As part of my self-taught cooking curriculum, I took a month-long trip to the Philippines with my mother to breathe in my heritage, meet distant relatives for the first time and to examine the food I so vehemently refused to eat as a teenager. The varnish of vacation wore away after two weeks and I caught my relatives going back to their routines of work and school. This was prime time for me to invade their kitchens for the quotidian food they would consume.
Each household I visited went to the market once a week.
In Jaro, Ilo-ilo; the farmer’s market was on Thursday. Grocery shopping was just as much a social call, too. Since everyone needed groceries, you kept up with gossip, party invites and appearances. Stalls had makeshift sheet coverings tented over their wares.
In metropolitan Manila, my Auntie Minda woke me up at 7am to get to the market. She packed a styrofoam cooler, bleach and hand sanitizer. She also directed me to wear covered shoes because I would regret wearing flip flops. The market area was in a large wall-less warehouse, similar to La Boqueria in Barcelona. Auntie beelined for purveyors that she’s been going to for years and only went to one stall to get her rice and vegetables because she had a stake in their land.
Vendors were butchering on site and de-scaling fish on the show floor. Visible tracks of blood patterned the cement floor. And in some stalls, people napped if they ran out of things to sell.
You walk into a kitchen and you see what you’d expect. Tile or linoleum. A small table with 4 chairs. Coffeemaker, dishes stacked on shelves. Eerily undisturbed. Food mysteriously arrives at the dining room table and the kitchen looks spotless. It’s because the food isn’t being prepared in that kitchen. Filipino food is prepared in the dirty kitchen outside!
All of the action is in a ventilated annex to the house. The prep, deep frying, dishwashing and yup —even the laundry. Sometimes it doubles as the garage or dad’s workshop.
Filipino food stinks. It’s pungent, oily, bold, garlicky and especially fishy. Instead of installing an expensive ventilation system, why not just cook outside all the time? In Ilo-ilo, I worked with 2 burners, a back splash and arsenal of woks. All of the knives were big. I watched my aunt cleaver a chicken with skill most people envy in Chinatown shop windows. Preparing food is social, akin to the knitting bee as aunties pick the tinola leaves from their stems. I sat admiring the scene until I was yelled at to stir the squid adobo.
At the Table
To best illustrate Filipino eating culture, I’d say my kin eat with “Hobbit-like” intensity. You can gurantee the presence of a whole roasted pig at any major celebration.
7:00AM - Breakfast: Pan de sal (like a dinner roll), hot chocolate, coffee or tea
9:00AM - 2nd Breakfast: rice (fried if it was from last night), a fish, a vegetable, a stew, a meat, perhaps a shellfish and fruit to finish.
12:00PM - Lunch: Same amount of dishes as 2nd breakfast but perhaps an additional meat or shellfish.
1:00-5:00PM - Merienda (snack): Either a burger, or giant bowl of fruit to pick at while you gossip the afternoon away. Bowls of cracker nuts, pork rinds with vinegar dips, chips, cookies, candy or any street food you may find if you’re out and about.
6:00PM - Dinner: The mother of all meals. If you had fried fish earlier, you get this one steamed. If you had chicken for lunch, perhaps a pork knuckle or beef shank stew. Dessert is more elaborate and most likely involves shaved ice, ice cream and/or cake.
12:00AM - Midnight Snack: Everyone sneaks down to the kitchen in their pajamas to pick at the leftovers during late night t.v.
After two weeks of this regimen, I started to bloat. Thankfully, I stayed with some of my American relatives who let me sleep my bellyache off and understood that I wasn’t hungry for two days. The thing is, it is rude to leave food on your plate. Even worse, it’s doubly rude to tell Lola (grandma) to stop ladling. Small eaters like me are referred to as takawmata, a negative term for people who don’t finish their food. Ungrateful! Wasteful! American! Cue sound of teeth sucking in and disgruntled harumphs.
You won’t find a fork and knife at your place setting. Instead, a spoon and fork. Forks are not used in the Western way of stabbing, but scooting things into the spoon for you to gorge. I’m serious, you can fit more onto a spoon than onto the tines of a fork.
If you’re eating out farther in the rural areas, you have banana leaves as plates and you use your hands. Pretend that your hand is a duck and its beak is closed. You grab up some rice with the tips of your fingers and then stamp bits of whatever else you’re eating into it. You get a compact bite of everything.
Rice. Always rice. It is not really an accompaniment but a bed of a truck; a vehicle to carry all of the intense flavors you are about to drive into your body.
Sea salt, raw and harvested locally. It feels like sand and probably has some in it. It’s unapologetically crusted onto most things.
It depends on where you are but you will also have some combination of fresh chili pepper, fish sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, brine shrimp paste and/or calamansi in small ramekins. When Filipinos sit down at the table, they will idly perform the task of making their own brand of sauce while chitchatting about what they’re going to order. It’s like mixing wasabi with your soy sauce at a Japanese restaurant. Between gobs of food, you occasionally dip your spoon into it to perk up your next bite or straight dunk a chicken leg when you feel like it was under-seasoned. I prefer a squeeze of calamansi, a pierced Thai chili pepper, aged palm vinegar with a smashed clove of garlic; amazing with fish!
So much vegetable oil. I am embarrassed about the amount of oily things I ate for a month straight. Boneless bangus (milkfish), last night’s unfinished rice and eggs swim to a crisp in inches of oil.
I knew that my family loved food, but I didn’t know that it was so central to Pan-Filipino circuitry. Zipping between metropolitan sprawls to beach resorts to rural compounds, I got a kaleidoscope glimpse of where I come from. It was familiar, but strange to feel like you are returning to a place you’ve never been. I’ve resolved to go back, there is too much to discover.