Saturday, April 27, 2013

Linking history with food

I have always been fascinated by how a country's cuisine is tightly bound to the country's history. This is why I count myself lucky to have been asked to participate as a resource person in the Food Writing Workshop conducted by Ms Amy Besa (the owner of Purple Yam, a restaurant in New York City). I wasn't alone; Dr Glenn Gregorio, Ms Claire Custodio, and Mr Ato Reano went to Enderun Colleges too.


I have to thank Dr Nollie Vera Cruz for including me on this trip. Kuya Glenn, Tito Ato, Ate Claire, and I talked about rice: eating quality, conservation of traditional varieties, breeding approaches, and market research. Other speakers talked about their restaurants or their adventures into the wonderful world of culinary arts. Aside from being surrounded by creative minds, I was really stoked because I got to hear Suzette Montinola, the owner of La Cocina de Tita Moning, talk about the history of the restaurant. But it's not just any restaurant; La Cocina de Tita Moning is my favorite restaurant so far.

The interesting thing about La Cocina de Tita Moning is that it all begins with the house. When diners drop by the restaurant, staff tour them through the Legarda Mansion to give them a glimpse into the lifestyle of the alta de sociedad during the American period. Whenever I've eaten there, I remembered the Bear Brand Sterilized Milk ad with the old cars, the old phonograph, and the catchy lyrics ("I remember yesterday, special as today."). The house tour and the brochures about the cutlery, the plates, the table setting, and the glassware then give context to the type of food we were going to eat: the restaurant serves dishes based on the heirloom recipes of the Legarda family of the then-affluent district of Manila called San Miguel.


Participants to the workshop were an eclectic bunch of people brought together by their passion to tell stories and to eat great food. In fact, when I sat at Ige Ramos' talk straight after lunch, I started feeling hungry again as he described the cuisine of Cavite!


He talked about how Cavite's cuisine is a reflection of the former inhabitants in the province. Foreign settlers of old, like the Chinese junk sailors, the American military personnel, and the Spanish and Mexican galleon traders enriched the merry mix of food being served in the Caviteno home. There were pagkaing pambahay and pagkaing pambisita, if I remember correctly. And there were dishes that could only be served and eaten during the Lenten period (i.e., bacalao al horno) According to Ige, Cavite cuisine is not as known as, let's say, the dishes of Pampanga, because the food is not special (to the Cavitenos). If there were visitors coming from other areas for fiesta, for instance, the Cavitenos tend to serve the typical fiesta fare in other provinces. Cavite cuisine tend to be so commonplace in the province that one only needs to visit the roadside carinderia to try it; no need to visit fine dining restaurants.

My few hours of listening and eating at the Enderun Colleges Food Writing Workshop were certainly productive. In my opinion, students of history and culinary arts classes (as well as those in the sciences) should be exposed as much as possible to this kind of experiences. What Ige and Suzette had shared made me appreciate Filipino culture more. If students don't feel inspired to learn history through the books, a walk along the local restaurants should make them a bit more interested and more appreciative of Filipino culture; history, after all, is alive.

Now, if only I could join an Ambeth Ocampo walking tour of Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere...