From ba­goong ala­mang to tuba, Filipinos' love for fer­mented food has helped de­fine the way we eat and drink


One of early man’s great­est dis­cov­er­ies—right up there with dis­cov­er­ing fire—are the byprod­ucts that mi­crobes cre­ate. Fruit, honey, and grains get spon­ta­neously con­verted into al­co­hols and acids, while an­i­mal and plant pro­teins turn into amino acids and pep­tides. The re­sult­ing stuff, when edi­ble, usu­ally had in­creased lev­els of pro­tein, vi­ta­mins, and es­sen­tial amino acids. Peo­ple even­tu­ally de­vel­oped a lik­ing for the hall­mark fla­vors of fer­men­ta­tion—sa­vori­ness, boozi­ness, and sour­ness. In time, these byprod­ucts be­came part of our culi­nary cul­ture and had an im­pact on com­merce.

Be­cause our muggy equa­to­rial ex­is­tence lends it­self to bac­te­rial ca­coph­ony, fer­men­ta­tion on our trop­i­cal is­lands re­mains rel­a­tively ba­sic (and mostly spon­ta­neous), giv­ing the Filipino reg­u­lar ac­cess to vine­gar, fish slurry, shrimp paste, palm wine, and many other pun­gent plea­sures.


In our ur­ban world of bouil­lons and ba­con-on-demand, it might be difficult to un­der­stand the im­por­tant role that sa­vory, shelf-sta­ble, ready-to-eat food and condi­ments play in pre-in­dus­trial or non­re­frig­er­ated so­ci­eties. They served as back­bones for many beloved recipes, eas­ily en­rich­ing broths or guisa­dos due to their sol­u­bil­ity. Just as im­por­tantly, they be­came, with­out ad­di­tional prepa­ra­tion, in­te­gral parts of sim­ple spreads around the coun­try—fla­vor­ful side dishes that of­ten stood as the main pro­tein of the Filipino ru­ral meal. This was es­pe­cially in­valu­able to a peo­ple who con­sider a meal a meal so long as it has rice and some­thing sa­vory.

Soy sauce, miso, fish pastes, and fish sauce are ex­am­ples of sa­vory, saltheavy Asian fer­mented pro­tein prod­ucts. In archipelagic Philip­pines, tiny fish or shrimp, the pro­teins of choice, are left to fer­ment anaer­o­bi­cally with salt, which stops them from rot­ting. The en­zymes in their guts, to­gether with salt-tol­er­ant lac­tic acid bac­te­ria, fa­cil­i­tate the cre­ation of a meat-fla­vored mash. The di­ver­sity of names, tex­tures, and col­ors of fer­mented small sea crea­tures is just what one would ex­pect from an ar­chi­pel­ago of thou­sands of is­lands. The “liquor” or liq­uid that rises above the fishy mat­ter, is some­times har­vested to make am­ber­col­ored fish (or shrimp) sauce.

Ba­goong ala­mang, no doubt one of the most pop­u­lar sa­vory fer­ments of the Philip­pines, is an odor­ous umami bomb made of salted lit­tle krill left to fer­ment for a few weeks to a few months. While min­eral con­tent varies from area to area, the re­sul­tant pastes have been found to be some kind of un­likely omega-3-rich su­per­food, with “po­tent an­tiox­ida­tive sub­stances, large amounts of PUFA and free amino acid.” On the other hand, anal­y­sis of bug­guoong a mon­a­mon, a northerly fer­ment made from an­chovies, clues us in on the trans­for­ma­tive magic of fer­men­ta­tion, and why the Ilo­canos live so damn long. “One ta­ble­spoon of ba­goong af­ter strain­ing or ex­tract­ing with wa­ter fur­nishes about the same quan­tity of cal­cium, about half as much phos­pho­rus, and 13 times as much iron as three ta­ble­spoons of milk,” writes Carey Miller in her book, Foods Used by Filipinos in Hawaii.


Vine­gar-mak­ing is a sim­ple pur­suit in the trop­ics. Freshly har­vested sac­cha­rine liq­uid, al­ready teem­ing with micro­organ­isms, starts fer­ment­ing with min­i­mal prod­ding and no starter cul­ture. Left to its own de­vices, it turns quickly into al­co­hol and, just as eas­ily, sours. The con­cen­trated sug­ars in palm sap or cane juice are the most com­mon sub­strates for mi­cro­bial trans­for­ma­tion into acetic acid, but other mi­nor sour fer­ments are made from more timid fruit juice or peel and added sugar. All tend to be very tart, save for a few South­ern vari­a­tions, which are per­ceived by Ta­ga­logs as “un­ripe” and mildly al­co­holic.

A na­tive of Paoay, Ilo­cos Norte, once con­fided in me that the se­cret to his fight­ing cocks’ vi­tal­ity was a daily dose of sukang iloco (Ilo­cano sug­ar­cane vine­gar) in their drink­ing wa­ter. That did not sur­prise me— vine­gar is most per­va­sive in the Ilo­cos re­gion com­pared to any­where else in the Philip­pines (where it is al­ready a ubiq­ui­tous dip­ping sauce and sea­son­ing). Moth­ers bathe their fever­ish chil­dren with it. Old folks take a ta­ble­spoon in the morn­ing as a tonic. In food, it is used to pickle a myr­iad as­trin­gent or al­ready-sour fruit, and to cut the fat of their heav­ier dishes such as deep-fried em­panadas, deep-fried pork, blood stews, and sausages. Used in the Ilo­cano veg­etable dish, it can bal­ance out the typ­i­cal salty, fishy, and bit­ter fla­vors.

