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The Gypsetting (and timeless) Filipino Food

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When we think of Filipino food, we immediately imagine a dull, oily and orange-brown meal next to a plate of steamed rice. There’s not too much visual excitement, but everyone knows it’s a meal to be had because it’s full of flavors nonetheless. But this is barely the story of our cuisine, one that has surpassed centuries of evolution–from the barter trades between China and the rest of Southeast Asia to the remnants of the American colonization–Filipino food has acquired a style of its own, and the world is (finally) taking notice.

That’s why Filipino food is very much like a Gypsetter: it “travels with style,” albeit gradually, through time and space. At first it is underestimated, then understated, until foodies realize its authenticity as both a dish of the world and distinctly Filipino.

XO 46, a local restaurant celebrating the “eXtraOrdinary” experience of our cuisine, knows just how much of a Gypsetter Filipino food is. During a degustation hosted by Andrew and Sandee Masigan in XO 46’s Estancia Mall branch last month, we were able to understand a little bit more about what Filipino food is all about, and why we love it very much.

Sinigang na Lapu-Lapu sa Santol

Sinigang na Lapu-Lapu sa Santol

Filipino food started merely as a source of nourishment for hunters and gatherers (maybe that’s why we consider our cuisine as the ultimate comfort food). As peoples became less nomadic and called certain parts of lands as their home turf, the agricultural era arrived, and several cooking procedures evolved. We started cultivating several plants that were sour in taste and delighted our senses. We grew to love the taste of asim. This is the distinct Filipino taste (although we have a strong sweet tooth as a culture), one that has lasted over 15,000 years–in fact, aside from kinilaw, other asim foods that we love today are sinigang and paksiw.

To prove this point, XO 46 gave us Kinilaw Quadro, where we tasted different viands with different kinds of fermented juices: citrus vinegar with kinilaw na tangingue, tumeric and palm vinegar for kinilaw na kambing (which was pretty new to the palate, and pretty welcoming as well), sugar cane for kinilaw na tahong, and tuba for kinilaw na dilis, and Sinigang na Lapu-Lapu sa Santol.

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Inihaw na Kalabaw (Sirloin)

 

As trade with mainland Asia intensified, so did our taste buds. Kinilaw did not fall out of trend, but there was another style yet to be learned. Our cuisine walked across the sands and waited along trading posts, hoping to catch a wave of something else other than vinegar. Finally, it came. We learned from our neighbors the art of open-pit roasting over coconut husk, and also learned to enjoy grilled food, or inihaw. This is pre-Hispanic barbecue nights with the other men in the village: talking about other communities and what pretty daughter one of the datus has. From farmlands to sandy beaches, the inihaw cooking style became a favorite way of heating up food–and softening a viand. What was once rubbery and hard to chew at first turned into soft and chewy. Since we were in good relations with China, culturally speaking, we made inihaw a bit Chinese, too: we dip it in soy sauce (or, for the more “traditional” in the community, in vinegar).

While there was no dipping for this dish, we had the Inihaw na Kalabaw (grilled water buffalo). At first we wondered if it was possible to further soften a buffalo’s hide, but it exceeded our expectations and the salad with coconut and mangoes balanced its slightly sour-salty taste.

Inadobong Pato Tim

Inadobong Pato Tim

Our relations with China and their significance in the evolution of our culture is evident in our food and culinary language. In the Philippines, as everyone knows, every birthday party needs to have pancit for long life, and soy sauce (locally known as toyo) is a staple condiment. Our relationship with China has been around since 3200 BC, and one of the things we learned from them is how to cultivate duck (we can thank them for the balut). The dish to signify this relationship is the Inadobong Pato Tim in Vermicelli (or rice noodle).

Another relationship we have had is with the Malaysians. From them we learned to use patis, peanuts and bagoong. We had a dish that celebrates this relationship–Binagoongang Baboy Damo at Kare-Kare. Kare-Kare was adapted from the beef rendang from Malaysia, and instead of being spicy, we made it salty.

In the sixteenth century, we faced new relations further West, from Mexico and Spain. Our culture is a little closer to Mexico’s than that of Spain’s, and we can see it in our love for corn, for example. In fact, the Philippines was considered a province of Mexico. But don’t deny it: Spanish culture has left an important culinary style in our land: the ginisa or the saute. Our food was once straightforward and no nonsense. Thanks to Spanish influences, we added more allure to what we eat. Gisa usually involves sauteing garlic, onions and tomatoes in low to medium heat for a few minutes. The Spaniards did not only leave our culture alone, but enriched it even more.

Bacalao Estoafado y Arroz Saffron;

Bacalao Estoafado y Arroz Saffron; Spam and Cheese Sandwich

Finally, we’ve reached “the end” of the gypsetting Filipino food’s journey–in this article at least. The end begins with the arrival of the Americans, whose influences are almost everywhere; everywhere except our food. They had very little to no influence in our culinary styles, but left behind a product which is now almost everyone’s favorite to-go food: Spam. We have spam for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and in between; sometimes we dip it in vinegar, have it in a sandwich or as a rice topping. It’s everyman’s food, just like sinigang and adobo are. Burgers abound nowadays, but  Spam has always prevailed, along with Filipino food.

This is gypsetting at its finest and at its best: one that crosses borders and learns from one culture to another. This cuisine of ours is not ordinary or simple. It is made of complex relationships and millennia of contact with other peoples. Filipino food is a timeless Gypsetter, and we must learn from its evolution as we travel the world in style, for it has done the same since the beginning. Filipino food is an enduring story and a reflection of the Filipino spirit, creativity and worldliness. Both Filipinos and our food are, well, extraordinary.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend, and Happy Easter! Cheers!

Visit XO 46 in their three branches around Metro Manila: Valero St., Salcedo Village; 2/F Century Mall, Kalayaan Ave., Makati; and Estancia Mall, Pasig City.

 

 

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