MANILA, PHILIPPINES | Thursday, October 17, 2002, BusinessWorld
Framing our food by Edilberto Alegre
In this column alone I must have written no less than 300 pages about
food. Eleven years ago the concern was description -- the what of the
dishes which were mostly from the field. However, since I was not into
recipes I was really in search of ways of matching words with the
various and many characteristics of food. Language as a means to evoke
that which was not verbal -- that was the challenge.
As is my usual wont I kept away from food writers and food writing. I
would do that later after I had found my own voice. This I got from
literature. Years of studying the field taught me this one precious
lesson: Write of what you know. I knew food -- the taste of it, the
feel of it, the smell of it. My problem was to find the words which
would express that knowledge.
I knew what I knew. How would I go about making others know what I
knew? The problem had nothing to do with the data. I had lots of that.
More than linguistic the problem was literary -- words as a way to
embodying experiences which were non-verbal.
Knowing several languages helped. I was brought up bilingual. My
maternal grandmother who brought me up was conversant only in Ilokano.
My mother preferred communicating with us in that tongue too. My father
spoke with us only in Tagalog. I picked up English only when I entered
the 1st grade of primary school. I think of this column in English.
However, the conceptualization of each essay article often takes place
in Tagalog with Ilokano somewhere in the background. My two Philippine
languages enrich the conceptualization when it finally becomes English.
Let me give an example. I once wrote an essay about "The Sensuality of
Texture" (for Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness, which was one
of the books which the late Doreen G. Fernandez and I co-authored).
This was in 1991. I thought of related words in random. Tagalog words.
I clustered them into groups until patterns emerged.
What I was doing was a basic taxonomy of terms. Malambot, maligat and
matigas are related to the sensation to the teeth i.e flesh yielding to
bite. Matter of surface feel. There are three more: Malabo, makunat,
maganit. If there is no biting involved, that is purely a matter of
surface sensation -- pino, magalasgas, magalas, mabuhangin, magaspang.
There are terms which refer to viscosity or water content of the food
item. If the focus is on the solid aspect: basa, panat, tuyo; if on the
water aspect: lusaw, malabnaw, malapot.
If one is referring to the combination of surface feel and the degree
of viscosity: malata, malabsa. A few words are nuance-specific: look is
watery and crumbly, like the inmost core of a newly harvested and just
opened watermelon; looy refers to the degree past crunchiness of cooked
kangkong (swamp cabbage) leaves and stems. Fresh radish when sliced is
translucent, all-white, moist and crunchy -- malutong. After a day or
two its state is called hinga; the whiteness turns opaque, the
crunchiness moves to a soft, crumbly stage, and the wetness is no
longer uniform but spotty. Finally, if the focus is on the aspect of
stickiness -- malagkit if referring to the gummy stickiness of its
solid content, madulas when referring to the stickiness of its water
Notice the richness of texture-related words in Tagalog. Since I was
writing in English I was expressing a taxonomy of Tagalog terms in
English. We have been trained to think in English that shifting from
the language of our everyday life, Tagalog, to the language of our
professional life, English, has become almost an unconscious act.
This has its disadvantages, of course. Translating from one language to
the other keeps one away from exploring one of them fully. In my case
that is Tagalog. I therefore decided several years ago to write my
poetry and fiction in Tagalog. In that language I do not do any
translation. There are more and deeper resonances when I am immersed in
it fully. In retrospect this must have been one reason why I was not
able to frame, say, death until a few months ago. Our mother language
prefigures us and my failure to frame my core questions about life was
due to my trying to resolve them in the language which is not my mother
How then do we frame food?
THE TIME AXIS
We are part of the great Austronesian (literally, southern island)
migration which started about 5,500 years ago from South China and went
to Taiwan, then the Philippines and on to Indonesia and the central and
south Pacific islands to as far as Madagascar in Africa and the Easter
Islands of South America. It reached the Chathams Island of New Zealand
700 years ago. The languages spoken in these places belong to the same
family of languages and that is mainly the proof for the migration.
