Melting Pot of Cultures
There are many similarities of climate and tropical produce shared between Fiji and the South East Asian nation of the Philippines. Despite the countries being more than 7000 kilometres, or eight hours flying time, apart - both are blessed with a treasure of exotic tropical produce such as root vegetables, coconut, soursop, starfruit, rambutans, custard apples and mango. And both have an abundance of seafood, crustaceans, shellfish, poultry and pork.The indigenous Filipino’s are also cousins of the iTaukei as both belong to the Austronesian culture of South East Asia and Oceania.However when it comes to diversity of recipes and how each country uses those ingredients, that’s where the similarities end. Fiji’s geographic isolation limited its exposure to invading armies, the spice wars, waves of immigration and cooking techniques from faraway lands. By contrast, the Philippines underwent centuries of gastronomic experimentation and cultural change as they were not only invaded and conquered by the Spanish, American and Japanese, but waves of migrants from India, China, France, Germany and South Korea also left an indelible mark on their cuisine. This is why Filipino cuisine has much to teach us about new ways to enjoy our local produce in the South Pacific.
TRADITIONAL COOKING METHODS
Filipino food has evolved to become the hottest new thing in the food world. A blend of indigenous cuisine with techniques and produce borrowed from its migrant settlers, Filipino cuisine is truly a melting pot of its different cultures. However it is their traditional foods that are the mainstay of their family meals till this day.Traditionally there are three cooking methods that are classic Filipino; adobo, sinigang, and kinilaw. Kinilaw is like our version of kokoda or the South American ceviche, but instead of using lemon to cure, the Filipino’s use their abundant local vinegars including coconut vinegar. The sinigang is a tart broth, soured by citrus and sour fruit. Many Asian cultures believe that drinking hot and spicy soups in the tropics helps to regulate the inner core body temperature to match the temperature of the climate. Andadobo, a Spanish name, are dishes braised in vinegar. Adobo is a cooking method that is a delicate balance of
sourness and saltiness and is similar to a curry or braised dish. It is a method often used to tenderise tough bone-in meats. Traditional adobo normally uses sea salt but in many modern variations soy sauce is more commonly used; an early Chinese influence. Travel anywhere in the Philippines and you will find variations of all three old techniques, no matter how rich or poor the people. You might wonder why these staple dishes are all sour?The Philippines has lots of native citruses. And like anything with sugar they will ferment pretty quickly, so its people learned to utilize the fermented vinegars in a lot of their cooking. Curing and cooking in vinegars also helped to preserve fresh foods in ancient times.
In ancient times the inhabitants of the Philippines were a diverse agglomeration of Austronesian people who arrived in various waves of immigration from the Asian mainland, and who maintained little contact with each other. Between the 10th and 16th centuries and before the Spanish colonisation, Chinese traders sailed to the Philippines. They brought porcelain and silk in exchange for beeswax, deer horn and sea cucumber (beche-de-mer). The trade with China was the beginning of a major influence and contribution within the Filipino culture. One major influence that the Chinese contributed within the culture was culinary arts. Some culinary techniques that the Filipinos were taught include sauteed dishes, rice cakes and noodle dishes such as the Filipino pancit. The Chinese also introduced key seasonings including soy sauce, fermenting and drying of seafood to preserve them in times of hardship. Before soy, Filipino cooking primarily used sea salt to season foods. Fermented fish sauce was another seasoning common in South East Asia, made from fermented anchovy and sea salt.
Early Indian settlers brought with them Hinduism, Sanskrit writing and language which can be seen in various regions of the Philippines. Even the cloths such as the sarong, putong, pantalonghapit, and burdadongbalabal which were used by many Filipino Muslims are all inherited from the Hindu. The use of the veil and cord and the splashing of rice during a wedding are all of Hindu roots. The industry of cotton weaving, boat making and mining are also knowledge learnt from India. And Indian migrants introduced spices, curries and pickles, as well as mango, jackfruit, and bitter gourd.
The Philippines was colonised by the Spanish in the 1500s, with many of the first settlers being of Mexican Spanish descent, resulting in a noticeable influence of Mexican cuisine in Filipino cooking. The Spanish imparted many of their traditional dishes of stuffed meats and stews and there are many dishes that have tomato sauce and olive oil. But not all Spanish dishes were translated directly as the lack of specific ingredients caused many recipes to be adapted. A typical Mexican dish called tamales contains corn meal wrapped in corn husk, which the Filipino’s adapted to ground rice wrapped in banana leaves.
THE AMERICAN INFLUENCE
On April 11, 1899, the Spanish lost the Spanish American war and ceded the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States. The Philippines was again colonised and the cuisine adopted many American processed foods such as canned goods, evaporated milk, tinned meats and of course – Spam. Spam is very similar to corned beef or mutton, without the meaty chunks. It always reminds me of pet food but the processed, tinned Spam became popular throughout the US territories as the meat did not require refrigeration. The one obvious legacy of their new colonial masters was the double-crusted pie and sponge cakes. Filipinos replaced the traditional American apple or pumpkin filling with young coconut, which is today known as buko pie. With so much cultural influence and centuries of experimentation, Filipino cuisine offers us the opportunity to use our local produce in new and different ways. With many of the same spices, sauces and dry ingredients now available in Fiji, why reinvent the wheel?
Coconut vinegar is featured in many Filipino dishes
Baked cakes and desserts were brought to the Philippines by the US
BBQ’d meats full of Asian flavour can be found streetside
Tamales of ground rice wrapped in banana leaf was adapted from Mexican cuisine
Lumpia spring rolls came with the early Chinese immigrants
This watermelon sinigang soup is hot, sour and sweet
LANCE SEETO is a multi award-winning chef, media personality & food writer. He is currently the head chef at Malamala Beach Club, Fiji