July 24 is the launch of a history food tour that aims to promote and elevate Philippine cuisine. But what makes the “Philippines on a Plate” different from other food tours is that it reaches far back in time—beyond the 13th century—in its presentation.
You need not go out of the city to understand and appreciate the history of Filipino food and its various influences, and not only from colonizers. Ancient commerce and market exchanges, way before the Philippines was discovered by Magellan, also shaped Filipino cuisine.
“Philippines on a Plate” would be “like going through Philippine history—the delicious way,” says Sandee Siytangco-Masigan, the brains behind the project, with husband Andrew Masigan.
“You get to savor the food the way it was prepared, with very specific ingredients accessible at that time and as cooked and presented by our forefathers. We also get to understand the evolution of our dishes by way of the various influences.”
“Philippines on a Plate” is presented like dinner theater, with the host leading the guests on through cocktails and an eight-course degustation.
Each course represents an era that has a big influence on Filipino cuisine.
A huge video screen will show photographs of early Filipinos—their food, plates, clothes, religion, scrolls, etc.
“It’s very interactive,” says Sandee. “Apart from what you are eating, there will be a guide to tell you how it came to be, why was it served at that time or what spices or herbs the foreign merchants gave us that we then started to use. And it’s not only with the food; we also talk about the names of ingredients incorporated in the Tagalog language—either Indian or Mexican origin, such as achuete from Mexican’s achiote.”
The degustation will be hosted by actor-TV host Gabe Mercado.
“We did our research and found out that even before the Spaniards came, we had our own systems of writing, we were literate and we were a very important trading post in the Far East,” says Sandee. “We had our own system of government. Hind tayo lahat nakasabit sa puno na parang mga unggoy.”
The couple’s research on Philippine food history started with local history books. “Why are we harping on the Spanish influence?” Sandee adds. “There must have been something before that.”
The couple also checked the Internet and other foreign publications that made mention of the early Philippines. They also started ordering books from abroad and out-of-print tomes from other sources, such as “The Philippines Before Magellan;” an essay called “The Philippine Saga;” “Palayok” and “Kinilaw” by the late food historian and Inquirer columnist Doreen Fernandez; “Hokkien Influences on Tagalog Cookery”; “1421—The Year China Discovered America”; and “Raiding, Trading and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chieftains” by Laura Lee Junker.
Using these sources, the couple pieced together the life and food of early Filipinos. There were no recipes then, but from the stories they gathered, they whipped up dishes to approximate the original ones.
In the early days, food was also an instrument of barter. Foreign merchants would come and stay for long periods. In exchange for their stay, they would give locals spices and herbs or
teach them how to cook root crops or put new flavor into their dishes.
“For instance, it was the Chinese who introduced to us rice and rice irrigation,” says Andrew. “It started from the Formosa province of Taiwan. From Formosa, it found its way to Aparri then to the Benguet region, hence the Banaue Rice Terraces.”
For the history food tour, all the major influences are represented—Mexican, Chinese, American, Asean and Tribal. There is also Spanish but by way of Mexico.
“We were a province of Mexico. Six of the eight governor-generals who were assigned to the Philippines were from the New Spain, and the New Spain was Mexico,” says Andrew.
The Philippines was actually under the viceroy or watch of Mexico. “Most of the missionaries or people in the Spanish armada who came as teachers were all from Mexico—about 80 percent,” adds Andrew. “That explains the Mexican influence in our food. We don’t know it, but it’s very prevalent.”
In return, we exported kinilaw to Mexico.
“Our kinilaw found its way to the Mexican cuisine and it became known as ceviche. Ceviche means cooking with acid, either citrus or vinegar or even alcohol. The native Filipinos invented the art of cooking with acid. That was exported and became ceviche,” Andrew points out.
Filipinos also exported the art of making tuba (palm toddy). Because there are a lot of agave plants in Mexico, the natives started practicing the same fermenting system for the agave. Hence, Mexican tequila.
“If you look at the Asian map, we were right in the middle. We were the trading hub for the entire Asean region from China and Japan down to Indonesia and Malaysia,” says Andrew.
Back then, there were several major trading hubs in the Philippines—Mindoro, the center of trade; Aparri; Mactan; Iro-Iro (Ilo-ilo); Sulu; and Palawan.
The Chinese were never colonizers, but their influence has been present since 3500 BC when they started trading with neighboring countries, including the Philippines. They brought to these shores the art of duck incubation (balut), now the cottage industry of Pateros.
“Philippines on a Plate” on July 24, which is also the 46th birthday of Andrew, will be held at Whitespace (2314 Don Chino Roces Avenue Extension, Makati). It will start off with a
cocktail of tuba and a pica-pica like bihod (fish roe or better known as the Philippines’ caviar).
The degustation includes Kinilaw Trio (a tribal influence)—samplings of seafood and meat dishes (goat) cooked in citrus, either calamansi or vinegar, and paired with coconut and seasoned with turmeric.
“At that time, there was no cooking oil, no spices except for sea salt and turmeric. Most cooking was done by boiling, firing or kinilaw,” says Andrew.
Another course from tribal culture is Inihaw na Kalabaw.
“The main source of protein at that time were deer, hog, wild cat, fowl and lizard. So, we are serving carabao’s meat combined with a salad of coconut and mango. We didn’t have the concept of salad then, but the tribes were doing it,” says Andrew.
Other dishes include Corn Avocado Salsa, Sinigang na Talakitok (cooked in santol) and Bringhe at Balbakwa.
The food tour will pick only the highlights of years past.
“This not for foreigners alone, but for locals as well. What better way to appreciate our own cuisine than to appreciate it in context—how our forefathers ate their food,” says Andrew.
The “Philippines on a Plate” food tour will also be experienced at XO26 Heritage Bistro every Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, 6-8 p.m., for groups of 25-30 at P2,800 per person.
“We can also bring the food trip to different embassies in Manila, as a well as to universities and schools,” says Andrew. “It’s fun, entertaining and very informative.”
Apart from Mercado, veteran theater actors such as Jamie Wilson, Richard Cunanan and JJ Yulo will also serve as hosts.
“This has been our advocacy, promoting and forwarding the Philippine cuisine here and abroad,” says Andrew.
“We had fun digging up all these stories about the Philippines,” adds Sandee. “There is always that argument that Filipino food is not sexy, unlike Thai or Japanese. But, when you begin to understand where our food and our culture came from, hopefully that will change minds.”
XO46 Heritage Bistro is at G/F, Le Grand Tower, Valero St., Salcedo Village, Makati City. For “Philippines on a Plate” reservation, call Leo Lorenzo at 5536635, 5536632 or 0917-6225966.
E-mail the author at [email protected]
PHOTOS BY ARNOLD ALMACEN