Filipinos some­times like the sub­tle acid­ity of tart fruit or leaves.

At other times they douse their meals with one of the many kinds of lo­cal vine­gar. There are no qualms about hav­ing “ex­tremely sour” as the dom­i­nant fla­vor of a dish, with only meati­ness (no spices) to add com­plex­ity in fla­vor. Fur­ther­more, since vine­gar is both a preser­va­tive and bac­te­ri­ci­dal, its role in soups and stews goes be­yond taste. When Filipinos need a dish with stay­ing power (e.g. for all-day par­ties or for three­hour jeep­ney rides to pick rel­a­tives up from the air­port), they cook up pots of adobo (meat stewed in vine­gar) or pak­siw (fish and gar­lic poached in vine­gar), and re­heat these through­out the day. The fla­vors meld to­gether, and by the end of the day, you have a fairly com­plex dish with a sour, meaty, thick sauce that can be spooned over rice or eaten by it­self.

At the very least, most homes and es­tab­lish­ments keep a bot­tle around to use as a dip­ping sauce. The ubiq­ui­tous white vine­gar we see in lo­cal eater­ies is, un­for­tu­nately, usu­ally in­dus­trial acetic acid or highly pas­teur­ized ver­sions of tra­di­tional prod­ucts, some shadow of what vine­gar re­ally is. Large com­pa­nies are of­fer­ing plas­tic sa­chets of pro­cessed vine­gar in very small town stores, dis­lodg­ing old, sus­tain­able in­dus­tries in the span of a few years. As a re­sult, a num­ber of peo­ple have put their clay fer­ment­ing jars away, un­able to com­pete with the low prices and con­ve­nience of the big play­ers.


In some small towns in the Visayas, you will find peo­ple gath­ered at stalls drink­ing tuba, a boozy, some­times ef­fer­ves­cent drink made of fer­mented co­conut, nipa, or sugar palm sap. They will tell you, as they of­fer you salt to go with your glass, that this daily habit con­trib­utes to their gen­eral well­ness (and you will be­lieve them, as palm wines are rich in ascor­bic and amino acids and B vi­ta­mins, par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for al­most-veg­e­tar­ian so­ci­eties). They will also gather around you be­cause non­lo­cals con­sum­ing tuba is an amus­ing con­cept for them.

You are not likely to be an in­stant fan of the bev­er­age. Tuba pre­dom­i­nantly tastes like fresh yeast, with other notes that can run the gamut from caramel, sesame oil, and green mango to jas­mine, soy sauce, and co­conut milk. As with sim­i­lar grassroots fer­mented beverages, there is high di­ver­sity due to vari­abil­ity in pro­cess­ing tech­niques, in­gre­di­ents, and re­sul­tant micro­organ­isms. Some pro­duc­ers use a starter mash, while some al­low for com­pletely spon­ta­neous fer­men­ta­tion. Still, others em­ploy botan­i­cals to en­hance clar­ity, color, and palata­bil­ity. Science has re­cently found that plant ad­di­tives can in­hibit cer­tain micro­organ­isms and al­low the pre­dom­i­nance of others (e.g., tuba made with­out tan­gal man­grove bark, a com­mon ad­di­tive, had four times as many yeast species than tan­gal- in­fused tuba), mak­ing for a slightly more con­sis­tent prod­uct.

Early Span­ish ac­counts re­veal that when they ar­rived, the brew­ing (and dis­till­ing) of lo­cal al­co­hol was al­ready in full swing. Al­co­holic beverages per­me­ated Filipino di­etary, so­cial, and spir­i­tual realms. Such was the case with Ilo­canos, who are as pas­sion­ate about their basi as they are with their vine­gar. Basi is a wide­ly­drunk as­trin­gent sug­ar­cane wine used in rit­u­als and com­mu­nity gath­er­ings around mar­riage, death, and spir­i­tual cleans­ing. A mo­nop­oly on the bev­er­age by the Span­ish colo­nial govern­ment didn’t com­pen­sate lo­cals fairly for their pro­duc­tion and only al­lowed them ac­cess to only basi of lower qual­ity. This had the un­for­tu­nate dual ef­fect of im­pov­er­ish­ing them and cre­at­ing wide­spread so­cial em­bar­rass­ment, lead­ing even­tu­ally to the Basi Re­volt of 1807.

Such yeasty, tra­di­tional, small-scale al­co­holic beverages are rarely pas­teur­ized and do not travel well (some­times turn­ing into vine­gar or ex­plod­ing in tran­sit). As a re­sult, their main con­sumers, though fiercely loyal, tend to be ge­o­graph­i­cally limited. Over time, their fla­vor has be­come an ac­quired taste for out­siders, some­times folk from just a few kilo­me­ters away whose palates fa­vor the less wild, muted, al­ways avail­able com­mer­cial beer or clear spir­its. Even chil­dren, who used to be rou­tinely ex­posed to this yeasty fla­vor through their tuba- raised rice cakes and bread, now snack on neu­tral-tast­ing bread leav­ened with com­mer­cial yeast and bak­ing pow­der. We now cringe when our puto (rice cake) has that boozy, some­times bit­ter taste, now described as “funk.”

The ubiq­ui­tous white vine­gar we see in lo­cal

eater­ies is, un­for­tu­nately,

usu­ally in­dus­trial acetic acid or highly pas­teur­ized ver­sions of tra­di­tional prod­ucts, some shadow of what vine­gar re­ally is.

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