“Lami mag-binignit!” says foodie me who frequents a local shopping destination here in my city just to enjoy one of my favorite desserts. Binignit is a popular Visayan dessert dish traditionally made with glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk with various slices of root crops, and fruits, among other delicious garnishes. (Check out this recipe.) It is comparable to sweet ginataan or bilo-bilo found in other Philippine regions, such as the ones my aunts prepare whenever I’m with that side of my family in Luzon. Sometimes my mother also makes binignit at home here in Mindanao, especially during the Holy Week, but when cravings call, it’s convenient I can find binignit at the legendary mall anytime.
Filipinos love to eat and I am no exception. I would try anything anywhere, as long as they’re edible and acceptable to consume. Friends can bring me along to a fancy restaurant, a popular local eatery, or to the food stalls along the sidewalk, and I can always find something I would enjoy! The last thing left is for me to learn how to be a good cook but frankly, I am more natural as an eater. Hehe!
April, aside from it being National Literature Month, is Filipino Food Month (yes, it’s a thing, and that’s no surprise, haha), and so I thought it would be good to talk about this delicious book titled Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture by Doreen G. Fernandez. A 200-page collection of essays brewing with years of research and learning, this showcases the stories, research, and experiences in Filipino cuisine by the renowned writer, cultural historian, and food critic. Reading Fernandez, who is a staple in Philippine gastronomy, is a good start in learning local foodways not just because of the beautiful prose but because she intertwined food with meaning, history, culture, places, and of course, people. Below are some appetizers or patikim of Tikim!
Food as cultural artefact
The resonating lesson from Tikim is that food is not just food. Filipino food and the practices surrounding it are a product of long tradition and various influences, including Chinese, Malay, Arab, Spanish, and American, among others. Food is an artefact and in itself is history.
We sometimes take food for granted because we consume it every day. Of course, eating is instinctual for us to survive. But do we really have to put too much thought into it? It’s eating, the most basic necessity of life, right? However, what I mean is that sometimes we forget the other important aspects of food, cooking, and eating. We don’t put too much thought in the context to which they arise and operate.
Food is part of culture. Culture, on the other hand, is an integrated whole. So we can’t really detach food from other facets of our lives as members of the society. The operating term is ‘integrated’ that means many parts that work together. What is fascinating about our culture is that it has a lot of influences. In culinary terms, there are several fusions involved that we got from our foreign traders and colonizers.
Regardless of those external influences, we have managed to somehow ‘own’ them. We put our own flavor in these fusions through indigenization and nativization. We use, change, or add new ingredients or embellishment based on what is available in our environment. This is why even among us Filipinos, we localize our food as shown by the different versions of similar dishes in the regions, just like my favorite binignit!
The sociality of cooking and eating
As mentioned, we cannot separate or isolate other aspects of our social lives from one another, and that includes cooking and eating. Philippine foodways are rich and diverse because, aside from the fact that we love cooking and eating, we also have fiestas, festivals, special occasions, and family gatherings that showcase our cooking skills and delicious cuisine, especially in the local settings.
These aspects of our social lives teach us more than just culinary skills. It also lends the lessons of pakikisama, pakikitungo, and pakikipagkapwa. These traits are further reflected in our language and how we deal with others such as “Tara, kain!” among other greeting phrases. At home, at work, or at school, we tend to offer an invitation to eat, like “Kumain ka na ba?,” “Nag-merienda ka na ba?,” “Ipagluluto kita ng paborito mo,” and “Sabayan mo nga ako mag-agahan.” Consciously or otherwise, we see food, cooking, and eating as a social practice shared with others.
The politics of Philippine foodways
Discussing social lives and relationships entails politics, which is not to be confused with political institutions such as the government. Politics is more than just the ‘pulitika’ we usually hear or read from the news. Every relationship is a power struggle because power emanates from people, thus every tie, whatever that may be, is innately political.
In Philippine foodways, or in culinary in general, we often categorize cuisine or see certain food differently. We sometimes give premium to some cuisine over another. Hence, there is what we consider ‘more superior’ or ‘more class’ (whatever this may mean). We often ascribe this superiority to expensive food in a fancy, and more likely foreign, restaurant. In that sense, we can be called ‘foodist!’
