‘Deceptive’ Philippine Cuisine

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In Philippine cuisine, things are not always what they seem. If there’s one thing I learned from years of eating and writing and reading up on local food, it is that the Filipino kitchen is deceptive in many unexpected ways. Eating Filipino means eating a chop suey or halo-halo of food influences we are vaguely aware of.

A few Spanish-sounding terms, for example, turn out to be Chinese, as in the case of arroz caldo (rice and chicken gruel or congee), as food writer Doreen Hernandez once pointed out. These Hispanized Chinese items are the culinary equivalent of Hispanized Chinese surnames such as Cojuangco, Lacson, etc., or the word jusi, a Hispanized Chinese term for husi, or cloth woven from silk thread or fibers.

Some Chinese-sounding items, on the other hand, are nowhere to be found in China, as food researchers have long observed. For example, there is a dish called pan shih in China, but it is not the Filipino pancit, and – surprise! — “there is no lumpiang Shanghai in Shanghai.” Humba seems to have come from the Chinese dish called hong ba, but the two are not the same. The mami (mi is noodle in Chinese) as we know it is also reportedly a local invention, by Mr. Ma Mon Luk, to be exact, or so as claimed. Most Chinese influenced items may not have changed much in look and form, but they apparently evolved as local variants, sometimes a far cry from the original. What Filipinos have come to regard as a regular lumpia, for example, is very much different from the Chinese version of lumpia.

The same is true with at least one Japanese item. Mongo con hielo sounds like a Spanish legacy, but it is actually Japanese. Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo says it is a descendant of kakigori, the Japanese dessert of shaved ice drenched in condensed milk and syrup. Ultimately, halo-halo is said to have a Japanese pedigree.

And hopiang hapon (literally, Japanese hopia) is similarly a curious name, for hopia is a Chinese pastry term, although this particular hopia variant is Japanese-influenced, owing to its similarity with Japanese red-bean (azuki) cakes.

On another minor note, the word karinderia or carinderia (small eatery) may sound Spanish, but it actually has an Indian root (kari = curry), particularly Sepoy Indian, according to Chef Claude Tayag. So do the closely sounding items kare-kare — yes, the peanuty offal dish — and karihan, synonym of karinderia.

Another set of false Spanish sounding items are in a class of their own, because they turn out to be French. Canonigo (baked meringue topped with custard sauce) sounds Spanish – canonigo is Spanish for parish priest or clergyman – but the dessert, it has been claimed by pastry chef Jill Sandique, is “a Pinoy invention, inspired by the French ile flottante (floating island).” Because of this, I am now looking at the following as probably French too: chicken galantina (or galantine, whole chicken stuffed with ground pork, ham, eggs, etc., and served as a roulade or meat roll); morcon, which is also a roulade, and the richly sweet desserts called sambo and silvana often sold in the mall.

Another form of deception lies in the use of exactly the same name for dishes that turn out to be partly or entirely two different things. Tinola in Luzon refers to the brothy chicken dish with sayote or papaya, but in Visayas, tinola means fish boiled with salt, tomatoes and kangkong leaves. The term kinilaw should also be noted, because it is not always raw like sushi, ceviche or beef carpaccio. Other kinilaw dishes using chopped pork ears and cheeks, for instance, are, in fact, cooked; the only similarity lies in the use of vinegar and spices in which to steep the meat. Puto (from the Indian puttu) is not always a kind of rice muffin; in cases of puto maya, puto bumbong, puto seko, and puto lanson, they are, in fact, different things: these are a kind of biko, a ground purple rice cake, a white crumbly cookie, and a grated cassava cake, respectively.

An eighth form of ‘deception’ may be found in the Spanish terms themselves: the evolution of their meanings and definitions has been considerable such that these food items can be proudly claimed by Filipinos to be reverse colonized or ‘Filipinized’. The examples are too many to mention. For starters, the plural word form in Spanish has become both singular and plural in Filipino usage: ubas, mansanas, kastanyas, etc. Adobo, from the Spanish adobar, meaning to marinate (or is it the Mexican-Spanish culinary term adobado), is reportedly Spanish only in name; it is actually indigenous Filipino with Chinese influence (because of the soy sauce). Torta, which means a lot of things in the Hispanic world — flatbread and sweet cake among them — means to Filipinos either omelet or a kind of Visayan sponge cake. The tamales (note the singular usage) is no longer the original corn-based recipe in Latin America but one that uses ground rice and other native ingredients.

We can proceed with this litany by noting how Filipinos have made similar adjustments to American food, but we might end up discussing everything until the break of dawn. To get started, we might readily note how we sweetened spaghetti with sugar and added chopped hotdogs too — not to mention another ‘Pinoy’ invention: banana ketchup. We also ‘pidginized’ beef steak to bistek by pouring in some calamansi juice and sugar into the mix and topping the whole thing with raw white onion rings. And so on.

Indigenization of the foreign is a universal phenomenon, but because of the country’s colonial history and the huge diversity of its languages, which is prone to meanings being lost in translation, it’s only in the Philippines where this totally unexpected line-up of ‘deceptions’ occurs.

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