Because that question, posed in English, has become so standard in fast food joints, we presume it was McDonald’s and similar establishments that introduced food to go (or “take out”) in the country.
But food to go has a longer history in the Philippines, dating back at least to the Spanish period. An album of exquisite prints by Jose Honorato Lozano published in 1847 (and reprinted in 2002 by Ars Mundi, with English translations of the text) has two illustrations that help us retrace the origins of food to go in the Philippines.
One is a print titled “Carinderia,” which describes food stalls offering different viands to go with rice. The customers are described as “artisans who are away from home, as well as people who do not have permanent residences. Ambulant vendors, carriers and tramps also eat there. At midday, a large number of women cigarette factory workers from Binondo go to these stands…”
Another print titled “Pancitero,” refers to Chinese sidewalk food vendors. The pancitero are ambulant, but again they seem to congregate “near the cigar factories where brisk business is done.”
I will get to the factory workers in a while, but let me say something about pancit. The term itself did not originally mean noodles. The original Hokkien Chinese word was pien sit, which meant ready-made food. Pien actually means “finished” or “done,” so a more accurate definition would be cooked food.
Edgar Wickberg’s “The Chinese in Philippine Life, 1850-1898” notes that there were two trades monopolized by the Chinese: herbal drugs and the pancitero. The Chinese vendors of such cooked food operated in the streets as well as in restaurants.
It’s not surprising that we have so many food names that can be traced back to Chinese: siopao, siomai, lumpia and all kinds of pancit (the term transformed to mean a particular type of noodle), as well as mami (mami actually means noodles with meat).
Why did such foods click? I’m sure it was mainly for convenience. Even in the 19th century, we already had a growing working class. Professor Ma. Luisa Camagay’s book, “Working Women in 19th Century Manila” did mention the women in cigarette factories, the targets of the carinderia and the pancitero.
Women then, as now, had the double burden of taking care of domestic chores, even as they worked outside the home. These women must have appreciated the pancitero and carinderia as it allowed them to buy cooked lunches for themselves. We do not actually have written accounts of food being taken away but I am certain that the women would buy food to take home as well.
Under the Americans, a big boost to the potential market for food to go was the emergence of offices, both private and public, as well as schools with their fairly large student population. The pancitero disappeared but the carinderia persists to this day, many catering to offices and schools. Not only was there food to go, there was also food “to come,” meaning vendors would go to offices and schools offering packed meals.
Food to go continues to expand in different ways. Look at our urban poor communities today and you will find that every other house – I am not exaggerating – is either a sari-sari store or a carinderia. When I first noticed these businesses, I thought it was strange that the poor would spend on the carinderia, thinking it was a needless luxury when home-cooked meals could be cheaper.
But the urban poor nanays I interviewed insisted it was actually cheaper to get food to go because of the cost of LPG. The cost of food to go, at least in these urban poor areas, is actually very low, for example P10 for a cup of noodles or lugaw. Unfortunately, the quality of the food can be quite dismal: instant noodles with hot water doused over it, with lots of food coloring.
But if you’re poor you can’t complain. It’s convenience again – when you’re rushing off to work, being able to buy food next door is a blessing, especially since a neighbor is always willing to give credit, collecting payment at the end of the week or even the month.
There are other angles to this food to go. There’s the tradition of the pasalubong; so many parents feel obligated to pick up something – doughnuts, a hamburger, pancit – to bring home.
Food to go is probably also important as a way of providing some variety to meals. Again, this relates to the overworked mother, who just doesn’t have time to plan out menus. With restaurants cropping up with all kinds of food – the other day I even saw a restaurant in San Juan offering Eastern European dishes – there are all kinds of new possibilities for family meals.
Food “to come” has also become more sophisticated, with dozens of food establishments, including some that are close to fine dining – offering home delivery. It’s no longer just harassed working mothers who use these services. Bachelors, young couples, retired couples, students living away from home – the potential niches continue to expand. •