Food and the Filipino
Feast and Famine

The tastes that bind

Photo by Jojo Pasana

“TELL ME what you eat,” French food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said almost two centuries ago, “and I shall tell you what you are.” In modern-day Philippines, those words still ring true, with the contents of a dining table revealing much about the diner, including the size of his wallet. Where one usually eats is a good indication of one’s status in life, especially in the cities like Metro Manila, where the dining divide is vast and prices and restaurant protocol discourage a commingling of paupers and princes. Of course, from time to time, the princes cross over and eat at Jollibee. Money, after all, gives one the privilege of having choices, which increase in proportion to the amount one can and is willing to spend. But it’s no guarantee of a discerning palate or good judgment, which is why restaurants with mediocre food and atrocious prices continue to exist and why well-heeled parents fill half their grocery carts with instant noodles for their kids. It’s bad enough that there are really thousands of families who cannot afford anything else but instant noodles to stave off pangs of hunger. But scores more who should know better and can take their pick from the supermarket shelves are actually opting to fill their bellies with instant pancit with frightening regularity, from breakfast to midnight snacks.

Today’s fast-paced lifestyle has proved to be a great societal leveler. Convenience has become the key consideration in putting together a family’s daily menu, both for the moneyed and the masses, especially now that two-income families have become common, even as reliable househelp has become as rare as erudite senators. That’s largely why instant noodles are such a hit in this country, as are canned goods like corned beef, meat loaf (read: Spam and Maling), tuna, and sardines. One could even say these have become the new Pinoy staples, never mind if they seem more appropriate as emergency rations. They’re relatively cheap (well, excluding Spam), quick to prepare, and — admit it — quite tasty.

There’s the hook: more often than not, these quick foods are loaded with sodium in a variety of forms, pleasing the Filipino palate, which is a slave to salt, among other things. Sodium serves to preserve the food in some instances and to enhance the taste in all.

Enhancing may be an understatement, though. The label of a popular brand of pancit canton, for instance, says that each 65-gram serving (or the whole packet) has about 1,760 mg of sodium or 73 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of 2,000 mg a day. Unlike the mami variety, which is often shared by many members in a lower-class household, a packet of instant canton is consumed usually by just one person. Ravenous teeners and office workers have been known to consume two packets each in one sitting, sometimes at breakfast, which means they start their day already packed with almost twice the amount of sodium their bodies should have for the next 24 hours. But like most Pinoys who get restless if their jaws aren’t working (talking as well as eating), they will still be plowing through snacks, lunch, more snacks, and then dinner. More salt will be present in those foods, which could be accompanied by condiments such as patis or soy sauce. A tablespoon of patis or fish sauce has 1,394 mg of sodium while an equivalent amount of soy sauce has 1,423 mg. By the time they go to bed, our canton-eaters will have a lot in common with Lot’s wife after she turned around and had a last look at Sodom and Gomorrah. No wonder hypertension is among the top five causes of morbidity among Filipinos.

IT’S SAID that the Filipinos’ love affair with salty food is the natural result of being surrounded by seawater, as well as the need to preserve food, usually fish, in preparation for lean months. The way we are loading up on sodium these days, we may just as well be turning into daing ourselves. But this may be more true among the lower classes, who, much as they would want to, are unable to buy fresh produce most of the time and so settle instead for the sodium mini-bombs masquerading as packaged food. In comparison, many among the better-off still have lucid moments during which they spend some of their market money on delectables that do not come out of a can or plastic or foil packets.

Photo courtesy of The Manila Times

In bygone days, it was the poor folk who feasted on fresh foods while the landed gentry took pride in their hoards of preserved food. According to Gilda Cordero-Fernando, author and keen observer of Philippine culture, preserved food indicated surplus or an abundance of goods, proof of a landlord’s wealth. This was before the advent of processed food, which actually began a U.S. solution to its problem of how to keep its soldiers fed even when they were spending days deep in the trenches. Preserved food for the Filipino rich then meant pork cooked adobo style, which was stored in clay jars, as well as an assortment of sausages and cured meats. At the same time, the landlords had the pick of everything — from the fattest hens to the whitest and finest sugar, to drinking water fetched from the clearest springs. Their daily meals were the comida fiesta of the kasama, who got the egg whites while the amos used the yolks for flan, had muscovado instead of refined sugar, and had no fancy pastries or pastillas for dessert, just fruit. Meat to the kasama was a luxury. Everyday fare consisted of rice, the catch of the day from the sea or a nearby stream or rice paddy, and vegetables.

Guess who came out more fit? As Cordero-Fernando writes rather gleefully, “The peasants grew strong and healthy from eating all that nutritious, second-class food. The landlords, on the other hand, suffered from overweight, high blood pressure, diabetes, bursitis, and gout — all the afflictions of people who have too much in life and dine too heartily and too well.” And, it must be added, from leading a too leisurely life as well. The landlords obviously didn’t even have to break a sweat preparing their favorite food; somebody else made sure the chickens grew plump and then ran after them with the cleaver and plucked them clean of feathers to meet the masters’ demand for pollo afritada. (And remember that scene in Oro, Plata, Mata, where the help peeled the salted watermelon seeds one by one for the señoritas who thought nothing of eating these by the handful at a time?)

