By Claude Tayag – I received this email from Fernando “Butch” Nakpil-Zialcita, PhD, a professor of Cultural Anthropology who heads the Cultural Heritage Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. I’ve had the pleasure of dining and conversing with him many a time regarding Filipino cuisine and the Pinoy quirks at the dining table. As part of his “Culture and the Senses” class, he gives his students hands-on experience so they can better understand and appreciate the varied aspects of our cultural heritage. He makes his young wards look at the paintings of Amorsolo, listen to Filipino music and that of our Asian neighbors, try our hilot and other foreign massages, as well as dine out to better understand and appreciate our cuisine.
Hi, Claude. Some of the worst enemies of Filipino cuisine are really our own countrymen. Without knowing it, they downgrade it. As an example, I was asked to give a lecture on Filipino food and culture to a group of Northern European journalists at a restaurant in QC. After listening to my spiel extolling the Filipino’s culinary creativity, a Filipino participant stood up and asked the audience whether they had tasted balút. He dared them to do it. What for? We know that internationally, the country as a whole, including its cooking, suffers from bad publicity. Slums, killings, pollution, dog meat. Instead of extolling the glories of our cooking — and of our culture, for that matter — why do some of us want to shock foreigners? The case, unfortunately, is not isolated. In other similar sessions on food, invariably a Filipino will stand up and challenge the foreigners to try balút. This reinforces the perception that both our food and culture are yucky!
The problem springs from a deficit in knowledge, and in how our culture is taught in schools. We hear students saying that, as a people, we have only copied, and that colonialism erased our culture. To this, I would answer that, for us in anthropology, which is the study of culture, cultural fusions are the most normal everyday practice. Very few cultures are “pure.” Societies are in communication with each other. Inevitably ideas and practices will come from the outside, be integrated but will also be modified.
We think Japanese cooking to be wholly “pure” and “original” because Japan was not colonized. Yet at a two-day conference on Japanese cookery at the Ateneo de Manila in 2011, one of the experts said that Japanese cookery has three pillars: native Japanese, Chinese and Western! Eating beef (think Kobe beef), cooking sukiyaki and teppanyaki are practices the Japanese developed in response to Western infl uence ever since Commodore Perry opened Japan to world trade in 1852 to 1854. To this we should add tempura, or deep frying in oil, which was introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. Why then should we be uneasy about having received much Western influence in our cooking? We invented nata de coco, mango pies and buko pies in response.
As for balút, it is not even unique to us. I had the pleasure of ordering it in a public market in Hue, Vietnam. It was served in high style: the egg was in an egg cup, together with a saucer, small sauce dish containing nuoc mam (fi sh sauce or patis) and mint. A small spoon was also included. What self-confi dence, what pride in their culture! And is ours the only culture with “yucky” food? In Iceland, they treasure rotting shark meat smelling of ammonia. In Scotland, they eat haggis, consisting of the sheep’s heart, lungs and liver encased in the animal’s stomach. Let us have more pride in our achievements as a people.
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