Current reading: Philippine food traditions and foodways

Tikim Memories of Philippine Kitchens

I’ve read through Doreen Fernandez’s Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture slowly, and finally finished reading it the other night. Now I have started on Amy Besa’s and Romy Dorotan’s Memories of Philippine Kitchens, which I’d previously thought was solely a cookbook, which it isn’t. Like Tikim, which Besa and Dorotan reference, Philippine cuisine is presented in regional, geographical, historical, and colonial contexts. Nothing new or remarkable here, except to say that I appreciate much Fernandez’s clear and explicit articulations of colonial and neocolonial influences on our foodways, and that Fernandez even uses these terms at all, particularly the latter: “neocolonial.”

One thing that really interests me about Fernandez is that she also discusses gender roles and expectations, and she just comes right out and says that the Filipino men who find joy in creating Philippine (and other) cuisines are able to feel and experience this joy precisely because they are not expected to cook, to know how to cook, to know their way around the kitchen. When they do, they are praised for their liberalism, their not being “above” the woman’s work, and so, they are given the space in which to approach cooking as a pastime, hobby, or novelty. They can enter the kitchen when they choose to, and practice culinary arts at their leisure. In other words, because they are not socially circumscribed by the role, the mundaneness, the unglamorous and the thankless everyday work, they actually have the space to enjoy it.

Regarding the colonial and neocolonial, Fernandez asserts that while the indigenous/native dishes have not gained the mark of “high culture” within cosmopolitan circles, the vast majority of Filipinos still practice native food preparation and continue to eat native dishes, even in the cities, due to what is economically accessible. It is only the Filipino elite, who comprise, say less than 10% of the population, and international visitors to the Philippines, who can really afford to eat and/or to prepare the Spanish-influenced dishes which are time consuming preparation and cooking processes, and which are made with many expensive ingredients, including those which are not found locally.

The remaining 90% of the Philippine population still buy locally grown produce, locally caught seafood, animals from local farms in open air markets daily and not the modernized grocery stores in the cities. Despite mass advertising which blasts Philippine media with Western fast food and glitzy packaging, these products are expensive to the majority of this Third World country’s impoverished inhabitants and therefore not so within reach. In this way, Fernandez writes, the native practices resist colonial and neocolonial erasure.

Besa and Dorotan are not so pointed on colonialism. I am not pointing this out as a flaw in their methods or thought processes. It’s just that I very much admire Fernandez’s unabashed politicizing (yay for her lenses of gender and colonialism!) of our foodways. Besa and Dorotan, on the other hand, come to Philippine cuisine as Manhattan gourmets (they are co-owners of the SoHo-located Cendrillon), and as Philippine expatriates. Especially as expatriates, their approach to Philippine foodways and cuisine is largely sentimental, for their way into the foodways is largely via family and memories of a homeland as they’d left it decades ago. Again, I am not pointing this out as a flaw, but rather, as an authorial perspective.

I am very interested in Besa’s and Dorotan’s thoughts on how our food traditions survive and/or persist through family practices, and that is the reason for so many variations on one theme. How many different recipes for adobo, for example, not merely based upon region, but on family traditions, and this is the reason for the book project of not just sampling foods from various regions, but from particular households. They’ve visited Mike’s family, the Relovas of Pila, Laguna; they have included his Lola’s, his mother’s, and the family cook’s recipes in this book, not as representative of Pila or of Laguna, but of the Relova family.

The “it’s just not the same,” which Sunny has discussed in his Filipino food research (I mean this both formally and informally), I believe is related here; restaurant food is not prepared the way our families have prepared food for generations. I will never have an escabeche like Papa’s escabeche, though my own attempts at preparing one are very similar to his (though stateside, I pay Ranch 99 to deep fry my fish). Likewise, all the recipes for pochero that I have found in books and online bear little resemblance to what I have learned to prepare via my mother and her siblings, and which they learned from Mama and Lola Ilang (so what has evolved into my pochero isn’t even Pulmano, yo! It’s all Adviento). As well, at restaurants, we do not participate in the process of preparation or in the tsismis and drinking which occur around the place of preparation, and this takes away from the family “feeling.”

So there’s that. Maybe at some point, I will blog about Christmas pochero and ginataang bilo-bilo after all.

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