WRITING THE EDIBLE
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.’”