Filipino Food

Melt­ing Pot of Cul­tures

mailife - - Contents - Words and pho­tos by LANCE SEETO

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.


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.


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

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