Ah, Filipino cuisine, how do we begin to define thee? For one, we could start with the centuries old story of our nation’s present-day, gastronomic fare. In pre-colonial times, we relied on the blessings of our resource-rich country, which yielded immense numbers of livestock, rice, and various crops. Our cuisine grew to adapt and materialize as several cultures made their presence known within the archipelago, the telltale outcome of trade and colonization.
The Malays introduced spices, and the Chinese, their pansit and stir-fry. Meanwhile, the Americans brought in convenience cooking and their glorious fried chicken. Of these outward influences, the Spaniards have revolutionized our taste buds the most. Add the other global food trends that have spilled over to our shores in the past hundred years, and you’ve got a melting pot that constitutes our gastronomy today.
I had a chance to hear the thoughts of Berna Puyat– former DA undersecretary and major proponent of Madrid Fusion – on the matter. She says a Filipino’s tastebuds is very specific—constantly on the lookout for four concrete flavors: matamis (sweet), maalat (salty), maasim (sour), and malinamnam (savory). These are the four primary characteristics of our cuisine. Notice how our flavor profile is always a case of extremes with little room for in-betweens? Our dishes are distinguishable by never being bland and always being intense.
On a separate correspondence, Chef and author Tatung Sarthou shared the dynamics of a meal in every Pinoy household. We are a people whose dining table revolves around rice, he says. Another must for us is the sawsawan. “Viands, sidings, and dipping sauces play off each other’s taste, flavors, and textures with rice mitigating its intensity in the mouth.” How much we integrate patis, toyo, or suka allows us to have an intimate experience with the food. We become active participants in its creation, maximizing our involvement and ultimately, our senses. The otherwise mundane task then becomes something to look forward to.
With these in mind, what exactly is Filipino cuisine? Have we not lost ourselves in the process?
The truth of the matter is this: the only way to have a full grasp of our gastronomy is through one’s own experience with it. It’s what you grew up with. It merges the past with the present, and is reflective of the culture and story of each home. It’s not a case of lost identity; rather, it’s a quintessence of our being.