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The quest for a Filipino National dish

Are you Team Adobo, Team Sinigang, or Team Kinilaw?

By Ige Ramos

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It is a known fact that we Filipinos take food seriously. It is so serious that we take offense when strangers or, at worse, foreigners insult our food.

There was, in fact, a furor on social media when a celebrity Malaysian chef slammed Filipino food saying, “The Philippines is known to have the worst food in Asia, ask any chef and they will tell you I am right.”

Having objectively reflected on the Malaysian chef’s statement, there are two conclusions that could be derived. First, we Filipinos are very sensitive when someone outside of our culture criticizes our food, which in turn, hurt our “national” pride; and second, we are still “tribal” in terms of how we treat and perceive our cuisine.

I mentioned the words “national” and “tribal” in quotation marks for a reason. We seem to be happy as a nation when a Filipino makes a mark on the global stage, whether at a beauty pageant or an international sports event. Even if the person in question is a quarter Filipino, in terms of ancestry and bloodline, we would utter words like “Pinoy Pride” or “world-class Filipino,” celebrating their success overseas.

I suppose this form of patriotism also extends to our food culture as there are movements calling for the recognition and eventual legislation for a national dish.

There are several schools of thought when it comes to what national dish of the Philippines should be and on the top of the list is adobo. For some reason, adobo, for years, has been the undisputed choice for the national dish because it is easy to prepare and the ingredients are widely available. Adobo, by all means, is in the level of mango as national fruit and carabao as the national animal. But do we really need iconography to express our patriotism?

A recent research was mentioned to me by Ateneo de Manila professor Dr. Fernando N. Zialcita that the use of squid ink in cooking actually came from the Philippines. This piece of important research signifes that we Filipinos did not only receive foreign influences in our food, but we also gave something to the world.

In a report filed by Mikel Corcuera, a food critic writing for La Revista, he cited Julian Otero, a young student from the Basque Culinary Centre, who defended solid evidence that the use of squid ink in cooking is possibly of Filipino in origin. The material evidence is from an archive from not just one, but two sources, from the Augustinian and Jesuit orders where chipirones cooked in vinegar in its ink [adobong pusit?] was mentioned. It is believed that the tornoviaje, Fray Andres de Urdaneta’s discovery of the maritime return trip to Mexico from the Philippines, gave way to the establishment of the Galleon Trade, and brought this ingredient and manner of cooking in the Iberian Peninsula.

On the other hand, the late academician and food writer Doreen G. Fernandez espoused that sinigang should be the national dish as sourness is the de facto flavor profile of the Filipino taste preference. Like adobo, sinigang is not a dish, but a cooking method that you find all over the country. Except in sinigang, you use fruit souring agents like tamarind, tomato, guava, batuan (a souring agent popular in the Western Visayan region) and never vinegar or calamansi—that would constitute cheating. Also like adobo, sinigang uses different protein sources like chicken, pork, beef, and fish. But you don’t call it sinigang chicken but sinampalukang manok.

After  Madrid Fusion Manila, which was held for two consecutive years, a new contender emerged in the campaign for the search of a national dish: the kinilaw. We’ve been eating kinilaw even before the Spanish colonizers came. We inherited it from our Austronesian ancestors and the method for preparing this dish traveled from Southern Taiwan, the Philippines, and eventually to the Pacific Islands, reaching the Pacific coasts of Meso-America and South America, notably Mexico and Peru.

Kinilaw is a method of cooking that uses acid, like vinegar or sour fruit juices to “cook” the fish. It actually makes sense since we are an archipelago and we are spoilt for choices for the primary ingredients like fish and varieties of vinegars and souring agents.

The question “Do we really need to have a national dish?” is begging for an answer. As the republic is maturing and its population’s taste preference evolving, choosing a singular dish to represent the country is not an apparatus that will help unite us. Instead, it is quite divisive as our culinary culture is as diverse as the coral species you can find in Tubbataha Reef.

We could, ideally, reframe and rephrase the question into “Do we need national cuisines?” Which, in my humble opinion, the answer would be a resounding yes, as we need to celebrate our cuisines as the cultural makeup of the country is so rich and diverse.

There are so many new buzzwords circulating in the foodie kingdom that has been with us since the beginning, like seasonal ritual eating, farm-to-table concept, and condiment mixing to make it more individual and personalized.

Adobo, sinigang, and kinilaw are essentially methods of cooking as in braising, boiling, and curing, respectively. These methods of cooking have been with us and imbedded in our memories and our DNA. They may be different but they also have so much in common and the commonality lies in the taste profile and it is sour. Why choose one over the other? Can’t we just all agree that a national cuisine should deliver flavors and taste experiences that realize the cultural context of our food, which match the needs of each individual, family, and community?

There are many organizations and movements that advocate the creation of a national dish, from food blogs and magazines, chefs, food processing companies, and even government agencies.