MANILA, PHILIPPINES | Thursday, August 22, 2002

The music of our cuisine: towards the logic of our culture
by Edilberto Alegre (Pinoy na Pinoy column, BusinessWorld)

This week I leave the personal and return to a passion of old, our cuisine. How do we put it together? What is its logic? What, basically, do we combine in a meal? I think there is a very particular music to it and that is why we keep longing for it.

Since we are a people of many islands most of us are familiar with marine, brackish water, or river products. There is hardly any place in our archipelago where there is no running water. And where there is water there is food. Even high up the mountains there are rivers.

All the mountain groups with which I have lived and worked with, e.g. the Tadyawan of Mindoro (Southern Tagalog Region in southern Luzon), the Kerenteken Manubu of Carmen, North Cotabato (Central Mindanao), gather shells, fish, eels from their rivers. In fact, their preference is to live close to rivers.

Brackish waters are swamps, where fresh (river) water mixes with the salt water of the sea. They have their own ecology. There are plants, such as bakawan whose bark is used for tempering coconut tuba wine, and shell fish which grow only in them.

Finally, there's the sea from which our fisherfolk gather shell fish, octopus, sea anemones, eel, manta ray, and myriads of fish varieties. Hardly do we do sea-ranching. Because there is yet no need for it. The sea still provides us with abundant catch.

The other main source of our food is the land -- flora and fauna: root crops, grass, shrub, trees; larvae, insects, birds, animal; the entire gamut of edibles from our immediate environment.

Water and land, they nurture us. Even GMOs have to be grown in them. We gather from them and what we have gathered we put together in a process that is our own. The culture starts from the growing and gathering, continues to the choice of what is to be cooked, and goes on to the preparation of the meal, and ends with the eating of the food. That's the entire process.

I'll leave the production of the food to the agriculturists; the gathering to the farmers and the fisherfolk. I'll skip too the choosing of what goes into the pot. Let me focus on the cooking as the starting point -- the how of this cultural subdomain.


When one cooks, one, in effect, composes -- a dish, that is. One puts together elements which were heretofore separate, disparate, uncombined. In Latin componere "put together" -- arrange or order into a whole.

There are elements which are appropriate to the dish and, therefore, belong. Bitter melon or ampalaya does not belong to a Tagalog sinigang (sour broth of those from the southern part of Luzon), which has an end-taste that is sour. So, to the water and fish, a little salt, a bit of onion to neutralize the fish-ness of the main ingredient and the proper souring agent which could be, for instance, tomato or kamias or tamarind.

The Sebuanos (those from the central part of Visayas) would add to their version of the same soup, which they term tuwa, sili labuyo, the small, peppery hot chili. It would also be less sour than the Tagalog sinigang. Among the Waray (those from the eastern part of Visayas) it is neither sour nor peppery (no sili labuyo, in fact).

In each dish the different ingredients are combined simultaneously to produce a pleasing effect. Like so many musical notes sounded simultaneously to produce chords or chord progressions for the same end -- pleasure. That simultaneous combination is the basis of harmony, which leads to or effects pleasure.

In the simplest of our dishes, inihaw or the broiled (shellfish, fish, squid, octopus, meat), there would be a tad of salt and, surely, a dip. Without the appropriate dip or sauce it is not a complete dish. Even the most basic kinilaw (cooked in vinegar) dips the fish-flesh in the ocean.

Harmony has to do with "joining" together (which is the original meaning in Greek, harmos) to produce an agreement, a concord, one-ness, harmonia. There has to be a pleasure to the fit.

The quality of each sound is governed by the rate of vibrations which produce them. This is the pitch. In cuisine it is the quality of each ingredient (herb, spice, fish, vegetable, meat) which is governed by the "vibrations" it has or its effect on the gustatory gland.

Pitch is a degree of highness or lowness of tone, which refers to the quality and strength of the sound. For example, the voice could be modulated to express a particular feeling or mood to produce, say, a cheerful or sad tone.

The difference in pitch between two sounds is interval, in musical terms -- a difference in terms of quality and strength or tone. In cooking, interval can be translated as the intervening time or space between two ingredients. In preparing our distinctively Pinoy gisa (sautée) there is a definite sequence and, therefore, an interval between the dropping of first the garlic, and then the onion, and finally the tomato into the same pot. If the proper interval is not observed you won't get the right gisa.

Lastly, there is rhythm (from the Greek rhuthmos, "flow") which is concerned with the periodical accent and duration of notes. The key word is "periodical" -- a regular succession, a recurring pattern. Of what? Of emphasis and length of the notes.

Rhythm refers to harmonious correlation of the notes or chords. It has to do with movement, with the flow -- with the regularity of the recurrent pattern of, in cuisine -- the specific accent of the specific taste and the duration of that taste in the tongue.

Rhythm has more to do with the eating of the dish than in its preparation, unless its an elaborate dish. Most Philippine dishes are simple -- one step, such as ihaw, or two or three basic steps, such as kinilaw, sinigang, or tula/tuwa.

