-spiked broth, the chew of hominy and shreds of pork with a squeeze of lime from my most perfect experience of menudo, lovingly prepared by my friend’s Mexican mother, shared while we ate outside their garage on a chilly Fall evening to celebrate my friend’s sister’s quincenera. . . Though different than the menudo cooked by my grandfather (where I always fished out the liver and my mother would scoop it off my plate), the warm soup had filled my belly with a newer sensation of familiarity.
The New World influence on Filipino cookery is embodied in its DNA, the fruits and vegetables shaping our collective memories and experiences connected to food. What would chicken tinola be without the juiciness of chayote, or sinigang without the tang of the guava? Tomatoes, cassava, onion, bell peppers, cacao and many more all traveled from Mexico and in its own right, can be argued to be considered the pre-cursor of the balikbayan package. Tracing the exact history and origins of these crops, however, is a complex task, one in which Fernandez attempts to unravel in Fruits of the Philippines. In her introduction, she states that “It is not only the taste, or the freshness, but especially the memories, the associations – the whole cultural package – that makes the fruit more than food.”7 Taken at face value, the book provides an amazing resource for identifying fruits of the Philippines but in examining further, her study dispels some of the historical accounts of origins written by the Spanish, using nomenclature to create an alternate narrative for the exchange and origins of ubiquitous Philippine fruits that had been thought of as native, or actually brought onto land through the Galleon Trade, such as atis.
Different types of chicharon.
The seeds that link the colonized lands are shared yet distinct histories of oppression, forced slavery, and inequities, provided only one form of the cultural exchanges. The Philippines adopted the peso form of currency, which Mexico still also uses today. The barong’s prototype can be found in the design of the guayabera. In 2005, India replaced Mexico as the #1 producer of mangoes, which had originated in the Philippines.8 Filipinos brought over the technique of cooking seafood with acid, now known in the Americas as ceviche. When I was 5 years old, I sat with my grandmother at the doctor’s office. I called out to her, “Nanay!” and an older child whistled in amazement, saying she called her grandmother nana. Years later, I find that nanay has it’s origins in Nahuatl, a language spoken primarily in central Mexico.
Culinary traditions provide yet another lens by which to explore history and reveal forms of economic resistance and alliance between the Filipinos and Mexicans. Many in the Filipino crews smuggled aboard contraband to sell once they landed in Mexico. In 1618, 74 of the 75 Filipino crewmembers of the Espiritu Santo crew jumped ship and were hired by the Mexican indios to stay after a trip and to teach the Mexicans to brew tuba, palm wine. This was not a difficult choice for many, as they were only paid a meager 48-60 pesos or were even enslaved to work, compared to the 4,000 pesos first-class passengers paid aboard the galleon ship.9 Countless other stories like this are shrouded by master dominant narratives of colonization, ripe for further sleuthing and documentation.
As Fernandez points out, “[f]oreign dishes have been Filipinized, but Philippine dishes have not been Sinicized or Hispanized. The cultural interaction has been one of borrowing whole dishes, then adapting and indigenizing them, rather than borrowing elements to impose on native dishes.”
Countryside BBQ on Katipunan Avenue, Metro Manila.
Today, I follow this same practice, negotiating between sub-conscious and with purpose, using my own memories to fuel the spirit of my cooking. While writing this essay, I am cooking my own rendition of my mother’s lugaw to heal my flu-ravaged body. I add brown rice and make it vegetarian, but still fry strips of tofu and add copious amounts of toasted, crispy garlic with a squeeze of lemon. I’m reminded of the cold, winter nights when she nursed me back to health with this soulful soup, made from the grains that Filipinos brought to the Americas and with spices exchanged through a forgotten period of history that hides clues that I’ll continue to slowly piece together to help me understand who I am today. We must rely not on history painted on ceilings or found in books, but instead, turn towards recipes and foods that hold true heirloom treasure.
Avocado Shake – Serves 1
My father made a version of this sweet creamy treat by filling ice cube trays with the blended mixture and serving it as mini-ice pops to my sister and I on warm summer evenings in Milpitas, CA. My sister, Rhea, went on a binge making this shake everyday for a week, thinking it was a low-fat recipe (avocados are high in the “good” fats mono and poly-unsaturated fat but high in calories). Agave and soymilk can be substituted to make a delicious vegan alternative of this shake.
