KALUTO NG PILIPINO:
A GEOGRAPHY OF THE FILIPINO APPETITE

If islands are countries unto their own, then the Philippines is invariably a whole planet in itself. The country’s dynamic, kinetic and continuously evolving culture takes root from a myriad of influences and is continuously shaped by the diverse geographical features of its more than 7,000 islands. These influences find their most eloquent expression in the way Filipino regional and tribal group’s cook and eat. Collectively, these dishes form the kaluto (cuisine) that is uniquely Filipino.

The frugal and hardworking Ilocanos living on the harsh strip of land in the northwest part of Luzon have developed a rudimentary cuisine. They are best known for dinengdeng and pinakbet, both stews consisting of vegetables that can be easily grown in the backyard (like talong, squash, okra, tomatoes and ampalaya) seasoned with fermented fish or shrimp sauce (bagoong), or cooked with grilled fish. Caught between sea and mountain range, the region’s sandy soil is better suited to growing tobacco.

The provinces of Bulacan and Pampanga, sitting on river deltas and fertile plains, are homes to the landed gentry. Thus, their culinary cultures boast of some of most lavish cuisine such as relleno, estofado and asado. The fields with their overabundant harvest of grains have yielded a seemingly endless selection of rice cakes and savory rice entrees such as bringhe and paella.

With the sea, rivers, lakes, rich grazing lands and farms forming a prolific matrix of food source, the Southern Tagalog provinces of Batangas, Laguna, Quezon, Cavite and Rizal have developed a cuisine that resonates with the unadulterated flavors of land and sea: sinaing na tulingan and bulalo of Batangas, seafoods of Cavite, dinilawang carpa and sinigang na kanduli of Rizal, the jardinera and pancit habhab of Quezon Province, and the puto at kutsinta of Laguna.

In the Bicol peninsula where typhoons can blow strong and cold, Bicolanos have perfected the use of sili to concoct a cuisine that is fiery hot. The abundance of coconuts has also enhanced the regional cookery. Together, coconut milk and sili work their magic in such dishes as Bicol Express (named, conspicuously, after the train that plies between Manila and Bicol), pinangat and the ubiquitous laing.

The islands of the Visayas, whose reefs teem with fish and whose lands are some of the most arable in the country, are home to some of the purest flavors in Philippine cuisine. In some cases, food is eaten raw such as the oysters and sisi of Capiz and Iloilo. Aside from its prized oysters, Capiz has distinguished itself as the ‘Seafood Capital of the Philippines’ with its bountiful catches of crabs (alimango), prawns and mussels.

In Dumaguete, on the island of Negros, freshly caught dilis is painstakingly gutted and marinated in vinegar, lime juice, sili and the cream of grated coconut to create a kinilaw of a rich and delightfully spicy flavor. In Bacolod, inasal, or grilling, is the favored method of cooking poultry. Chicken meat is marinated in lime or calamansi juice and annatto, and grilled to golden perfection.

Jutting close to the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia, Mindanao shares many of the flora and fauna of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Thus, nowhere are spices such as turmeric, lemongrass, cilantro and curry used more extensively than in Mindanao cookery. Here, tables are laden with exotic harvests such as durian, mangosteen and marang.

The seas surrounding Mindanao are also famous for the yield of gigantic tuna – making the fish and its parts a rich source of recipes such as tuna belly and panga, which are grilled and dipped in sili-spiked soy sauce. In Zamboanga, two unusual crabs – the tatos and curacha – emerge from the sea to eat coconuts and enrich the cuisine even more. They are simply steamed, boiled, or simmered in coconut milk and enjoyed with gusto.

While commercial interaction and marriage with people from neighboring Asian countries have invariably added color, texture and flavor to local cuisine, it is the influences from the Chinese that continues to shape Filipino cookery. The dynamic relationship between Chinese and Filipino flavors is best captured in the many mutations of pancit, the generic term for noodles.

From the Chinese, Filipino cooks have learned to use canton (thick egg noodles), bihon (dried rice vermicelli) and sotanghon (glass mung bean noodles) which were generally sautéed with vegetables and pork, chicken, or shrimps. The love affair with pancit was so strong and extensive that Filipinos all over learned to create their own versions. There’s pancit Malabon (cooked with shrimps, squid and mussels which the seaside town is famous for), pancit habhab (served in banana leaves and bathed in vinegar and sold in the streets of Lucena and Lucban) and even pancit buko (a tasty concoction using the grated meat of young coconut rather than noodles).

Under Spanish rule for centuries, the Filipino taste buds acquired a yen for the richly flavored stews of the Iberian conquerors. The Spaniards brought with them the jamon Serrano and chorizo de Bilbao, and new ingredients such as acete de oliva, Mexican paprika, cheeses and butter, wines and other distilled spirits. Filipinos embraced the foreign flavors and learned to cook the Spanish way. This love affair comes to the fore in the Filipino festive dishes that are highly treasured, such as, lengua estofado, paella, cocido, morcon, menudo, galantina and relleno.

The Americans may have stayed the shortest as the country’s administrators but their hold on the Filipino palate remains strong and compelling. The Americans changed the landscape of Philippine cuisine forever when they introduced such easy-to-cook morsels as hotdogs and hamburgers. Today, Filipinos wake up craving for hotdog served with fried rice and eggs, or as a filling between sliced pandesal. From mami, goto and tokwa’t baboy, Filipinos have shifted their devotion to hamburgers as the preferred snack. This has been highly Filipinized as well by using local beef and more redolent seasonings to make the beef patty tastier.

Archipelagos they say are most wont to go with the shifts in global trends and ideologies—the waters surrounding the islands are relentless harbingers of change. For millennia, Filipinos have embraced such changes—welcoming but altering them to suit the climate, the temperament and the persuasive powers of the taste buds.