An off-the-wall idea for real social change through culinary pride
MANILA, Philippines — Here is an off-the-wall idea for changing ourselves and our society, and just maybe improving our economic performance in the long run: Start building civic pride by selecting, proclaiming, and promoting our national dishes.
Food is not the ultimate or only solution for building civic pride or forging a national identity, but you could pick worse places to start.
The Japanese are not in doubt that their national dishes are raw fish and ramen. As a result, all over the world, people know exactly what to expect in a Japanese restaurant, and consider Japanese food chic and fun. Watch the movie Tampopo to understand how ramen both reflects and shapes the Japanese quest for perfection in little things.
Mexico has the taco and its variants, which have colonized large parts of the United States and the world. Italy has pasta and pizza, which contribute more to its national cultural identity than Leonardo, Vivaldi, the Sistine Chapel, AC Milan, and Ferrari combined. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, the Italians did not copy pasta from the Chinese; they already had it. Tomatoes, however, are from South America.) Thailand has Tom Yum Kung, which consists mainly of adding mouth-numbing quantities of capsaicin to common tinola soup.
The nominees for national dish are…
We have no clearly agreed-upon national dish. This is a deficiency that detracts from our sense of national cultural identity and therefore national unity and purpose. When Filipinos entertain foreign friends, we either underwhelm them with ineptly prepared adobo or show lack of pride in our culture by serving almost anything, but not something distinctly Filipino.
Some will say that we already have a national dish: lechon. One problem with lechon is that it is also Spanish, Polynesian, and German, to name a few; another problem is that hardly any Filipino is capable of doing it right. Only Cebuanos come close, but they foolishly omit the liver sauce. (Ayaw’g ka-lagot, kay Sibuano man ko.) Moreover, making a whole roast lechon is simply beyond the capability of an average household, especially those abroad, which constitute the majority of our country’s connection points with other nationalities.
A good Halo-Halo Sundae is soft, sticky, and gooey: It has crunch and a touch of mystery. It can be made anywhere, with little effort, by anybody. It is capable of endless variation. Yet it is uniquely and indisputably Filipino. In the author’s opinion, it’s a national dish with the potential to conquer the world.
Some maintain that our national dish is adobo. If so, it is a lousy one. One problem with adobo is that no two Filipinos cook it the same way. Also, despite it being easy to make, almost no one bothers to do it right. Neither lechon nor adobo will ever make the grade as a national dish. A proper Filipino national dish would need to conform to a number of fairly stringent parameters:
1. It should be recognizably different from what most other people around the world cook, and not a mere variation or simplistic fusion. Maki filled with adobo is out. Ceviche with pinakurat and tropical fruits is out. Chicharon is (to my enormous regret) out. Every Latin country has it, and the Colombians make a better one than we do.
2. While distinctive, the dish must not be weird or offensive-sounding, looking, or -smelling to large segments of humanity.Dinuguan is out. Unusual animals and body parts, including grasshoppers, goat, tripe, brains, and, of course blood, are out. All varieties of dried fish are out. Nor should the dish offend a significant part of the Filipino population. So anything with pork is out, including lumpia prito, most pancit, and Spam. Our list of possibles is shortening.
3. A good national dish should be within the competence of an averagely intelligent Filipino to make, using readily available ingredients (and not too many of them). Put another way, a national dish should be almost idiot-proof, like Tom Yum Kung. So mango soufflé is out. Pancit palabok is out. Most seafood requires careful timing and temperature control, so seafood is out.
4. A good national dish should not require more effort than the averagely lazy Filipino man or woman will, realistically, be willing to expend. Chicken relleno is out. Most desserts and pastries are out, even leche flan, since most Filipinos will not bother to get or jury-rig a baño Maria.
5. A good national dish cannot be particular to any region, or every other region would demand equal representation and there would never be an end to the debate. Therefore, sisig is out. Bicol Express would be out even if it were vegetarian. Pancit Malabon is out. La Paz batchoy is out.
6. And, of course, it should taste good, and appeal to an international audience.
Once you have worked logically through all the constraints, here are the best remaining Filipino foods that in my humble opinion could qualify as our national dishes:
Kare-kare is ridiculously easy to make (with my recipe, using peanut butter and beef shank, which unlike oxtail is available everywhere and not too variable in quality). It will not offend Muslim sensibilities — important, considering how many Filipinos are in the Middle East. It is quite different from most other beef stews around the world, and has no close relation among the better-known world cuisines. The peanut is native to South America (whose inhabitants haven’t done much with it), and we got it through the Spaniards (who also ignored it), so we have a better claim to it than other Asians. Filipinos love kare-kare, and so do most foreigners, provided you don’t make them eat bagoong (and maybe we can eventually coax the world into liking bagoong, too; for now, we can offer anchovy paste or patis). (Would you like my recipe? Please write email@example.com.)