Focusing on cuisine then with musical composition as the formation/creation image: ingredients of intrinsically different flavors are combined to produce a pleasing correlation or harmony; between each ingredient there is a difference in quality and strength. Modulation takes into consideration, too, the time and space between the ingredients -- length of time between the placing of each ingredient and the space each ingredient occupies vis-a-vis the other ingredients; finally, regular recurrence of taste-accent and flavor-duration of the different dishes drinks included, if any, of the meal as they are combined in the buccal area, a rhythm in the ingestion.


"McDo man 'yan, bitin pa rin" (Even if its a McDonald's, it's still not enough). A sandwich, even a huge quarter pounder, is never filling. All bread sort of floats, never settles down in the tummy. Any sandwich is just merienda (snack). So is Japanese sushi -- they are only bits, morsels, merienda fare. Hindi nakakabusog. Doesn't fill one up.

Sarap (deliciousness) one feels after taking in something. It's a pleasure which comes after ingestion -- a judgment after the fact. The crucial step is the taking in. If it remains on the outside it can be, say, beautiful like a beautiful woman; but that is not sarap. Sarap is a tasting inside one's body.

To reach pleasure the object must first be agreeable. Then provocative -- makes one want more. And finally, a lilt -- keen, acute, ardent -- followed by a slow spread of gladness. One can relate then and let the fullness spread across one's entire body -- enough already, one whispers to one's self -- eyes closed, the beating heart slows down.

Or one can go on and have more, until the desiring reaches brimming over, a satiation. That's one way to knowledge -- over-abundance, over-fullness of gratified desire. Then one can go across, say "no" to the next invitation, skip the urge -- for one had been there. And to give in is to acquiesce to ennui, which is basically the numbing thud of repetitions.

Sate and satisfy come from the same Latin root satis, "enough." The past participle of satiare is satiatus, to be sated. Another verb from the same root, satisfacere ("to do," facere; "enough," satis), went to Middle English by way of old French -- to do enough, satisfy. One is first satisfied (nasiyahan), then sated (sawa). Busog is related to fullness, amount and not degree.

Another time we should explore that linguistic realm -- fullness, satisfaction, sating -- for there are many related words and worlds, like siya, lugod, tuwa, galak, gusto, wili, ligaya. When such richness is manifested in a language it's proof of the efflorescence of an area of experience. By implication that area is important to its culture-bearers. Nuance reveals history, intelligence (of the language), and value. But that's for another time.

Let's move on with our food, which is now on the table. In our Pinoy way the dishes which comprise a meal are served simultaneously. In contrast the Western manner is serial, one at a time -- first the drink (aperitif, "to open" in French), then the accompanying appetizer or hors d'oeuvre (literally "outside the work," so we are still not inside the occasion), followed by a salad, and then the main dish(es) after which something sweet, (cake or fruit) and a drink (another wine, tea or coffee) signals the closure of the meal-event. The rule is that the dishes which are elements or parts which comprise the meal are presented one after the other. The savoring is sequential.

In contrast the Pinoy way is to put all the dishes on the table at the same time -- say, sinigang na bangus, halabos na hipon, pritong tadyang na baboy, pinakbet, acharang papaya (milkfish in soured soup, shrimp boiled with vegetables, fried pork ribs, sautéed bitter melon and vegetables, grated green papaya in vinegar and sugar). And the proper Pinoy way of eating them is a little of one, then a little of another -- no definite sequence. One can choose what one feels like eating.

The principle behind our feeling sarap over an entire meal is based on complimentarity. I term it as "and also" in contrast to the "either/or" of the West. The thrust in our case is to achieve harmony of the different elements. It's the same principle that operates when several kulintang in Maguindanaw are playing; or the gongs in Cordillera.

A meal is an ensemble of pleasure -- of a harmonious combination of simultaneous notes, of regularly recurring emphasis and duration, of differences between the quality and strength of the notes. Our meals do not work towards resolution of oppositions or contradictions. They do not move toward a conclusion. What they wish to achieve is pleasure that comes from the melding together of the different individual flavors (of the dishes) which comprise the entire.

There is no exclusion of a flavor at any point so the serving is not the first, then the second, then the third. The "first" and the "second" and the "third" and the others are all placed together at the same time. One improvises as he feels, as in jazz. But as in impromptu jazz, too, there are grids of possibilities and defined margins and borders.

Think of the whole, finally. Not of each singly. Think of the logic behind the putting together. In this case of the dishes that comprise one meal. How are they combined? How are they ordered?

Deconstruct a whole into its component parts. Define even the distinctive characteristic of each of them. Then, move on towards how they are made to fit to form a whole -- a whole meal, a whole musical composition or piece. What is the logic of the whole?

Move to another or other cultural domains. Food is not only good to eat, it's good to think about. I address to it the same question which I ask other cultural expressions. What does it tell us about ourselves. It's not simply tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are.

It's tell me how you eat and I'll tell you who you are. To discover our own culture it's still about how, more than what, because the logic of it, the culture, is there. And we embody and express it in our every act.