Saturday, October 15, 2016

Learning one's history through food

Ambeth Ocampo, one of the professors I wish I had as a history teacher back in college, was back at the Ayala Museum for yet another session of History Comes Alive, as #HugotHistorian! This time, he took us on a different path, not quite as Rizal-centric or hero-centric as his previous lectures; he traveled with us through history lane via food.

Sure, food is clearly linked with culture and national identity. For instance: the USA is known for its burgers; China is famous for its noodles and dumplings; India is linked with curry and chicken biryani; and Japan is associated with ramen and sushi. The Philippines? Food historians say that there is a toss up between adobo and sinigang for the title "National Dish"; curiously, both terms refer to cooking methods rather than actual dishes. And it is difficult to pinpoint the most appropriate version of adobo and sinigang to vie for the coveted title because there are just too many variants!

Although I'm fascinated by this aspect of Philippine gastronomy, it never occurred to me how interesting history can be by studying what the much-revered heroes ate back in the day. Professor Ocampo pointed out, for instance, that typical history and literature teachers overly focus on nationalism when teaching the Noli Me Tangere and the El Filibusterismo. Sure, Rizal wrote them both but he also managed to leave a snapshot into social realism in cuisine: he described, in detail, how to prepare certain dishes (yes, the novels double as cookbooks) and the right occasions to eat certain dishes for certain social classes, veering the readers unknowingly into the world of gastronomy. Then, moving beyond the novels and into real life, Professor Ocampo showed us photos from the Malolos Congress (I've visited the Barasoain Church, where it took place, on my first ever road trip to Bulacan). He didn't show the typical people photos often exhibited in history books. Instead, he showed up photos of the menu cards.

Attendez! Les noms sont très familier! J'ai lu certaines mots dans mon livre de français! Champagne, huitres, crevette roses, saucission de Lyon, saumon Hollandais, dinde truffée à la Manilloise, fromages, glaces... I felt like I was back in my French class with teacher Jean Darimont (A1.6–1.7). Anyway, the menu card seems to indicate that the movers and shakers of Philippine government back in the day wanted to emulate the French, the gold standard for nationalism... not the Spanish (for obvious reasons). After all: Egalité! Liberté! Fraternité! I wonder what these people would feel if they knew that France was also a major coloniser of the third world...

Back to the lecture...

Since a Filipino meal is centred on rice, I found it endearing that Professor Ocampo touched upon, though rather briefly, on rice and history. IRRI got mentioned too! His research on Filipino food history led him to a number of terms pertaining to rice!


He found several rice varieties in literature that are already extinct in real life; but there are ancient rice varieties in his list that are conserved in IRRI's gene bank. Wouldn't it be cool to taste the rice that our ancestors have been eating? Unfortunately, he wasn't able to pick up where he had left off on that research direction. 

As he wrapped up his talk on understanding Filipino history through food, I had a few thoughts to munch over. But ultimately, the major lesson is this: Food makes history come alive.