OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
A foreign F&B consultant, a Manila resident for half a decade, weighs in on the local food culture
Filipinos love their food. And I believe, there are two reasons why: the food itself and how they enjoy eating it with other people. How food plays such an integral part in bringing the whole family together is something that I have been privileged to experience, being married to a Filipina and having resided in Manila for five years now and counting. However, as I go deeper into studying people’s dining activities, I also find that the beautiful strong traditions are starting to crack too.
Richard, a friend of mine who hails from France and has been in Manila for 12 years, sees how conversations among Filipinos always revolve around food. He witnesses this whenever he travels to the province. When he sits at a local store to have an ice cold beer, the locals are not shy to approach him and start a discussion. The talk typically ends with a table full of pulutan and buckets of beer. Food just brings people together, no matter what the differences— in our case, nationalities and lifestyles— might be.
Filipinos are considered to be among the most hospitable people in the world. And this is very evident in the way they welcome people into their homes. Come fiestas, strangers would be invited to feast in their dining rooms. And they usually are out to impress. They would ask the eldest to get buko from climbing tall coconut trees or lay out their best tableware or offer their old traditional family dishes with the hope that people will acknowledge how special it is.
Having managed teams here in the Philippines, it is evident how proud each Filipino is of their provincial heritage. Almost all Filipinos boast about how great the food is from their region. Kapampangans will proudly shout how they are the food capital of Luzon, Ilocanos will boast about their signature dishes and those down south will proudly stand by the importance of their region to the food landscape. It is this history, tradition, and passion that need to be embraced and shared.
The act of prayer before eating is a habit among Filipinos that I have come to appreciate. In their invocation, they don’t forget to thank God for placing food— no matter how small or simple— on their table, gathering the whole family together, and even wishing guests a nice journey home. It doesn’t simply set the meal right, but also remind people the more important things in life. This habit shows how religion, much like food, has a big influence in their lifestyle.
Though admirable and remarkable in parts, there is room for improvement in the Philippine food culture if people fervently wish for it to thrive even more. For one, there is a lack of care on daily meals. We notice that during the weekly grind, the average Filipino doesn’t really put much thought on what they eat. They just need something to fill the tummy with. The unli rice phenomenon where people eat more because it is free rather than appreciating what they are eating puts truth on my claim. The carinderias that fight to get their ulam down to a price of P40 start using fat cubes rather than pork in their dishes. The healthy eating movement may be changing this, but there are still many people who prefer more for less rather than quality. I guess this comes hand- in- hand with the financial hardships people face and/ or lack of time, but there has to be a better option.
In schools, I notice that they don’t know or teach much about food history. Filipinos just eat, oblivious to why their food is the way it is. It’s nice that chefs are championing local produce and introducing everyone to indigenous crops, but there isn’t as much support in education. As early as elementary, children should be taught about their country’s range of produce and nutrition, with the hope of sparking more conscious eating and avoiding hunger, obesity and health- related diseases. How great would it be that by learning Filipino food history, children could also learn about the foreign influences that entered the country and regions. It would help to appreciate each regional difference and highlight the beauty of Filipino food. It would also highlight that Filipino food is not only adobo, sinigang, or sisig. Right now as it stands, it is this lack of knowledge and understanding of the food heritage that allows Philippine food to be misrepresented to the world. How great would it be if a foreigner asked you, ‘ how come most of the Filipino dishes use vinegar, or lots of salt ( soy, patis) that, you could give a clear answer. Or, if someone asked why a lot of Filipino food is either deep fried or stewed, you could educate them on the reasons. You could help them understand why food has evolved the way it has and the barriers that this country has had to overcome when it comes to food.
There really is only one way to find out how Filipinos have come to value food the way they do— by revisiting history. In doing so, we will all come to understand the culture and see its worthy place in our lives. The way Filipinos eat, like in any other country, is neither random or haphazard. But from what I and many of my foreign friends have seen, food has become an integral part of people’s lives, something that has the power to bring people with many differences together. And I am fortunate to not just be a witness but now become a part of that.