Today, however, neither rich nor poor can boast to be healthier than the other, especially with rapid urbanization and its evil twin, environmental degradation (although some may say both are as cursed), wreaking as much havoc on our lives as clueless politicians and confused policy makers, and having a profound impact on what we all eat and how often. Another version of the dining divide, though, has managed to emerge: while more Filipinos are surviving on just one meal a day, those who are able to indulge themselves have been turning frantically to diets to get rid of the evidence of food devoured in huge quantities amassing around their middle.

IN THIS country, of course, one can be too thin, and you will know you have reached that point when people start asking you if you have lost your job or your lover, become a drug addict, or been stricken with tuberculosis. But while Filipinos like to have some meat on their bones, these have to be in the proper places and in the proper quantities. Otherwise, they may just wake up with a dish of achara (pickled vegetables) placed by their side and someone fanning them with a banana leaf. Or asked if they have won a seat in Congress, which for many is the bigger insult.

These days, it is the South Beach Diet that is the rage among the hefty (including those merely “feeling” fat), largely because it promises the dieter weight loss without skipping any meals. This is, after all, a society where life revolves around food. Those who don’t chew along with the others are sure to be the subject of whispered debates regarding the state of their private finances or their family background that has, because of the dieters’ abstinence, all of a sudden become dubious. (Aside from cuss words, a foreigner friend who worked here for years mastered just one vital phrase that made him feel he was a local: “Saan tayo kakain? — Where are we eating?”)

SBD has become so popular that many restaurants now offer menus supposedly following its specifications. One of the more moderately priced restaurants at ritzy Greenbelt 2, for instance, offers such a menu, at a price that is about 30 percent more than the daily minimum wage. It’s a very good deal by Greenbelt standards, even though the tomato capsicum soup fills just a third of a tiny bowl, the croutons are missing from the small plate of “light caesar’s salad,” and the baked chicken stuffed with spinach is a tad bit on the dry side. At another Greenbelt restaurant, a dish of tokwa’t baboy — fried tofu with pig cartilage — would cost more than half of that three-course meal, and chances are that unlike the salute to SBD, it wouldn’t leave you thinking you did your body good while making happy campers out of your taste buds at the same time.

That is, unless you pair the tokwa’t baboy with a steaming bowl of congee topped with chopped scallions and squirted with calamansi. The congee perfectly plays up the salty-sour taste of tokwa’t baboy and the experience will momentarily make you forget that you will have to peddle a minor body part to pay for it afterward (if you happened to dine in Greenbelt). But then if you’re in the first phase of the SBD, the congee would be out of the question because carbohydrates are supposed to be a no-no (which was also why the no-crouton caesar’s comes half-naked).

That’s probably the biggest drawback of SBD: carbos are banned for the first two weeks, and when they are allowed in again, they’re not in enough amounts to sop up any sauce on the plate. That would take much of the fun out of eating Filipino food like kare-kare, adobo, sinigang, and pinakbet, food that begs for the blandness of rice for their robust flavors to shine and satisfy without overpowering the palate. It is also rice that makes the salty tinapa and tuyo a feast for kings, especially when the fish are drenched with the acid freshness of raw tomatoes. The late food critic Doreen Fernandez was once even moved to write, “If we didn’t have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino.” Which makes it probable that many Pinoys on SBD succumb to the call of the rice pot all too soon.

Rice is the one item that the starving poor struggle to retain valiantly on their table, come rain or high prices. When they say they are coping — “nakakaraos pa kami” — that means there is still rice on their plates even if there is little else besides. By comparison, among the upperclass, rice is the first to go once the calories start piling up. Yet it soon makes a hurried comeback on those orphaned porcelain plates because for a Pinoy, rich or poor, rice is the foundation of a proper meal. Even the richest Filipino cannot survive on putanesca alone; to keep him from jumping up from the dining table and murdering the cook, he must be served rice on a fairly regular basis, along with his favorite sinigang or nilaga, or even danggit or just bagoong.

In truth, there is no real divide among Filipinos when it comes to taste — just a few differences with regard to intensity among the regions perhaps. And even as millions of migrant workers toiling overseas bring in more flavors that widen the Filipino’s gustatory horizon — including that of the lower classes — the Pinoy gastronomic home remains founded on rice and layers of saltiness and sourness, with an occasional bitter bite here and spicy kick there. But peel those tasty layers to the minimum that can be tolerated by the Filipino and you have a balance of rice and just salt. This is why the harassed Filipino urbanite has been able to put up with eating mostly processed goods at home. It is also why we will probably end up very well preserved.