ARTICLE AND PHOTOS BY NASTASHA ALLI
Of all the meals I had the pleasure of enjoying during my trip to the Philippines, it was fish and greens in a light broth over rice that hammered home why I travelled so far to eat regional Filipino food. The fish was fried till its skin was blistered and crisp, then laid on top of leafy greens called layo-layo that simmered in a fragrant stock. The greens were firmer than spinach and mildly bitter, with a good crunch to its stalk; the broth simply seasoned with fish sauce, peppercorns and slices of fresh ginger. Randy, my farm guide/cook, says he picked the greens about an hour ago.
I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something about how even locals here sometimes don’t know how much they can cook from stuff that grows wild and abundantly in the area. It was dusk, about 8 pm, and after fishing our dinner from the kindling-powered stove we sat to dinner with two other farmhands at the Binahon Agroforestry Farm in Bukidnon, a land-locked province in northeastern Mindanao.
My host, a congenial farmer named Henry, was stuck in traffic en route to bringing two other Danish guests to the airport. That afternoon, exactly one week after landing on the island, I spent a couple hours typing up notes from my adventures around Mindanao so far. There was so much to record, travelling the region on my own as a female backpacker guided by the generosity of Mindanaoans gracious with their time and resources - and unwavering pride for their home and its cuisine.
It took a couple days to get why that simple stew of fish and greens made such an impact on me, and over a month after returning from my trip to write about it. I travelled and yearned for those kinds of experiences because I wanted to satisfy desires I had as a millennial ‘foodie’ - to enjoy eating and really understand that much of what makes a good meal is the company, almost as much as the food; to learn more about myself by going back to my roots; to taste exceptional food grown from the land and harvested from the sea; to embrace Filipino food as a thrilling exploration of tastes, textures and flavour profiles.
Filipino food means many things to many people. Its definition shifts based on the geography it’s in, its interpretation changes in the hands of whomever is cooking. For Filipinos born and raised outside of the country, Filipino food acts as a gateway to discovering Philippine culture and history; for Filipinos who have left the country to live and work elsewhere, cooking (and eating) Filipino food is a lifeline, every pot of adobo a way to celebrate that connection to home and family we’ve truly come to value.
I chose to visit the Philippines over going on a European backpacking trip, something I longed to do since I was promised the freedom of a Canadian passport 10 years ago. I wanted time to think about my future while I travelled the countryside - a three-week escape from working night shifts, everyday chores and the pressure of figuring out what exactly I was “looking for” in life.
What I did find is that I learned to dispel cultural misconceptions about other Filipinos who simply lived in a different part of the country. Growing up in Manila, Filipino muslims in Mindanao were often regarded as “dangerous”, with the news often lumping a majority of the island’s residents in with armed insurgents and extremists.
But thanks to the tools at my disposal - the Internet, social media - I learned about the coffee, cacao, bananas and pineapples grown in especially vibrant conditions in Mindanao. Nothing could dissuade me from seeing coffee beans grown in their natural environment; pineapples planted in neat rows for hectares on end; banana trees with limbs to the ground, laden with fruit; cacao pods heavy with seeds that were soon to be transformed into decadent chocolate.
I wanted to meet the farmers who grew that produce and learn about their lives. By extension, that translated to an openness about what defines “real” Filipino food, the kind that’s stripped of pretension on how ‘authentic’ it is, made for everyday Filipinos who need to fill their bodies with nutrition from foods within economic and physical reach.
I also learned to be open to all sorts of experiences as they came. In Cagayan de Oro, that led to enjoying a steaming bowl of late-night goto’t balbacua (ginger and rice porridge topped with a peppery stew of oxtail and beef skin) with a newfound friend after blazing through downtown and the outskirts on a motorcycle; in Bukidnon, a breakfast of tinned sardines, rice and the sweetest bananas I’ve ever had at a Philippine eagle reserve along the Kitanglad mountain range; in Davao, driving past land in a thriving region for cacao trees soon to be owned by my grandfather, whom I’ve never spent as much time with prior to this trip to Mindanao.
Through seeing the Filipino Food Movement grow, and being part of a generation that strongly identifies with seeking their identity through food - reflected in the dishes featured on the Filipino Food Movement feed from people cooking at home, OFWs gathering in all corners of the world, trendy supper clubs in London and New York, the rising force of chefs in LA bringing a taste of their Filipino upbringing to converted downtown industrial spaces and roving food trucks. It’s exciting as hell, and just like I wear my “Home is Toronto” toque with love and pride for my adopted town, I get the same jolt of excitement when my photo of crispy ukoy or homemade atchara gets reposted on the FFM Instagram account.
But why is this so?
I think it’s because, collectively, we become filled with a humble but strong pride, knowing full well the deliciousness of Filipino food isn’t questionable. Since I started writing for my food blog - where I look into food products of the Philippines and delve into their history, place in society and agricultural future - I’ve become humbled in realizing that there is so much more to learn.
It encourages me and provides purpose in contributing to the study of Philippine foodways, to document culinary traditions and practices in a constant state of possibly disappearing.