A taste of culture

“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” These words are attributed to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer and politician, who, as the author of The Physiology of Taste, became famous as an epicure and gastronome.

In the same vein, someone once astutely commented that if you truly want to know the culture of a place, taste the native cuisine. Why? Because there’s much history, tradition, custom behind the unique dishes of a given place. So, when in another country, eat as the locals do and get them to talk about the back-stories of the food they are serving.

Perhaps this notion of “food as culture” should be given some serious thought by my friends at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and any organization tasked to nurture, promote or preserve Filipino culture.

That was the point I got years ago when I read Tikim (1994), a collection of essays written by the late Doreen G. Fernandez. She single-handedly championed Filipino food in her writings, documenting the indigenous cooking traditions—long maligned and misunderstood or ignored due to our misguided higher regard for western cooking. Doreen must have realized that there was more to food writing than sensory description; it was a way of illuminating a culture. This makes her a pioneering culinary ethnographer who transformed the way Filipinos saw their food and made it a big part of our cultural asset. One young Fil-Am chef who now credits Doreen for her change in perspective about Pinoy dishes says: “She opened the door for me to look at it with dignity.”

When I watch the old films of acclaimed Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and even modern Bollywood movies, I become specially engrossed whenever there’s a dining scene. I am fascinated to see the dishes they are eating, such as plain rice or biryani with curry dishes, meat stew with chapati bread, and so on. These never fail to whet my appetite for Hindu food. It is also interesting to see them eating in the traditional native way—with their hands—including the well-groomed female lead characters. It brings me back to my boyhood days in the province when I devoured my Lola’s savory cooking with my hands. More significantly these little food scenes give us telling glimpses of Hindu culture beyond words.

Even our history could be more interesting if we approach it from the culinary angle. If only local dishes could talk, they would probably have much juicy tales to reveal about the characters of our heroes and beloved icons. Come to think of it, one can discover much about the real human being behind a great man by listening to the lowly cook in the kitchen talk about his favorite dishes.

The Filipino food historian Milagros Santiago-Enriquez authored an award-winning historical cookbook, Kasaysayan ng Kaluto ng Bayan, which documents the history of Bulacan cuisine from as early as the 17th century. The book provides original recipes of Bulacan dishes during the Philippine Revolution and the birth of the Philippine Republic. There is a chapter there that lists down the favorite foods of the country’s heroes. Jose Rizal’s favorite was “Tinola and Ginisang Monggo” while Marcelo H. del Pilar’s was  “Pinalundag na Bulig and Pochero.”  Gregorio del Pilar craved “Arros ala Cubana and Puto Caramba,” among others.

DOT should look into food tourism as a whole travel package to promote the Philippines to a growing category of tourists who are into culinary experiences. A meal plan should be part of our travel packages, which dictate not only the hotels but also eating places that will enrich the visitor’s experience of our local culture.

One of the most effective ways to promote our local foods is through drama. I know this for a fact because there’s a slate of Japanese drama series on a streaming platform that uses food as an enticing dramatic ingredient to lure the viewer deeper into the heart of Japanese culture.

So far, I have been following five series. They are lighthearted and fun, eccentric and sometimes even elegiac in tone but all of them have food as a main character, affecting the character development of the protagonists in the mini drama.

In Midnight Diner the dishes can be so simple yet intriguing, from butter rice to omelet rice and various kinds of ramen. Watching the show, you can imagine just how much you can find and experience in the smallest of alleyways in Tokyo.

In Sweet Tooth Salaryman, a publishing sales man, Kantaro, wraps up his client visits in record time so he can secretly pursue his quest to indulge in the tastiest of sweets. The show features real locations and dessert hot spots in Tokyo. Each episode is centered on a typical Japanese dessert such as anmitsu, kakigōri, or mitsumame, or a Japanese interpretation of a foreign dish such as parfait, eclair, pancake or matcha bavarois.

The people behind the shows know that food has natural sense appeal and the shows exploit this to the hilt with appetizing shots arranged by food stylists on the set. It’s almost like food porno, pardon the use of the term. The great thing about them is that it can propel the experience of eating delicious things to larger-than-life levels.

I am also getting a peek into the Japanese way of thinking and doing with every episode, thanks to the little slice-of-life elements that show revealing glimpses into the life of ordinary Japanese people.

Which brings me to my constant refrain on an idea I have harbored for the longest time. These shows prove my contention that tourism is narrative and sensual storytelling (sight, sound and taste), which is the most effective way of building greater understanding.

I strongly urge the NCCA and the CCP to look at this creative approach of using local cuisine embedded in classic elements of universal human drama to entice the world into the heart of our rich culture.

An enticing internationally appealing lighthearted TV drama series can be developed around the top Filipino dishes as ranked by Tasteatlas.com, including lumpiang shanghai, sinigang, tocino, sisig, adobo, lechon, daing, pinangat, and torta. From the books of Doreen Fernandez, there’s a wide array of other Pinoy dishes that will surely lure the world into our culture. An imaginative director can get inspiration from the recipes of mouthwatering dishes found in Mila Enriquez’ historical cookbook such as binilot na morcon, bistik na sugpo, bringheng Bulakan, calamares relleno, hamon ng Bulakan, leche flan del mar, picadilyong na may patatas at chorizo.

Such a show can even give new life to iconic delicacies such as bibingka, ginataan, suman, sapin-sapin, binatog and other traditional concoctions that are being glossed over because of today’s generation’s predilection for Western junk food.

The Japanese series that I follow—Journey To Red Restaurants List—makes the case for preserving endangered Japanese local eateries and their unique dishes and fare. Because it does it in such mouthwatering way, you end up advocating for the preservation of such places and such dishes.

These globally watched programs make a clear valid case for cuisine as an ART. The NCCA should seriously consider giving the art of food preparation legitimacy and putting it under its oversight together with the other conventional art forms.

Let’s nurture and “flex” our culinary artists and encourage them as they toil in their respective kitchens to keep stoking the flames of our native stoves to further explore “the luminous possibilities of a living culture.”


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