This his­to­rian has been writ­ing about Philip­pine food be­fore it was cool, and eaters every­where should thank her for it


If you’re in the food in­dus­try or are just se­ri­ous and curious about Philip­pine cui­sine, then you’ll know Felice Pru­dente Sta. Maria, the food his­to­rian who has been tire­lessly chron­i­cling what Filipinos put into their mouths for over four decades now. “I’ve al­ways en­joyed cook­ing from the time I was seven years old. I think that was be­cause I en­joyed the com­pany of my grand­moth­ers and my grandaunts, and ev­ery­body baked or cooked or en­joyed hold­ing din­ners and fam­ily gath­er­ings [then]. That opened up an en­tire di­men­sion of sat­is­fac­tion and cre­ativ­ity,” she says.

“In the late 1960s, the food lit­er­a­ture was still quite lim­ited, but I think it was of a very ex­cel­lent cal­iber. If one liked lit­er­a­ture, then one prob­a­bly would have en­joyed the way the ar­ti­cles were writ­ten: there was al­ready the travel and food com­bi­na­tion,” she con­tin­ues. “I was lucky enough to stum­ble into the new types of food books that were com­ing mostly [from] Europe then. They not only had recipes but also the sto­ries be­hind the recipes: how an au­thor, for in­stance, lived in Italy or France, or some­body’s hus­band was as­signed over­seas and the wife goes along and dis­cov­ers the cui­sine and the cul­ture at the same time.”

Sta. Maria’s writ­ing, which tells the var­i­ous sto­ries of the Filipino na­tion through recipes, anec­dotes, and history, is backed by metic­u­lous re­search that in­volves por­ing over old doc­u­ments. Find­ing ex­act dates and per­son­al­i­ties is im­por­tant to her writ­ing, the records-based food history pro­vid­ing much-needed writ­ten ev­i­dence and back­ground

to sup­port the oral tra­di­tion-based re­port­ing that’s more pop­u­lar to­day.

“If you want to understand how a cer­tain thing de­vel­ops, how a cer­tain ed­i­ble plant ar­rived in the Philip­pines and be­came no longer wild but cul­ti­vated and [widely] eaten, and how it was cooked, for in­stance, you kind of have to go all the way back,” she says. “We need to go into ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings and his­tor­i­cal records to have some idea of how a botan­i­cal be­gan and de­vel­oped in the Philip­pines. We need to look at her­itage recipes to know how dishes were pre­pared at dif­fer­ent times. For in­stance, whereas be­fore, we used rice flour as thick­ener, to­day we switched to wheat flour or corn­starch. Be­fore, we made chicken curry with only turmeric juice and co­conut milk. We also cooked with leaves sel­dom used now such as alusina, guava,

lupo, la­banos, tamarind, tu­ga­bang, kili­tis, and quite a num­ber of oth­ers. Our food is like fash­ion; some­times a dish is so pop­u­lar when cooked a par­tic­u­lar way, then later it’s gone and young cooks do not know any­more how to cook it, or may have never even heard of it.”

Why is know­ing how Filipinos used to eat rel­e­vant to the way we live now? Sta. Maria of­fers three main rea­sons: “First of all, we’re try­ing to pro­mote to our­selves the for­ever chang­ing, dy­namic Philip­pine food that is an­chored in some kind of her­itage,” she says. “We’re try­ing to pro­mote that to our­selves. At the same time, we’re try­ing to pro­mote that to peo­ple over­seas. We’re do­ing that partly be­cause we want to de­fend our im­age, we don’t want peo­ple to say our food is bad.

“Sec­ond, there’s the eco­nomic im­pact of that. If peo­ple like our food the way they have over­seas, then maybe they’ll come here for the real thing.

“Third, if they like our food, they’ll want to use only Philip­pine in­gre­di­ents. We have some of the best fish sauces, and there is no rea­son for us to use non-Philip­pine fish sauce in Philip­pine cook­ing.”

“There’s a [pos­si­ble] pack­age to this,” she says, re­fer­ring to how ev­ery­thing ties to­gether. “We need to pro­mote our cui­sine.”

Sta. Maria is very happy about the cur­rent in­ter­est in good food in gen­eral, and Filipino cui­sine in par­tic­u­lar. “I think ev­ery Filipino should be happy that Filipino food is be­ing en­joyed by peo­ple from all over,” she says. “We have to understand that peo­ple have dif­fer­ent eat­ing cul­tures, so the fact that there are cer­tain Philip­pine foods that have be­come at­trac­tive to peo­ple from a dif­fer­ent culi­nary cul­ture is won­der­ful.”

Food history is an im­por­tant fac­tor of any com­mu­nity’s so­cial dis­course, and look­ing at past records to fig­ure out why we eat the way we do now is in­te­gral to dis­cern­ing what makes a Filipino Filipino. “Then the to­tal pic­ture of what Philip­pine food is in­cludes a chronol­ogy, in­cludes a history of it,” Sta. Maria says. “I would hate for peo­ple to ask, ‘ Is there any­thing writ­ten about Philip­pine food history?’ and the an­swer would be, ‘ Not really much.’ I would hope that even­tu­ally, they would say that, ‘ Oh you know, there is quite a lot.’”

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