There is also archaeological evidence. (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and
When the South Chinese reached our shores 5,000 years ago there were
already people here -- the Aetas or Negritoes. The earliest human
fossil dates to 24,000 years ago, the Tabon Cave man, who was a woman
really. Stone flake tools were discovered too in the Sohoton Caves of
Samar (Eastern Visayas) as well as in the elevated cave complex in
Peņaranda, Cagayan Valley (northern Luzon). These two latter ones are
dated 10,550 and 10,030 years ago.
These people were, of course, hunter-gatherers. The Austronesian
migrants were farmers. Now, the cultural "package" from South China
consisted of pottery, rice, domesticated pigs and dogs, and stone
tools. The reconstructed Proto-Austronesian language is "full of words
indicating a maritime economy," such as outrigger canoe, sail, giant
clam, octopus, sea turtle, fish trap.
The Austronesian family of languages consists of 959 languages which
are divided into four subfamilies. The Malayo-Polynesian subfamily
comprises 945 of these. We belong to it. Philippine languages as well
as those spoken in western and central Indonesia number 374 and they
fall within the same subfamily, Western Malayo-Polynesian.
The reconstructed Proto Malayo-Polynesian was the one used by the
Austronesians after they left Taiwan. The other three subfamilies did
not leave Taiwan. In fact, they can only be traced to that island. In
contrast to Proto Austronesian, Proto Malayo-Polynesian contains words
which refer to tropical food, such as taro, yam, banana, breadfruit,
and coconut. The inference is that these were added to the cultural
package of the Austronesians as they migrated from Taiwan to Indonesia
and farther south, east, and west.
These linguistic data are buttressed by archaeological findings. The
dating and direction of the migration of the Austronesians from South
China are well established by now. It is attributed to the invention of
the double-outrigger sailing canoe in which people and the
above-mentioned food items were loaded.
THE SPACE AXIS
After leaving the southern portion of the China mainland, our ancestors
thenceforth migrated only to islands. They occupied the seacoasts. That
explains the archaeological finds in the Tabon and Sohoton caves. Then
eventually they followed the rivers upstream. That accounts for their
occupation of the Peņaranda caves in the Cagayan Valley which is along
The next option when population pressed on the available food resource
was either to go inland or to move to another island and begin the
cycle again. Or both. That is, some went inland and this partly
explains the presence of indigenes in all our big mountains. Some chose
to live in other islands and that explains the presence of indigenes in
all our major islands.
Rice originally came from the Assam part of India. It traveled to China
and from there to the rest of Asia. While the India to China rice
dissemination remains problematic, the dispersion of rice from South
China along the Austronesian emigration route appears solid now. Rice
growing in paddy fields must have come from China. It must be pointed
that that as recent as 70 years ago, the Manubu and Maguindanaw
inhabitants of Cotabato did not know the paddy rice growing technology.
It was introduced to them by the Ilokano migrants in, say, Kabacan town
in North Cotabato in the late 1930s.
The other method of producing rice is by kaingin or swidden farming.
This is in use in many parts of our country until now. Among the
Kerenteken Manubu of Bintangan (Carmen, North Cotabato) this is what
they employed until the mid-70s when their forests were completely cut
down by timber concessionaires with the help of the national government.
Rice production requires the conquest of space. Paddy rice production
needs the mastery of water supply and its proper allocation. With rice
as the staple food then its combination with other food, or viands,
produced everyday and festive fare.
FRAMING OUR FOOD
The above time and space axes focus on the ancient history of our basic
food. Ancient could go only as far back as 6,000 years. Contemporary
Philippines offers a haven for researchers of culture like me because
in one archipelago there are many different times or eras. Food that
dates back to the Proto Malayo-Polynesian (those who emigrated from
Taiwan to the Philippines and Indonesia and on to the Pacific isles) is
still relished in the form which they must have been eaten.
