20 March 2008

Sarap and Lasa

Eat, drink, and be merry, though we’re really starving

“Food, after all,” writes Doreen G. Fernandez, “is primarily for survival,” but you wouldn’t know it if you read Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food (Mr. & Ms. Publishing Company, 1988), a collection of writings by her and Edilberto N. Alegre on why food means a lot more than staving off starvation.

The book brings together Fernandez’s culinary essays (such as her early 1971 “Puto-Bumbong, Bibingka, Salabat, atbp: The Filipino Christmas Table” and her more recent magazine articles) and Alegre’s linguistic studies (such as his 1987 magazine series on “Taste as Language” and “Cooking as Language”). Full of descriptive detail, the essays portray Filipinos as lovers of eating for its own sake (or, at most, for the sake of friendship, family, or religion) and not as a means to get through another day. There are exceptions, of course, such as the Bajaws, for whom “eating becomes only a minor activity.” There is also the Tagalog pantawid gutom or “in-between food,” but even that looks forward to the next meal, not to the next breath. In short, food to Filipinos is far from being primarily for survival.

Because food occupies a central place in our lives, the book is delightful to read. Her disavowal notwithstanding, Fernandez makes us “smell adobo and lechon” (in Nick Joaquin’s words, which she quotes) while we read about where and how she discovered such-and-such a dish. It is not adobo or lechon, of course, that Fernandez identifies as uniquely and definitively Filipino. That distinction is reserved for sinigang. Why sinigang? The answer to that question is precisely the reason her 1975 essay “Why Sinigang?” is now a classic.

Although the two writers are careful to note their separate and independent authorship of the essays, the book is unified by two things they share: they both love to eat, and they both love to talk about language. From street to hotel, from library to kitchen, from North to South, the two authors unselfishly share their culinary discoveries with us. No food is too strange, too exotic, too cheap, or too expensive for the two food detectives.

Similarly, Fernandez and Alegre share a love for language. Their investigations into the history, sociology, and psychology of food invariably begin and often end in the origins and meanings of words. Their etymologies may make older, more traditional linguists uncomfortable, but their intentions are unassailable: they are out to make us extremely proud of our cultural heritage.

Take adobo. The word comes from the Mexican word adobado (a stewed meat dish) and the Spanish word adobo (a pickling sauce). Indigenizing both words and food, we Filipinos now use adobo to refer not only to the basic chicken dish, but to the cooking process itself. We can put it another way: Mexicans have only a dish and Spaniards have only a sauce, but we have a process. One can derive all sorts of sociological insights from this, and the authors do that, not only with adobo, but with every other word for food that they find in Philippine languages.

In matters of food, we Filipinos are never at a loss for words. For rice, for instance, the most important food in our country, we have no less than 160 vernacular words! Fernandez and Alegre do not have the time nor the space to analyze each of these words, but they do try, in several essays, to spell out the implications and meanings that rice has in our culture. Here’s a quick example. One word gives a clue to the richness lying underneath language: the word olam literally means “to be eaten with rice.” The two authors have a lot of fun squaring that meaning with the new ways of eating olam (without rice) in fastfood places.

If Sarap strikes you as too theoretical, since food, if nothing else, is experiential, then try the other new book by this prolific pair of writers, Lasa: A Guide to 100 Restaurants (Urban Food Foundation, 1989). If you think this book is just another guide for tourists who don’t know any better, think again. For one thing, no hotel restaurant is included in the guide, that task having been done much earlier by the Hotel and Restaurant Association in The Dining Guide to Manila’s 50 Best Restaurants. For another thing, these are the same two authors of Sarap, which advises, among other things, that tourists who have “the standard preconceptions and fears” should be left to suffer, blissfully ignorant, in hotels. In other words, just as they challenge readers of Sarap to try out new things, Fernandez and Alegre are out to introduce offbeat places in Lasa.

In Lasa, you’ll find places frequented by taxi drivers (average cost of meal per person: P12 to P25), yuppies (the authors’ witty comment on the dress code: “Shoes required”), new rich (“Jogging pants not allowed inside”), and old rich (“exclusive to members”).

Having been written in September 1988, Lasa now needs some updating. I can’t resist adding some notes from my own experience. Contrary to the authors’ claim that Via Mare Coffee Shop in Greenbelt has “prompt service,” I have found its recent service consistently far from prompt. Grove on Pasay Road is indeed great at lunch, but dinner sometimes finds it serving what may have been lunch. With more tables now, Balaw-Balaw is even better than it used to be, if that’s possible. I miss the Chinese restaurants Gloriamaris, Jade Garden, and China City (the last unfortunately hit by a strike) in the guide, as well as the less expensive Sala Thai (near PWU), the unpretentious Wok Inn (with two branches near Malate Church), and the enduring Za’s Cafe in Ermita.

What obviously has to wait for the next edition are the new Dulcinea in Greenbelt and Becky’s Kitchen for cakes (though they are not, strictly speaking, restaurants), the various places with the word “Sugar” in their names, Kim Anh Vietnamese Restaurant (near Hobbit House on Mabini) with its spring rolls, and if the Dining Guide goes out of print, the hotel places that are exceptions to the general dreariness of hotel food (such as Century Park’s delicatessen and its fabled Coupe Mon Amour, Manila Midtown’s dimsum place, Manila Hotel’s buffet lunches, Silahis’ Italian buffet, and the former Hilton’s Coquilla Glory).

In matters of taste, there can be no dispute, said the ancients, but modern Filipinos know better: food is a matter of personal and national pride and identity, taken as seriously as politics, but much less hypocritically.

BIG PEOPLE IN SMALL JOBS: The government employees assigned to the Promotions Department of the Linangan ng mga Wika ng Pilipinas at the University of Life complex are exceptionally courteous, helpful, and knowledgeable. Similarly credits to their jobs are the drivers of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the Makiling Arts Center. When I was recently stranded in Makiling without a spare fan belt, they brought me back to Manila in the CCP car, had my car repaired, and drove my car to Manila to catch up with me. All that in the driving rain. If our legislators would only take their jobs as conscientiously, we would not be in the fine mess we are in today.

(First published in Starweek, September, 1989)

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