The construction of Filipino cuisine as peasant food
by Jon G. Malek
I recently gave a lecture at the University of Winnipeg as the 2022 Riley Postdoctoral Fellow in Canadian history. As part of this fellowship, I have begun new research on Filipino food, culture, and identity. I have decided to share the paper here, partly because those attending the Zoom broadcast were not able to hear the paper and because I’d like to share these thoughts with the community, and hopefully receive some feedback. I was honoured to have Primrose Madayag Knazan, Winnipeg author, playwright, and food blogger, to give a reading from her excellent novel, Fusion on a Plate. This research project builds upon my previous work that has looked at the Filipino diaspora and the negotiation of identity outside of the Philippines.
As a nation with the unfortunate distinction of being colonized from around 1571 to 1946, the Philippines has been unable to avoid foreign influences in its culture, and its cuisine is a prime example. Being a trading entrepôt in Southeast Asia for centuries before the Spanish arrival in the early 16th century, Filipino cuisine also had influences from Malay, Arab, Indian, Chinese, and Mexican cultures. Despite the varied influences upon Filipino food, it has crafted something distinct from its past, much like Filipino culture itself.
Food provides an intimate heuristic to studying culture and identity. Like all world cultures, the daily life of Filipinos is suffused with food; all life events from birth to death are accompanied with food, and lots of it. Filipino food author Doreen Fernandez captured the centrality of food to Filipino ritual, writing “What one puts into the mouth is the end result of a process that starts with the sea, the soil, animal life. In the act of cooking, we make statements about ourselves – about our understanding of relationships between ingredients, about our perception of taste and appropriateness. In the act of eating, we ingest the environment, but we do not stop at that, for we Filipinos make eating the occasion for ritual – and ritual the occasion for eating. We build ceremony around it; we create celebration.” But Doreen Fernandez also portrayed Filipino cuisine as being peasant in nature. For her, the “keepers of culinary knowledge” were not trained chefs or food critics, but rather ordinary people: farmers, fishermen, street vendors, and home cooks.
Today, I am going to inquire how and why Filipino cuisine is often presented as peasant’s food. Nothing pretentious, complicated, inaccessible, or for the high minded. Rather, a cuisine intimately tied to locally produced foods, reliant upon the fruits of the region. A cuisine whose masters are not five-star chefs but one’s nanay or lola, that is, mother or grandmother. A cuisine characterized by adaptability, intimacy with the land and sea.
Before getting into the discussion, I want to be clear that “peasant food” is not used as a disparaging term, nor is it even a judgmental term. Rather, it refers to a style food that is rooted in a rural lifestyle, one that makes use of easily accessible ingredients, and is efficient in its use of ingredients. In the case of the Philippines, it is often regionally determined, based upon what is locally available; one only need to look at the variety of recipes for adobo to see what is included comes from what was locally available in the Philippines. Even in Canada, Filipino recipes adapt to what is available. It reflects a close connection to the land and sea, has been developed over centuries of practice, and is resilient in face of adversity.
The new haute cuisine?
Primrose’s reading from Fusion on a Plate (p. 103-106) touches upon this idea of Filipino cuisine being the next “up and coming” ethnic food. Even in conversation with some community members today, this narrative still holds strong, that it is just on the cusp of “hitting it big,” but it has been present for some time now. Why hasn’t it become mainstream like other Asian cuisines like Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, or Thai? Filipino cuisine has a deep flavour profile, highlighting the salty, sour, sweet, and bitter which Filipinos cherish.
For years, Filipino food has been targeted as the next big wave in ethnic cuisine. Writing in the early 1990s, Fernandez expressed confidence that haute cuisine could thrive with Filipino dishes elevated to that of fine European restaurants. In her mind, though, it was the Filipino psyche that held back Filipino cuisine:
“If we have not developed haute cuisine from that treasury of Philippine foods, it is because we have kept thinking of our food as…improvisatory and flexible, depending on what is available in the swing of the seasons and by the grace of God. It is because we have not thought of these homegrown, ‘ordinary’ food items as material for experimentation and adaptation, for professional food service, for serving on silver and crystal, for treating in nouvelle as well as traditional ways, for serving in restaurants and at banquets.”
Philippine cuisine, as she writes, developed as adapting to the surrounding land and its produce. This is a key characteristic of Filipino cuisine that marks it as that of a peasant, one with a certain degree of intimacy with the land and sea. But Fernandez thought that the limits of this reliance upon region and season could easily be overcome if there were demand; in short, if restaurants demanded certain vegetables be available year round, enterprising farmers and importers would make it so.
Fernandez was a student of history, too, and noted that it held back haute cuisine in the Philippines. “In other countries,” she wrote, “these cuisines were brought to their heights in places – for kings and emperors demanding feasts of royal class.” But there was no royal class in the Philippines; pre-colonial leaders were small-scale and considered fellow members of the community. For Fernandez, it was not the high-class members of society that would create a haute cuisine, but rather the cooking community, it was creative chefs willing to experiment with Filipino recipes and ingredients. There was an element missing from her prediction, however, and that was the audience.
Please see my next article for Part 2. In the meantime, I welcome any feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.