South East Asian food (but not as you know it)

By
Yasmin Newman
Added
06 March, 2014

Yasmin Newman extols the many and varied virtues of Filipino cooking – a cuisine steeped in history from a culture in love with food.

Meet a Filipino and you will invariably be asked: kumain ka na ba? 'Have you eaten?’ The inquiry is both greeting and invitation. Food is never far from Filipinos’ thoughts.

Food is more than a pleasurable pursuit. It is the cultural language of the Philippines. The people use it to apologise, woo a woman, ask a favour or say thank you. It fills in social gaps and crosses borders of religion and class. Food is the best communicator for non-confrontational Filipinos; it is more palatable than words and flavoured precisely to their tastes. Its meaning is always clear.

Filipino cuisine is unlike any other: a medley of unique native ingredients in creative combinations. Their love of sweet, which they meld magically with savoury, is defining, as is their expert use of vinegar, for which they have a seemingly endless arsenal of varieties and applications. While distinctive, its profile also lends confusion to foreign interpretations of the cuisine. It is not South East Asian, as many people know it.

The Philippines’ past helps tell the story. Filipinos survived more than 350 years of colonial rule and weathered countless other visitors thanks to their unbounded hospitality. Instead of fighting, they received. Flexibility with new ways preserved the existing cultural flame. A preference for pork, the omnipresence of pancit  (noodles) and a soft spot for towering cakes are all illuminated in the annals of history and tales of the motley crews that left their mark. It is a fascinating saga — one of native tribes, Arab missionaries, Chinese merchants, Spanish conquistadors, Mexican viceroys and American GI Joes.

Seafood is a constant in Filipino lives. Before outsiders arrived — Chinese with pigs, Spanish with cattle, Americans with tinned items — locals gathered food from the watery deep. Seafood is the purest form of Filipino food; it is the country’s native cuisine. Time-old cooking techniques continue to this day: inihaw (roasting over coals), halabos (steaming), sinigang (poaching in broth) and kinilaw (ceviche). Experience proved that a fresh catch is best unmarred and needs little adornment. Over time, more indulgent styles of ginataan (cooked in coconut milk), relleno (stuffed) and escabeche (sweet and sour) have enriched the collection.

Another favourite is barbeque, and when it comes to native rotisseries, Filipinos are top-guns. Lechon, the country’s whole roasted suckling pig, has achieved near-international celebrity food status. Pig is most common, but whole beef and goat are cooked over coals and similarly devoured straight from the carcass.

The country’s rich and varied desserts distinguish the Philippines from its neighbours in South East Asia — a region, by Western standards, rarely coupled with refined treats. The Spanish brought flans, crèmes and meringues; later, the Americans added pies, layer cakes and jelly. Today, they are firmly Filipino; only foreign names, such as brazo de Mercedes and mango float, betray origin. While popular native sweets made from rice abound, they are classified merienda (snack fare). Sugar, flour, eggs and milk are the major forces behind the country’s desserts and many resemble those of the West in shape and form. The addition of local ingredients sets them apart. Pili nuts and cashews take the place of almonds, while milk from the carabao (water buffalo), as well as condensed and evaporated milks are used instead of fresh cow’s milk. Indigenous fruit and vegetables, such as makapuno (sweetened coconut) are thrown in, too.

While the Philippines shares the tradition of serving cakes for birthdays and special occasions, desserts do not finish Filipino meals; they complement flavours already on the table. In the Philippines, there’s no need to wait till the end of a meal for a sweet fix. And really, who is going to argue with that?

Yasmin Newman is the author of 7000 Islands, her culinary journey through the Philippines.


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