Arroz caldo, done right, is light years ahead of all other rice-based or chicken-based soups anywhere else in the world. Never mind that the name is Spanish; people borrow food terms all the time. (Lechon is a Spanish word, too, by the way. And Pospas is also Spanish, a contraction of pollo and sopas, so there’s no point in arguing what to call it.) Let’s make sure it is indeed done right (make the chicken broth first, using bones and backs, then cook the rice grains in that broth, along with macerated ginger to taste (remove before serving). A little more creativity in toppings wouldn’t hurt.
And to round out the national dish A-Team, Halo-Halo Sundae. Skip the shaved ice, which requires specialized equipment, and go straight to the best ice cream you can find, one that is subtly flavored like mango, ube, or vanilla. Forgive the use of ice cream — most countries have borrowed not just names but food ingredients from others. Simplify life by using a pre-made halo-halo mix bought from the supermarket (by the way, these need to be more usefully and imaginatively packaged); add some form of dry crunch – pinipig, cornflakes, even crushed potato chips. Almost everyone in the world loves ice cream, and almost everyone who tries it loves our colorful fruit preserves and gelatins. Best of all, anyone can make it with hardly any effort, yet there is no doubt at all that it is Filipino. As a national dish, Halo-Halo Sundae is a surefire winner.
There may be other suitable candidates. But the important thing is that we all, as a nation, agree on the dishes, then get behind them.
Kare-Kare is beloved by all Filipinos, and meets all the criteria for a national dish. Though traditional oxtail is pictured, beef shank would do as well, and is more readily available around the world.
Proclaiming our national dishes
Three critical things to keep in mind: One, we need a very limited debate for, say, two months, just for the idea to pick up steam and in case there are other good nominations out there. Then we should go straight to a Presidential Proclamation, like the one Fidel Ramos did for the Philippine Eagle in 1995. We have an official national bird, flower (sampaguita), tree (narra), gem (pearl), and martial art (arnis).
Second critical consideration: We must at all costs resist the temptation to enlarge the list of National Dishes, or we will dilute the message and render the whole initiative useless.
Third critical consideration: Good intentions and Presidential Proclamations are not enough. Let’s also put some teeth in this proclamation, with these implementing rules and regulations:
1. Set official national standards on what each dish must contain, and the procedures that must be followed (just as France specifies how to make each of its over 200 recognized cheeses);
2. Cultural indoctrination: require all high schools to teach how to prepare all three dishes, as part of Social Studies;
3. Require applicants for OFW clearance to at least pass a multiple-choice test about our National Dishes (and probably some other areas, too); ditto for all employees of the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Tourism, and Agriculture; (many countries, when you apply to become a citizen, require you to know their typical foods and even what holidays those foods are associated with; they understand the importance of cultural identity);
4. Encourage local and international media to publicize the National Dishes;
5. Sponsor cooking contests and street-food festivals, not only here but in all areas with large Filipino populations like California, Michigan, Texas, Dubai, Rome, Hong Kong, Kuwait, and so on;
6. Oblige all restaurants that bill themselves as Filipino (especially Jollibee, Goldilocks, and similar establishments) to offer at least one of the three items on their regular menu.
7. And, lobby with UNESCO to declare our national dishes an Intangible World Heritage. Our only entries so far are Tugging Rituals (who knows what this means, maybe something related to happy endings, and it’s shared with several other countries), and the Darangen Epic, a song that not one Filipino in 10,000 has ever heard of, and not one in 100,000 has ever heard. There are only a few foods on the UNESCO list as of now, such as French cuisine generally, and “traditional Mexican cuisine.” So, there’s room for us to elbow in.
Makisama at maki-isa tayo. Dream the impossible dream later. Today, let’s do something eminently doable, and get behind this off-the-wall idea for changing our country and ourselves.
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Manny Gonzalez is a resident shareholder of Plantation Bay Resort & Spa and has lived in the culinary capitals of Paris, Barcelona, New York and Hong Kong. He is also an experienced amateur cook, and contributed to many of the recipes in use at Plantation Bay.
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