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Ethnic Cuisine: Philippines

by Nancy Freeman

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Sitting at the very edge of South-East Asia, a country twice colonized and twice liberated, the Philippines has absorbed influences from East and West, land and sea, and its food and culture reflect them all.

In the beginning there was rice and so, of course, there is rice still. In fact, for all but the wealthiest, rice is the main food eaten three times a day and everything else is simply a condiment.

Then come the fruits of the sea. The Philippines may be a mere two-thirds the size of neighboring Indonesia, but it consists of 7,107 islands with the longest discontinuous coastline in the world. Fish and seafood by definition supply the principal and favorite source of protein.

Prior to their contact with other cultures through trade and conquest, the 80 or more ethno-linguistic groups of this island cluster shared certain cooking techniques and flavor preferences, many of which are still found today despite layers of external influence.

Early Filipinos cooked their food minimally by roasting, steaming or boiling. The freshest of fish was made into kinilaw, "cooked" by immersion in vinegar and salt with ginger, onions and red peppers.

With notable exceptions, Filipino cooks and eaters still show a distinct preference for sour and salty flavors. Sinigang, lightly boiled fish in a sour stock with vegetables and fish sauce, typifies the foundation layer of Filipino cuisine.

The sources for these flavors go well beyond vinegar and salt. Numerous unripe fruits such as tamarind, mango and guava provide sour power as well as the tiny kalamansi, a citrus halfway between an orange and a lime, which is sour even when ripe. For salty flavoring, Filipinos rely on patis or fish sauce, bagoong or shrimp paste, and, with the arrival of the Chinese, soy sauce.

The first set of foreign influences on Filipino cuisine came from Chinese traders who ultimately settled there. Eager to eat the food of home, they introduced stir-frying and deep frying. Noodles and soy products became indispensable to the food vocabulary.

But local cooks incorporated indigenous ingredients and their own preferences into foods of Chinese origin. Thus pansit, sauteed noodles, are incomplete without a squirt or two of fresh kalamansi. And many types of lumpia, the Filipino version of spring rolls, are dipped in a sauce that consists simply of crushed garlic and vinegar.

With the Spaniards came an entirely new range of ingredients and dishes. Thick, rich stews, sausages, and dishes emphasizing meat and dairy products, they remain a luxury item today. Many show up on the table only at Christmas or fiesta time and are quickly spotted because they retain their Spanish names -- relleno, mechado, pochero, leche flan.

Adobo, perhaps the best known Filipino dish, is a product of Spanish influence. In Spanish cuisine, adobo refers to a pickling sauce made with olive oil, vinegar, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, oregano, paprika and salt. Filipinos selected their favorite flavors -- vinegar, garlic, bay leaf -- along with peppercorns and, more recently, soy sauce, used it for a stewing sauce for chicken and/or pork, and gave it the Spanish name.

And finally came the Americans with their all-pervasive culture and cuisine. Whereas the Spaniards reserved education for the elite, the American colonists set out to educate the entire population. Within a generation, not only did Filipinos speak English, they became consumers of American products -- Wrangler wearers, Marlboro men, Coca-cola consumers, and burger freaks.

But today's Filipino is likely to want chopped onions, garlic and soy sauce in his burger. Fried chicken, that specialty of the American deep south, will not be breaded, but marinated in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic before it is fried.

All of which goes to show that you can add to a people's range of choices, but you can't keep their culinary identity down. Through rich and tangled web of food influences, the Filipino palate asserts itself again and again.

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