The Wisdom of the Native

The Filipino’s indigenous cuisine, his native food before colonization by Spain and the United States, reveals an intimate knowledge of his environment. It is a cuisine drawn directly from nature — from the biyaya ng lupa (the earth’s bounty) — from nature thoroughly explored and imaginatively used.

Quezon, Palawan, 1978.

Quezon, Palawan, 1978. Pen & ink drawing by Cesar Aljama. All rights reserved.

[…] Not only has he explored its nooks and crannies, cycles and seasons, sea, plant and animal life, but, in his work as farmer, fisherman, carabao tender and gatherer of forest products, he is from birth attuned to season and weather. He knows when the maliputo (yellowfin jack) enter the Pansipit river to spawn; when and where the wild edible fern is to be found; which bananas have which sweetness or flavor; which mushrooms are safe and what rains bring them. His knowledge is empirical, gained from exposure, experimentation, experience. The meagerness of his means made him an inventive improvisor unneedful of strict formulae (no native cook uses recipes, or is bound by “musts;” what is available is used), flexible, and able to make do.

This simplicity makes him sensitive to flavor: maasim (sour), matamis (sweet), mapait (bitter), maalat (salty), also sweet-sour, salt-sour, bitter-sour. His language has developed words for those subtle differences that have no equivalent in English: maaskad, malabo, mapakla, malangsa, maanggo, manamisnamis, malinamnam, etc. The stark lifestyle makes him waste nothing, not the chicken feet or intestines (barbecued for pulutan, finger food taken with drinks), or any internal organs, blood or even bile.

Native cuisine, born out of the land, the weather and the seasons, the means and lifestyle of people in an agricultural society, reflects a relationship with nature that is intimate, adventurous, pragmatic and eminently wise.

~ by Doreen G. Fernandez, excerpted from “Food and the Philippine Worldview” in Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food (©1988 Mr. & Ms. Publishing Company)

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