Philippine Food and Life

Philippine Food and Life, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, 1992

  • Philippines, #21
  • Borrowed from SF public library
  • Read March 2018
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: Patient foodies

The original Cordero-Fernando works on my list were two short story collections (The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker and Wilderness of Sweets); I figured I would read whichever was easier to find. As it happened, the San Francisco Public Library carries several of the author’s works, but none of them are fiction. I had my choice of Jamming on an Old Saya (described as “New creation of native costume of Filipina women”); Pinoy Pop Culture; The Last Full Moon: Lessons on my Life (an autobiography, I think); Ladies’ Lunch and Other Ways to Wholeness (a collection of essays); and Philippine Food and Life, which was the only one that was available for check-out instead of in-library use only, so that’s the one I took.

“One’s chickens are self-supporting, but somehow they know to whom they belong.”

This very interesting exploration of regional culinary traditions in the Philippines is arranged geographically, taking the reader around 14 of the 39 provinces of Luzon, the largest Philippine Island, discussing their local dishes as well as some of the local culture. There are also little subsections with interesting facts or stories so that we get, for instance, a 2-page anecdote about a stinky goat named Elvis, a discussion of the differences in the respective feasts of landlords and tenant farmers in Bulakan, and a very puzzling inset on “Bikol Food Riddles” (example: My cock in the forest is red with anger. Answer: Hot chili pepper. Also: Scales of the crocodile which we eat. Answer: Malunggay).

I also love the interviews with local people, who are sometimes with chefs or farmers or people otherwise involved with food, but sometimes just laypeople, as if Cordero-Fernando was wandering around the street stopping people at random and asking questions, leading to bizarre pronouncements about, for example, the ancestral reasons behind the apparent hotness of women from Albay (I don’t really get it but it has to do with Caucasian engineers frequenting crossroads bars. Seriously).

The main drawback of this book for me was that it presupposes a knowledge of Filipino food that I do not possess. I was hoping there would be a glossary but honestly if it were written for total neophytes (like me) it would take up half the book. I suspect Cordero-Fernando was writing for a Filipino audience who would perfectly understand paragraphs like this one, about cake sellers in the province of Laguna:

The early morning cry one hears from the hawkers of breakfast cakes are “Puto, kutsinta, bibingka, pasingaw!” or “Putong bula, suman!” In the afternoon, the flat basket carried “Butsi, pilipit, unday-unday!” Lusty voices roused one from siesta with “Bili na kayo ng bikang-bikang, marhuya, at butsi!” or “Maja kayo diyanSuman!” Pagsanjan butsi is fried glutinous rice and chopped buko, wrapped around mashed mongo roughly the size of a pingpong ball. Pasingaw is a steamed ricecake resembling a bibingkaputong bula, or bubble ricecake, is a large, white puto sliced on the bias.

The difficulty is, she is actually explaining or describing these things—and she goes into further detail in the following paragraph—but not in a way that gives me much idea of what they are beyond the fact that all the foods in this paragraph seem to be various types of rice cakes.

IMG_6453I could look all these things up. So, for instance, puto is a type of cake traditionally made with galapong, which is rice soaked with water and then ground, although most of the recipes I found online use either rice flour or cake flour as a base. It can be made with various additional ingredients, including ube and pandan, and topped with cheese or a salted egg.

Kutsinta is made with (depending on your source) flour, tapioca starch, white and brown sugar, or rice flour, brown sugar, lye, and annatto extract, and is sticky and jelly-like in texture and brown in color.

Bibingka is made with rice or cassava flour and coconut milk, and augmented with various fillings and toppings (the New York Times recipe linked above uses salted preserved eggs, cheese, and grated coconut); it is traditionally eaten at Christmastime.

Pasingaw as far as I can tell just refers to something steamed in a banana leaf, and the few recipes I found were pretty different (one with cassava and coconut, one with rice and coconut, some with meat and/or fish). Cordero-Fernando defines it as “a steamed ricecake resembling a bibingka” (see above for bibingka definition)

Putong bula, as defined in the text, is a “large, white puto [see above], sliced on the bias.”

Suman is a glutinous rice cake (are you sensing a theme here?) cooked in coconut milk and sprinkled with sugar, according to the internet, although Philippine Food and Life specifies that it is “a roll of unsugared malagkit boiled in coconut milk and wrapped in a banana leaf” (emphasis mine).

Butsi is made from sweet rice flour, contains red bean paste, and is coated in sesame seeds.

Pilipit is basically a twisted donut. (Cordero-Fernando describes it in the following paragraph as “not the Chinese sweetmeat most people know but malagkit mixed with buko, dropped in syrup, twisted into an eight, and deep fried.”)

Unday-unday she describes as “a little flat galapong cake with a dimple, dusted with grated coconut.” Apparently in some places it’s served floating in a sticky syrup.

IMG_6451I ran into a little trouble trying to translate “Bili na kayo ng bikang-bikang.” Google translate tells me it means “You’re buying a hairdresser,” which… can’t be right (the alternative translation is, “You’re buying a brick, brick,” which also seems improbable). As near as I can tell, though, bili na kayo means something about buying, and bikang-bikang is a banana or sweet potato fritter (or, as per the book’s helpful description, “a fried patty of rough julienned strips of kamote or saba bananas dipped in achuete-colored batter”). So, essentially, “Get your banana fritters here!”

Marhuya are banana fritters.

Maja Blanca is a gooey coconut cake made with cornstarch and sometimes corn.

And that’s all the foods in that paragraph. But there are two more similar paragraphs on that page alone, and all the other pages contain a similar density of words I don’t know, so if I had looked everything up it would have taken me several months to get through this book. I don’t have that kind of time! I’m going to die eventually!

The book ends with a collection of recipes from each of the provinces, and I would have loved to have time to try a few. It would definitely have required a trip to Manila Oriental Market and a child-free afternoon in the kitchen, and neither of those seemed achievable to me in the spring of 2018. However, I’ve recently acquired a couple of Filipino cookbooks from the Berkeley library, and I’m hoping to try a few recipes if I can manage it before they have to be returned (I was going to try this week, but then the baby got croup and I spent an evening in the ER followed by several sleepless nights holding her upright in the steam from a hot shower so she could breathe—maybe next week will be better) and if I can find something that my three-year-old, who is highly suspicious of any foods she can’t immediately identify, will eat. Maybe some kind of rice cake.

3 thoughts on “Philippine Food and Life

    1. Thank you! The drawings are mine—I loved that quote about the self-supporting chickens but I couldn’t find a way to work it into the review, and i didn’t have any photos that I really liked to illustrate the post so I figured I’d draw some chickens and kill two birds with one stone as it were.
      I think if the book had just been a dense list of foods I didn’t recognize it would have been tough to stick it out, but there were so many little tangents and asides that it kept it interesting.


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