Snack Sized, Full of History

Jenn de la Vega
Feb 27 · 5 min read
Tapas in Barcelona (for just me).

A work-in-progress examination of the relationship between Spanish tapas and Filipino food.

“Takawmata,” is what I would be called at the dinner table. It is a Tagalog word for ‘greedy with the eyes’ or someone who has taken too much food on their plate and cannot finish it. Someone who passes fancy, who can afford to waste. It’s a complicated exchange because it’s rude to deny another ladle of food from mom or grandma, you’re ungrateful otherwise⏤an American who is too good for humble foods from home.

Besides having an immature 90’s fast-food palate, I had a tiny appetite. I tried to curb the large portions dealt to me by choosing small saucers or soup bowls from the cupboard. It got to a point where my mom said, “If you don’t want this food, make something yourself.” I would scowl with my Costco Simply Soda and pretend to rummage in the pantry. I started to eat at odd hours because I was an insomniac and I wanted to avoid the pressure of having leftover food on my plate.

A decade later, I was struggling through culinary school. We were starting a section on Spanish tapas and I was into it. In fact, I dropped out after completing that certificate, it seemed to be the only cuisine that I cared about. Spanish food romanced me with its wines, small portions and late nights. I vowed to go to Barcelona one day. Little did I know, I was about to embark on a complicated historical trip.

What are tapas? They are small dishes that accompany drinks. Its name comes from the Spanish word for lid. Slices of bread were placed over sherry glasses to keep the fruit flies away. And soon, different things would appear on top of that bread like slices of Iberian ham, manchego cheese and olives. Most tapas bars are standing room only, stacking your tapa on your glass makes room on the counter and saves the trouble of washing another plate. Salty chorizos make you want to drink more, but this savory bite between sips keeps you from getting too drunk, too fast. To be clear, tapas aren’t for every meal but it’s a common nightlife activity to hop between tapas bars.

Tapas date back to before the Spanish Inquisition. Spain journeyed to the Philippines in 1521 (and hey, they named the country after Philip II of Spain). As part of the cultural exchange, Filipinos started to incorporate Spanish flavors into native cuisine as they entertained dignitaries. Over the 300 years of Spanish rule, most Filipino foods remained large format; family style. Boiled meat stews, peanut curry, glass noodles, whole fried fish, all served over white steamed rice.

Hellsa skewers in Makati

I searched for instances of tapas on a trip to the homeland. In Boracay, a resort island south of Manila, vendors come out after sunset to sell skewers and balut to the late night bar crowd. It’s not inside the bars, but along the beachside, as you stumble home. More of a hangover cure than accompanying morsel with drinks, but heck, are they portable.

Taclings!

In modern Makati, the financial district of Manila, there is A-Venue night market where vendor set up stalls in a parking lot to show off the best bites. You may find bottles of San Miguel beer but Filipinos are a food-first culture. It’s fun to circle the market and grab all kinds of small plates. My favorite street foods include taclings, mini tacos shaped by the cups of an egg carton; grilled chicken slathered in garlic, long green peppers rolled in lumpia wrappers and deep fried.

Fish crackers from a street vendor, while I was in a parade.

Where are the tapas in daily Filipino cuisine? Large format charcuterie like jamon and chorizos are nearly impossible in a tropical climate. Most rural residents still don’t have regular refrigerators. Access to large, temperature controlled facilities rules out charcuterie from Filipino vocabulary. However, that doesn’t mean that small dishes don’t exist.

Class, economy and the environment may shed some light. We did absorb merienda (snack time) and siesta (midday nap) from Spain but Filipinos that I know do not have regular drinking habits like wine with dinner or a glass of vermouth on Sundays. There is pulutan, which means ‘to be picked up,’ snack foods like garlic peanuts, chicharron, shrimp chips, and deep-fried pig ears that go great with a beer binge on a rainy day.

Following an era of constant war, the Philippine economy was left in shambles. It costs less to buy in bulk and serve food for the whole household. I only have one brother, but older generations of my family had upwards of eight kids. Tapas menus are long and full of variety. The more dishes you make, the more ingredients you’ll buy. Making tapas on a shoestring budget just doesn’t make sense.

If you weren’t part of the nobility, nascent Filipino relationships to Spanish rule were subservient. Much like overseas workers of today, they were the cooks, housekeepers, nurses, and drivers. Filipinos were not invited to partake at the table but were relegated to servant’s quarters or in the kitchen for a family meal.

So what if I were to mix them? What feelings do Filipino tapas stir up?

It’s unsettling to embrace the food of invaders. The current President of the Philippines is an advocate of renaming the Philippines to Maharlika (the word for nobility), to break from its colonial origins. My family would riot if I served them small versions of dishes they grew up with. I know because my grandfather wanted to get Chinese takeout after finishing dinner at the French Laundry.

I want to acknowledge the Spanish colonialism because it shaped some percentage of my identity but I also want to challenge notions of what Filipino food is supposed to be (or can be!). My appetite grows for change. Over the next year, I hope to explore new formats of Filipino dishes from tapas to large roasts.

Full disclosure: I wrote this to provide context to diners who will be joining me for a series of Filipino dinner pop-ups in Brooklyn. If you’re interested, RSVPs are open for March 15th at 8pm.

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Jenn de la Vega

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Author of Showdown: Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ. Caterer behind @Randwiches. Resident Kickstarter & TASTE Cooking. Veteran community manager.