How to sow the seeds of lo­cal pro­duce and farmer ap­pre­ci­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Berna Ro­mula-Puyat


On a pre­vi­ous busi­ness trip, as I was wait­ing in line to board a plane go­ing to Is­abela, I spot­ted a woman clad in jeans, a plain T-shirt, and a pink scarf car­ry­ing a back­pack and wear­ing bright pink lip­stick. I had done my re­search for the story I would be writ­ing, and rec­og­nized her as the woman I’d be meet­ing and in­ter­view­ing that day. Still, I doubted if it was re­ally her, Berna Ro­mulo-Puyat, un­der­sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (DA). I fi­nally mus­tered up the courage to ap­proach her and in­tro­duce my­self, we shook hands, and she swiftly briefed me of what to ex­pect on our trip.

Ro­mulo-Puyat has been the DA’s un­der­sec­re­tary for 11 years, specif­i­cally han­dling ad­min­is­tra­tion, mar­ket­ing, and re­gional en­gage­ment un­der the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion. Not many years ago, she started to travel around the Philip­pines in or­der to check farms and the farm­ers’ needs.

For this trip, I was lucky to join her visit to Banaue Rice Ter­races dur­ing the har­vest sea­son for heir­loom rice. We were there to wit­ness the Igorots’ har­vest rit­ual, tra­verse the eighth Won­der of the World, and ob­serve and par­tic­i­pate in the har­vest. Wear­ing only rub­ber slip­pers, we walked down the side of the moun­tain and on the nar­row walk­ways of the ter­races to reach the har­vest plot. With­out he­si­ta­tion, Ro­mulo-Puyat stepped into the muddy rice paddy and asked the fe­male farm­ers how to do the har­vest prop­erly. Fol­low­ing suit, I cut and gath­ered ma­ture pan­i­cles be­side her and the other women, and passed them down the line once I had more than enough to hold. We did this for about an hour un­der im­mense heat, and all through­out, Ro­mulo-Puyat would ask the farm­ers ques­tions and even joke with them.

She has made it a point to learn from farm­ers first­hand and to give back, bring­ing chefs and me­dia peo­ple with her on her trips to raise aware­ness about the farm­ers’ plight and gain re­spect for the food they pro­duce and that we con­sume. “I’ve been for­tu­nate to have trav­eled all over the coun­try with [chef ] Gaita Forés. She has the tal­ent of see­ing the po­ten­tial of an in­dige­nous in­gre­di­ent and us­ing it in her dishes in her restau­rants,” she says.

What was the turn­ing point that made you de­cide to pur­sue a jour­ney with food?

My life has al­ways been about food. My whole fam­ily loves to eat. My late hus­band courted me by tak­ing me to each and every restau­rant writ­ten in Doreen Fer­nan­dez’s book ( Lasa: A Guide to 100 Restau­rants). We would take our kids to dif­fer­ent coun­tries every year and our itin­er­ary was al­ways cen­tered on where we would eat. We be­lieved that part of un­der­stand­ing the cul­ture of a coun­try is through the food that they eat. You don’t have to eat in an ex­pen­sive restau­rant to have a fan­tas­tic meal. I can be happy with a meal that costs less than P100.

What are the most com­mon mis­con­cep­tions about Filipino food?

That we don’t have any orig­i­nal dish. That ev­ery­thing is just bor­rowed. When I vis­ited Madrid, I tried their en­say­mada, and it was so dif­fer­ent from the one we are used to here. Ours has a lot of but­ter and is full of fla­vor. I re­mem­ber how, dur­ing the first Madrid Fu­sion [in Manila], Span­ish chef Paco Tor­re­blanca was so amazed with our en­say­mada that he kept go­ing back to the booth that was serv­ing it. The same goes for le­chon. I per­son­ally think our le­chon is bet­ter than the ones I have tasted abroad.

Con­trary to what peo­ple think that we just copy ev­ery­thing, we do have dishes that were not bor­rowed: crispy pata, sisig, kare-kare, din­uguan, and laing. To quote Doreen Fer­nan­dez, “When Filipinos bor­row, and then they cook it, there’s a whole dif­fer­ent, pro­found process that hap­pens. That when peo­ple cook some­thing that they have em­braced from some­where, it be­comes very dif­fer­ent. It be­comes ours.” It took me a long time to un­der­stand that. It’s so pro­found.

How did your per­spec­tive on food change af­ter be­com­ing the un­der­sec­re­tary for agri­cul­ture?

I used to think that we only had good food in a few prov­inces, like Pam­panga and Ne­gros. But af­ter trav­el­ing all over the coun­try, I’ve dis­cov­ered so many dishes that I’ve never tasted be­fore. Take for ex­am­ple Is­abela: I was pleas­antly sur­prised to find out that the food there is fan­tas­tic. Their pan­sit caba­gan is to die for. The lamb and or­ganic pig are also de­li­cious. They even have lob­sters!

Know­ing how hard it is to grow food also made me value ev­ery­thing that I eat. Noth­ing must go to waste. What are the big­gest chal­lenges you en­counter when pro­mot­ing lo­cal pro­duce among Filipinos and maybe even our own farm­ers? The lack of sup­ply. A lot of our chefs have been look­ing for lo­cal in­gre­di­ents but we just don’t have enough of them. A lot of chefs want to buy ad­lai, but not many farm­ers plant it. Most of the sup­ply comes from our re­search cen­ters.

A few years back, most restau­rants im­ported their in­gre­di­ents be­cause that’s what their cus­tomers looked for. Now you have chefs like Mar­garita Forés, Jordy Navarra, and JP An­glo who are proud to say that they source their pro­duce lo­cally.

Can you walk me through Madrid Fu­sion’s jour­ney to the Philip­pines?