For example, taro, yam, and breadfruit cannot be eaten raw. At the very
least they are boiled. The Kerenteken Manubu and the Iranun Maguindanaw
of North Cotabato eat them simply boiled. Tagalogs dip them in sugar as
merienda fare. Here in Tacloban City and other Waray towns boiled taro
is taken with lechon (roast pig) to remove the unpalatable taste of too
much fat. The Tagalogs and Sebuanos cut them into small bits and cook
them with other merienda food items to produce ginatan, a viscous fare
with tiny rice balls and sago pearls and cooked in coconut milk.
Consider the time factor and the influence of the ecology of the island
when studying our food recipes. While there are similar dishes, such as
boiled taro, across the archipelago, there are also those which evolved
only in one particular place, such as the pairing of boiled taro with
lechon in Tacloban. A survey of our contemporary food would easily
yield both similarities and differences.
With regards to cooking rice alone I noted basic differences which I
could only describe, but could not explain for lack of historical data.
The Manubu of western Bukidnon boil water and then add to it the rice
and then they stir the pot. This is the Indian way of boiling rice.
Most Filipinos, however, boil the rice and water together. This the
Chinese way. The Kerenteken Manubu used to cook rice in bamboo tubes
and so the rice and water were sealed together.
I believe that it would be more meaningful to think in terms of meals,
not singular dishes. Ours we call kanin-at-ulam (boiled
rice-and-viand). That's our basic meal. The rice is the constant; the
viand can vary. Most of the time rice is boiled, though in the morning
the left-over rice from the previous day can be fried with garlic and a
little salt. Anything which is eaten with the rice is viand. It can be
just a banana, boiled carabao milk, or ground C-sugar. It can be as
complex as four or more dishes. The minimal pair for a meal is boiled
rice and a viand.
Where is the complementarity here? Rice is carbohydrate mostly. It is
paired with a non-carbohydrate, usually one with lots of protein and
vitamins. That's from the point of view of nutrition. From the
viewpoint of taste, rice is bland although there is a faint hint of
sweetishness. It goes therefore with something with a definite,
definable taste, such as saltiness which makes salted fish a welcome
pair. The viand usually has a distinct flavor.
In Tagbilaran, Bohol breakfast can be just kamote (sweet potato) and
fresh scallop downed with the morning's harvest of coconut toddy
(tuba). On the road in the Visayas and Mindanao the bus stop-over
restaurant offer fresh fish light stew (tinola) as a must. Even if
boiled rice is substituted by something else the rule holds --
kanin-at-ulam. Among the Badjaos of Tungakalang, Sanga-sangga in
Bonggao, Tawi-Tawi I once had a breakfast of boiled cassava and seaweed.
Historical data give us what our ancestors ate thousands of years ago.
We are lucky that Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan's scribe, was Italian. It
is through him that our cuisine entered history. He mentioned the food
which was served them from their arrival in Homonhon. We were not as
lucky with the Spanish chroniclers. Most of them were priests whose
appetites were focused on something else. That dearth of historical
food date can be remedied by studying the cuisine of the indigenes
here, all Austronesian descendants, except the Aetas. This is specially
true because all those chroniclers only made mention of the what of our
food world, if they wrote of it at all.
Moving from the stove to the table there is the what and how of our
eating. Plates, forks, spoons, and saucers are recent additions in our
food history. We ate from banana leaves and coconut bowls. The same
soup bowl must have gone around the table as is the way with many
still. Solid viand we took from the center of the low table called
dulang. Although the table has become higher, we continue to take our
personal or individual share of the viand from one dish, which, if we
are many, goes around too.
On the same table there can be dips and sauces. These augment the taste
of the food. They are also part, though not necessary ones, of the idea
of basic kanin-at-ulam. To understand our culture better we have to
frame our food within the theory of complementarity, which also
explains the other domains of our culture, such as social relations,
music, even religion. While history gives depth to the frame it cannot
in itself explain many of the facets of our culture.