But does that ring true? Is there a superior or an inferior cuisine? Remember, we’re not talking about individual taste, personal preferences, or appetite. We’re not talking about bad cooking or unhealthy food either. Of course, each one of us has our favorites. But food is food, a cuisine is a cuisine. Each has their own histories and social contexts.
Therefore, whether we are in a Michelin-starred gourmet restaurant, in your neighborhood carinderia, on the roadside, chilling with a cup of taho you bought from manong, or at home enjoying lutong bahay, we should be able to appreciate and savor the innate value of the food that we eat, alongside digesting the stories that add more flavor to them. As we often say, we should be thankful for these graces because there should be no ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ cuisine, just like how there is no lesser ethnicity, language, culture, or sex.
Empowerment in the kitchen
Another important note in the politics of Philippine foodways is the topic of gender. Cooking is a heavily gendered practice in the Philippines. We usually associate cooking to women, more particularly to our mothers. But this is not to discredit our fathers. Many dads can also be or are indeed great cooks! But generally, our memories of the kitchen and dining table are more associated with female figures—our grandmothers, mothers, and aunts.
While reading Tikim, I had this reflection or pagmuni-muni about gender and kitchen. Yes, we often associate the kitchen with women and we certainly love the food they prepare. We are grateful for them for feeding and taking care of our family. On the flip side, we sometimes have disparaging notions of the kitchen reflected in some of our terms like ‘pang-kusina’ or ‘laking kusina.’ Some of us would even say “Housewife lang” or “Taga-luto lang” as if it’s something inferior, belittling, or embarrassing.
Reclaiming the dignity of kitchen work, especially at home, is important. Working and cooking in the kitchen is something we should be proud of. Why do we look up to executive chefs (usually male) in a luxury restaurant but look down on housewives who cook at home for their families? Cooking and household chores require excellent management skills. Taking care of the family’s meal demands outstanding decision-making. Managing the household is difficult, and we should give the respect it deserves. We should not degrade the dignity of housewives or househusbands because household work is work, and dignified work at that. Imagine a working mom or dad who still needs to cook for and feed the family, among all the other household tasks!
Also remember that the word ‘economics’ comes from the Greek word ‘oikos’ which means ‘the household.’ The family, and the house, is where it all comes from. It is the microcosm of our society. Hence, household, including the kitchen work, is essential not just to the unit members but in the communities we live and move in.
Extending our household
Extending our gratitude to the real producers of our country, the people we don’t personally know but provide the food on our table, is also something we should be reminded of more. They are the farmers, the fisherfolk, and all the workers who tirelessly labor not just to provide for their own families but also to feed the whole nation. We need to celebrate them not only today on Labor Day but fight for their rights on the regular to push for the genuine development of their industries. Supporting local businesses, local farmers and fisherfolks is a must! Supporting the community pantries sprouting within our areas is also one way to pay it forward. As we commemorate Filipino Food Month and Labor Day, we should extend our households toward the larger society, especially those struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis.
The enigma of Filipino identity
We Filipinos are fond of evoking the bayanihan spirit during difficult times. “That’s so Pinoy!” we often say. We help one another as one united whole. We are Filipinos. But what do we really mean by being ‘Filipino?’ Does being Filipino mean speaking Tagalog perfectly? But how about other Philippine languages? Does being Filipino mean being kayumanggi? Or does being Filipino mean eating balut, adobo, or sinigang?
These notions connote our fixation towards making sense of our identity as Filipinos. It is part of our meaning-making process towards nation building. In a highly diverse country like the Philippines, this process can be an extremely tough grind. Many of us assume we already know who we are as a people and we know what constitutes ‘Filipinoness.’ But we also sometimes incline towards our purist tendencies, such as “Dapat nagta-Tagalog ka para mas Pinoy!” or “Pure Filipino siya; siya naman, half.”
We should start embracing and be more accepting of our differences. With our long history of foreign influences, we have become more like the popular sapin-sapin, the colorful glutinous rice cake with different layers yet making up a whole. So when we ask: what does it mean to be Filipino? We can start looking at what we eat because as they say, we are what we eat. I love binignit na may sari-saring sahog because it reminds me there is unity in diversity. ☁️