The flesh from 1 avocado
3 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk or agave
1 ½ cup whole milk or soymilk
½ cup crushed ice
1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend till creamy. Add additional milk for desired consistency.
Rellenong Bangus/Sarsiado - Stuffed Milkfish - Serves 4
Bangus is a ubiquitous fish in the Philippines, also known as milkfish due to the creamy opaque quality of the flesh when cooked. Relleno is a term that borrows from Spanish cuisine and has its own set of variations; ebutido-meatloaf, relleno-chicken.
Traditionally, the fish is stuffed and then grilled over coals. You may substitute tilapia or trout for the bangus. Go to your local fishmonger and have them de-scale and clean out the inside of the fish.
1 whole bangus or tilapia fish, cleaned inside and out
1 red onion, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Season bangus with salt and pepper.
2. Stuff belly with green onions, sliced tomatoes, and 1/3 of minced garlic.
3. Fry entire fish in oil.
4. In a separate pan, saute garlic, chopped red onions.
5. Once the mixture is cooked add small amount of water and oil as needed. Add fried fish.
6. Bring all ingredients to a slight boil.
Salmon Sinigang - Serves 4
My mom brought back a t-shirt from the Philippine that reveals my true feelings about this soup – “I LOVE Sinigang!” Sinigang is a soup distinguished by its flavor using sour fruits such as kamias, tamarind and tomatoes. In this recipe, packaged soup base is used, however it can be replaced with the recipe below. Sinigang can be made with either pork, beef, or fish. In this recipe, salmon heads are used to help develop a deeper fish stock. Miso paste adds balance and creaminess to the soup, as well as a bit of saltiness.
Go to your local Asian food store or fishmonger and ask for the salmon head. They will also clean the fish for you if you request.
1 salmon head
1 salmon filet
1 Japanese radish, or daikon halved lengthwise and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 onion, preferably Vidalia or sweet onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tomatoes, cut in 1-inch chunks
1 lb long beans, cut in 2 inch pieces
1 bunch of mustard greens, or spinach
4 tablespoons of white miso paste
1 packet of Knorr Sinigang soup base, or
1 large unripe tamarind pod
Place tamarind and 1/2 cup water in pot and bring to a boil. When soft, mash the tamarind pod. Strain and add as soup base.
1. Add fish head, onion and tomatoes to a large pot of cold water, approximately 8 cups. Bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat to medium and continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Remove 1/2 cup of broth and mix in miso paste. Add mixture to pot.
4. Add soup base, salmon fillet and radish and simmer for 7 minutes. Bring to a boil.
5. Add mustard greens and long beans, reduce to simmer for 5 minutes.
6. Serve with broth to sip on the side.
Kasuy Petit Fours – servings may vary
This is my Auntie Margie’s recipe of cashew goodies. She typically bakes dozens of batches of these highly addictive bites for Christmas to distribute amongst the family. One year, my dad contracted me to bake three hundred petit fours for his co-workers. I was up to my elbows in batter, stirring everything by hand. I should have asked Santa for a hand mixer that year.
1 stick butter, softened at room temperature
1 can condensed milk
2 egg yolks, plus 1 additional egg if needed
½ all purpose flour
2 cups chopped roasted unsalted cashews
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream butter and yolk, add milk and flour; stir in cashews.
3. Drop batter in mini-cupcake pans lined with paper liners.
4. Bake for 12-15 min, or until lightly golden brown.
1 Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
2 Rosca, Ninotchka, State of War. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.
3 Rosca, Ninotchka. "Myth, Identity and the Colonial Experience." World Englishes, 9:2 (1990), pp. 237-43.
4 Besa, Amy. Memories of Philippine Kitchens. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006. p. 95.
5 Duldulay, Manuel. The Filipinos: Portrait of a People: Metro Manila, Oro Books, 1987.
6 Fernandez, Doreen. “Culture Ingested: On the Indigenization of Philippine Food.” Gastronomica, Spring 2002: 58-71
7 Fernandez, Doreen. Fruits of the Philippines. Makati City, Philippines: Bookmark, Inc. 1997. p. iv - Introduction.
8 Evans, Edward A. Recent Trends in World and U.S. Mango Production, Trade, and Consumption. University of Florida, IFAS Extension. August 2008.
9 Santa Maria, Felice Prudente. The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes 1521-1935. Pasig City, Philippines: Anvil Press, 2006.
Photos by Lizelle Festejo .
© Lizelle M. Festejo
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