A Brief History of Filipino Food

Philippine cuisine is based on seafood and meat products. Even the few that we classify as vegetable dishes contain bits of fish, shrimps, meat or poultry mixed in to boost the taste of vegetables.

Due to its topography and the abundance of marine life in mythic unpolluted waters, the main source of protein for the people in the islands had traditionally been fish and other seafood.

Condiments that were developed early on were sourced from salty waters. Not surprisingly though, fish sauce (patís), shrimp paste (bagoóng alamáng), the more diluted bagoóng isdâ and even sea salt (asín) are still the preferred flavorings for saltiness up to the present times.

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Illustration by Heizel from VectorStock®

Aside from these, either fried or roasted fish were usually added to enhance the taste of either braised or boiled dishes. This is all the more evident in today’s cooking especially when vegetable dishes are cooked in boiling broth.

Our ancestors learned the process of making fish sauce from Chinese traders and sojourners who used to bring along their food when they visited the islands. The production of bagoóng was an indigenous technology which was probably invented to make use of the fish and krill by-products from making patís.

The other early contributions of the Chinese to our cooking were soy sauce or toyò along with tofu or tókwa, which were both derived from soybeans. These ingredients had been part of our cooking for several centuries before Europeans arrived. Because they are plant-based, they have attained greater significance to our purpose-driven diet change in our own time.

Antonio Pigafetta, the official chronicler of the Ferñao de Magalhães expedition, had provided us with a glimpse of the way our ancestors cooked their food when the conquistadores surveyed the islands. While the natives were noted as processing products like vinegar, wine and coconut milk from the coconut trees that lined the landscape, cooking was obviously basic and rudimentary.

Magalhães and his men were served, as esteemed visitors, meat and fish with rice—not a single vegetable dish in the forty-one days that they stayed on. All the dishes were cooked with the use of simple methods like broiling on hot coals and boiling in water to bring out the juices of meat and fish.

The cooking procedures with the use of oil which included sautéing with garlic and onions were introduced to the islanders by the Spaniards during the colonial period. This is the reason why terms like frying (príto, from the Spanish word frito) and sautéing (gisá, from the Spanish root word guisar) do not have equivalent terms in our local languages.

During this period, Philippine food substantially changed. Focus was shifted to meat and poultry. Dishes like tinola, afritada, caldereta, mechado, menudo, estofado, pochero, lengua, embutido, hamonado, asado and many others were developed to please the distinctive tastes of the ruling peninsulares—elite Spaniards from the Iberian Peninsula.

These food items would later be showcased and served during annual religious feasts. Eventually, they would become the food of the more affluent strata of society and, much later on, were integrated into the mainstream of the culinary culture.

There had been a number of important influences on the food culture in conjunction with the Chinese influences. There were the Arabs and the island neighbors from the maritime realm which comprised the more extensive universe of our ancestors for both trade and social interaction in ancient times. That phase in history certainly left indelible marks particularly in regional cooking.

In the same manner, there were also influences on the food culture after the Spanish rule in the more recent American occupation of the archipelago which accelerated even more during the post-war years.

The preceding content is an excerpt from the book, Sustaining a Plant-Based Diet With Filipino Food by E Vargas Alberto.