I first learned about Peranakan cuisine while living in Singapore more than a decade ago, and where I had my first taste of mee siam. It reminded me of palabok as it has vermicelli noodles soaked in a shrimp-based gravy, topped with tofu and shrimp. But mee siam was a bit sweet, spicy and soupy. Later, when I visited Penang for a personal food trip, I managed to have for a tour guide a true-blue Peranakan who introduced me to other Peranakan delights as assam laksa (the tangy and spicy fish noodle soup) and a variety of bite-sized, glutinous rice-based snacks called kueh (which this time reminded me of our kakanin). This fusion Chinese-Malay cuisine is a product of a community that was formed in the 15th century, when Chinese seafarers married Malay women and settled in what was then the British-controlled Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore. This community, known as the Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese, developed a cuisine which incorporated Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients, such as wok frying and pork, with indigenous Malaysian spices and herbs as turmeric, galangal, lime leaves, lemongrass and tamarind.
I recently got acquainted with the Peranakan culture again while working on an assignment for another publication. And while researching on the cuisine, I couldn’t help but notice how its development mirrors that of Tsinoy cusine. Filipino-Chinese food, such as pansit, mami, taho and hopia were also products of Chinese immigrants who brought their cooking techniques and ingredients and localized them by using Philippine ingredients. The late food historian Doreen Fernandez said the word pansit is Hokkien for something quickly cooked, hence noodles. Pansit has been localized and now there are different kinds of pansit that reflect where they were made. Fernandez cited pansit Malabon which has oysters and squid because Malabon, is a fishing center; and pansit Marilao, which is sprinkled with rice crisps because the Bulacan town is a key rice-growing area.
But whether it’s Peranakan or Tsinoy cuisine, there are some things that I can see in common: both cuisines are a reflection of their respective communities. Both cuisines are products of cooks who make do with what are locally available. Both cuisines are products of culinary creativity.
Local. Creative. Community. These are also the key words that came into my mind while discussing community-supported agriculture with Charlene Tan, cofounder of Good Food Community, a social enterprise that helps small, organic farmers to directly market their produce to their Metro Manila-based clients. Good Food Community does this by requiring each consumer to sign up for a farm share subscription. Each subscription costs between P420 and P580, and one can either go for a one-week, four-week or 12-week subscription. In exchange, the buyer will receive about 2 to 3.5 kilograms of local, seasonal vegetables produced by Good Food Community’s farmer partners in Tarlac, Benguet and Rizal.
The subscription program is based on the concept of community-supported agriculture that was conceived during the 1980s in Europe. The idea behind it is for both consumers and farmers share the risks of farming, or as Charlene told me, community-supported agriculture is a way for us city-based consumer to have a stake in our local farming systems.
“I personally want to be connected with people who grow my food,” Charlene said. She recalled that while working for another non-governmental organization several years ago, one of the NGO’s volunteers talked about community supported agriculture and how she became such a good cook as she had to be more creative in the kitchen as she had to use only local, in-season produce that she bought through a farm subscription. This was an “a-ha” moment for Charlene who, like most city-dwellers, realized how ‘disconnected’ she was from the people who produce our food. This inspired her to cofound the Good Food Community in 2010, with friends and family as initial subscribers. Eight years later, Good Food Community has expanded beyond supplying organic produce to households by delivering to health shops and restaurants.
But more than widening the market for Good Foods Community’s farmer partners, Charlene said, Good Food Community aims to spread an idea. The idea of lowering our carbon footprint by supporting less energy-intensive farming systems. The idea of living more mindfully by eating more mindfully. The idea that by eating only what’s in season, we not only become connected with the changing seasons but also learn that diverse crops will enrich and regenerate the soil that nourishes us in return.
“If we continue to eat what we want to eat, when we want to eat it, then we also lose the diversity of our farms,” she said, adding that this will pressure the farmers to just plant one crop in order to scale and recoup their investments.
Listening to Charlene talk about community-supported agriculture has led to a mental shift. I always referred to myself as a concerned consumer who opts to buy eco-friendly, ethically-produced and socially-responsible goods. Yes, these are loaded words and believe me I don’t consistently buy these kinds of products. But at the end of the day, I still consider myself as a consumer. My justification was since I was too maarte to become a farmer myself, I can support organic farming by simply being a consumer. What I didn’t realize—and this was until my conversation with Charlene—was that I wasn’t just a consumer. I am a stakeholder. And as a stakeholder, I need to have a say on how my food got into my table or how I need to ensure that our land will continue to produce all the crops that will sustain us and the next generation.
And as we welcome the Year of the Earth Dog, let us all take this opportunity to reflect on the element of the incoming Chinese New Year: Earth. The Earth as we live in. The Earth as how we take care of it and make it a better place for the future generation.
Xin Nian Kuai Le!