The idea of par­tic­i­pat­ing in Madrid Fu­sion came from Mar­garita Forés. She has been at­tend­ing it for sev­eral years now, and she had asked me a few times if we could at least have a Philip­pine booth in Madrid. But it was for­mer Depart­ment of Tourism Sec­re­tary Mon Jimenez who thought out of the box and said that in­stead of just hav­ing a booth in Madrid, why not bring Madrid Fu­sion to Manila?

Please de­scribe the at­mos­phere dur­ing the first Madrid Fu­sion Manila.

Amaz­ing! Both for­eign and lo­cal chefs, the press, and food lovers were rav­ing about Filipino food. Our lo­cal chefs who were asked to present in the congress were as good as their for­eign coun­ter­parts. It was a proud mo­ment for our coun­try.

All the lo­cal chefs that par­tic­i­pated dur­ing our re­gional lunches did it pro bono. En­derun [Col­lege] stu­dents were our wait­ers, dish­wash­ers, etc. and no­body com­plained. Ev­ery­one did it for the coun­try. Ev­ery­one was help­ing each other. You would see top chefs like Bruce Rick­etts help­ing out other chefs; there was no star. Our hash­tag was #parasabayan. It was ev­ery­one’s way of help­ing the coun­try through food.

How has Madrid Fu­sion Manila changed the Filipinos’ and the for­eign­ers’ mind­set about lo­cal food?

I am so happy that the new tourism sec­re­tary de­cided to push through with the third one. When we did the re­gional lunches back 2015, our main ob­jec­tive was to show for­eign chefs and the for­eign press that we have good Filipino food. We were so thrilled when the

“Know­ing how hard it is to grow food also made me value ev­ery­thing that I eat.”

likes of Elena Arzak of Arzak and An­doni Aguriz of Mu­garitz went crazy over our cala­mansi, ad­lai, and pili nuts. An added bonus was that some of our lo­cal chefs dis­cov­ered we have good qual­ity lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. Those who went to the re­gional lunches were sur­prised that the in­gre­di­ents used in the dif­fer­ent dishes that were served were lo­cal.

Surely, for­eign chefs like Elena Arzak and Joan Roca tried and brought home Filipino pro­duce dur­ing the past two Madrid Fu­sions in the coun­try. Did they con­tinue to use Filipino pro­duce in their own Miche­lin-starred restau­rants? It’s not that easy to ex­port Filipino pro­duce or prod­ucts. First, we don’t have the sup­ply. Se­cond, there are cer­tain pro­to­cols that have to be fol­lowed for our pro­duce to en­ter a for­eign coun­try. We at the DA are work­ing on in­creas­ing sup­ply and mak­ing sure that they can en­ter other coun­tries who want to buy from us.

One of the DA’s big­gest roles in Madrid Fu­sion is host­ing the se­ries of lunches for the del­e­gates. What can we look for­ward to this April? For the first year, our theme was Lu­zon, Visayas, and Min­danao. Each of the chefs pre­pared dishes where the in­gre­di­ents were sourced. For the se­cond year, our themes were pan­lasa (dif­fer­ent tastes of Filipino food), al­musal (since Filipinos love break­fast), and street­food. This year, we will fo­cus on in­gre­di­ents. The first day will be about rice, to be cu­rated by An­gelo Com­sti. The se­cond day will be from] nose to tail,” to be cu­rated by Nina Daza Puyat, Sasha Dy-Pri­eto, Lim Uy, and Idge Men­di­ola. The third day will be about

“Be­ing ‘co-pro­duc­ers’ means be­ing peo­ple who go beyond the pas­sive role of con­sum­ing and tak­ing an in­ter­est in those who pro­duce our food, how they pro­duce it, and the prob­lems they face in do­ing so.”

corn, to be cu­rated by Ali­cia Sy. The over­all cu­ra­tor would be JJ Yulo.

Are you do­ing some­thing new apart from the reg­u­lar lineup of events?

The theme of this year’s Madrid Fu­sion is “To­wards a sus­tain­able gas­tro­nomic planet,” so we will be sourc­ing in­gre­di­ents that are not only in­dige­nous to the coun­try but also pro­duced in a sus­tain­able man­ner.

Over the years of be­ing in a “re­la­tion­ship” with food, have you come up with a food phi­los­o­phy that you live by every day? I fol­low the Slow Food phi­los­o­phy, which is de­fined by three prin­ci­ples: good, clean, and fair. Peo­ple should be able to en­joy food that is good for them and that does not harm the en­vi­ron­ment. Good food should be ac­ces­si­ble to our con­sumers: not too ex­pen­sive, but at the same time, the farm­ers are also paid well. Read­ing about Slow Food made me re­al­ize that what we are cur­rently do­ing in the DA is in sync with what slow food is all about. Our work has made us co-pro­duc­ers of var­i­ous agri­cul­tural prod­ucts, in­clud­ing the Ark of Taste ones. Be­ing ‘co-pro­duc­ers’ means be­ing peo­ple who go beyond the pas­sive role of con­sum­ing and tak­ing an in­ter­est in those who pro­duce our food, how they pro­duce it, and the prob­lems they face in do­ing so. In ac­tively sup­port­ing food pro­duc­ers, we be­come part of the pro­duc­tion process.

Slow Food en­cour­ages ev­ery­one to be co-pro­duc­ers. Grow your own food. Eat real food. Visit a farm. Shake the hand that feeds you. Know the story be­hind the food that you eat. Meet your farm­ers and fish­er­folk. Learn more about your lo­cal or re­gional food his­tory and cul­tural dishes. If you don’t have the time, buy food that sup­ports those who feed us.

Berna Ro­mu­loPuyat’s first ever food dis­cov­ery is the Chicharon Camil­ing from Tar­lac, her dad’s home­town.

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