Food Culture and Tradition

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Filipino Food and Culture


A partially submerged mountain range in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean forms a grouping of 7,100 islands and islets called the Philippines. Tropically hot and humid and frequently struck by torrential rains and earthquake tremors, more than 90 percent of these islands are an uninhabited tropical wilderness. In fact, more than 50 percent of them remain unnamed. Luzon and Mindanao are the two largest islands upon which more than 75 percent of the population of the Philippines lives and works.

The natives of the Philippines call themselves Filipinos. Originally this term denoted a person of Spanish descent born in the Philippines, similar to the Creole of the Spanish-American colonies, but the name has been applied to the 80 percent of the population of Malays Christianized since the 1800s.

Arriving from the many Malay Islands and tracing their origins to approximately 3000 B.C.E., the aboriginal inhabitants arrived in successive waves and formed their own unique customs, lore, and dialects. Today these aboriginal dialects number more than 80 percent; as well, most people are fluent in English and Spanish. Since 1946, when the Philippines gained its independence from Spain, Tagalog, a Malayan dialect, has been declared the official language.

Although the Filipinos have long had trade contacts with the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and East Indians, the strongest influence came from the Spanish and the Americans. In the 1300s Arab missionaries brought the faith of Islam to some of the smaller southern islands and those who adopted the faith are called Moros. Perhaps the first Christian influence was the Portuguese navigator and explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s landing in 1521, but the strongest was the Spanish rule and colonization which began in 1565 and lasted 333 years until the Treaty of Paris in 1898, when Spain sold the Philippines to the United States for $20 million.

So powerful was the influence of the Spanish rulers and the Roman Catholic missionaries that the small feudal units called barangays were not only quickly and easily conquered, they also rapidly embraced Spanish names, customs, and foods. Enraptured by the colorful Roman Catholic ceremonials, the Filipinos readily converted to the religion of Spain as well. Many vestiges of this protracted influence are still very much a part of daily life in the Philippines. Women stress modesty in dress and primness in behavior, and girls from fine families make public appearances usually only when discreetly chaperoned.

The Spanish custom of the late afternoon break called the merienda is much enjoyed by the Filipinos and frequently includes a variety of small or light savory snacks or dishes. The merienda is never considered to be a meal because it does not include rice. The Asian heritage insists that only when rice is present, at least in one of its many forms, is a meal a proper meal. Late evening meals followed by city-strolling is an older custom replaced recently by earlier dinner hours as the newer American influence presses in.

The 25 percent of the land under cultivation yields vital subsistence crops of corn, sweet potatoes or yams, and from ancient hillside terraces comes rice. Many tropical fruits including coconuts, bananas, mangoes, oranges, papayas, and calamansi (similar to lemons and limes) are grown. Each crop takes a place in an interesting cuisine that blends influences from China, Malaysia, Spain, and most recently, the United States.

China’s staples of rice and noodles are also staples in the Philippines but in a form not used in China: served together in a dish called pancit. Many of Spain’s dishes that mix ingredients in one casserole for a hearty main dish have found a place on Filipino tables: puchidas and pucheros are hearty variations on Spanish stews called cocidas, which are mixtures of slow-simmered legumes and vegetables with meats included whenever possible; the Spanish caldereta is a fish stew which becomes the Filipino kaldereta, a stew made with goat meat.

The Spanish conquistadores brought chocolate from their Mexican conquests to Spain, and the Spaniards brought it to the Philippines. Filipinos often enjoy a frothy hot chocolate for breakfast and a bitter-chocolate richness in the sauces of many chicken or duck dishes (similar to the Mexican mole). One of these is called pato ng may tsokolate.

The marriage of Chinese and Spanish cuisines together with the native tropical fruits and vegetables produces other interesting dishes. Chinese spring roll skins, those delicate, tissue-like pastry leaves, are used to produce lumpia. These are similar to spring rolls but are filled with a mix of ingredients that leave no doubt as to their Philippine origin: garlic, pork, chicken, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, and finely shredded coconut palm hearts – a tropical touch with a nod to Chinese origins!

From 1898 to 1946, when the Philippines gained independence, American influences added yet another dimension to culture and customs. Freedom of speech, free elections, and free enterprise found a place in everyday Philippine life together with some incursions of American slang, hurry-up living, and convenience snack foods such as hamburgers and hot dogs and the slabs of meat Americans call “steak.” In fact, in deference to American tastes, many native dishes tempered their garlic flavoring and removed the Filipino condiments made from fermented fish – patis and bagoong – pungently strong in taste and odor for American palates.

But the intricacies of a fine cuisine are not part of every Filipino’s table. Though the tropical climate is a benign environment, many poor people subsist on little more than rice, sometimes stretched with the addition of corn. Others manage with rice lightly flavored with patis or bagoong sauce. Every grain of rice is treasured, as it is in all rice countries, and appetites are appeased by many types of dishes from gruels to puddings and treats made of glutinous rice as well as the more familiar fluffy rice.

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