Some say, that a culture gains importance only upon being deployed by persons of influence.
— Michael Gonzalez

Sizzling sisig | Maharlika Filipino Moderno

By reasons of wealth (and education), the Chinese mestizo became influential in 19th-century Philippines, extending social alliances across Spanish and native races by intermarriage and building commercial dynasties in Manila and in the provinces. A native bourgeoisie developed and interpreted aspects of Spanish and Chinese culture that through the centuries evolved as Filipino customs. Curiously, the more obvious aspects of the Chinese-native culture occurred at gut level exemplifying in history the saying that “someone's heart is captured through the stomach.”

The late Doreen Fernandez, the doyenne of Filipino cultural history, described the Chinese influence as having been introduced from the “street level.” The sari-sari store (variety store), the ambulant vendor of puto (rice cake) or taho (bean whey) and the street level tindahan that dispensed literally “fast food”kain takbo—were the entry points of Chinese culture in the Philippines. A study of Chinese loan words in Tagalog show the preponderance of terms in the realm of food. From am (rice broth) to upo (white squash), the integration of Chinese terms into Tagalog was easy.

The Tagalog language’s flexibility in creating new meaning from root words made accommodation of Chinese terms painless. Thus, the Chinese syllable bi (rice) was realized in the bibingka, biko (sticky rice cakes), bilo-bilo (rice flour dumpling), and bihon, (hair thin rice noodles). These all-time favorite rice based kakanin (snacks) have remarkable staying power in the stomach. They serve as the common person's pang tawid gutom (to stave hunger), at least until the next full meal becomes available.

The Raw and the Cooked

We encounter the native kakanin—puto or bibingka—on the street. At the dinner table, Chinese culinary influences enter another linguistic domain. In her study of Hokkien loan words in Tagalog cookery, Gloria Chan-Yap explains that except for a few raw materials such as beef and vegetables, Tagalog cookery borrowed heavily only in techniques of food preparation. The practice of steaming and boiling, like that of the sinigang (sour soup) and nilagga (boiled meat or poultry) fame, were common Hokkien cooking methods. Instead of supplanting traditional methods of food preparation, such as roasting or broiling, the Tagalogs applied Chinese methods to available raw materials. Vegetables, for instance, some of which were native to the Philippines, were cultivated (and sold to the Spanish) and then prepared in Chinese style—steamed or boiled. If we are to agree with anthropological notions of the raw and the cooked, nature versus culture, societies with boiled and steamed cookery indicated a higher cultural level. (Indeed for many centuries, the Chinese declared any non-Chinese as “barbarians” or “savages.”) The early Filipinos did not discard the more primitive styles of cooking: they appropriated the new techniques. Do we not savor both the inihaw (broiled) and the sinigang? The “raw” and the “cooked” co-existed, nature, and culture merged, Chinese and Tagalog coming led to create a Filipino cookery.

When Chinese culinary styles encountered Spanish cuisine, further transformation occurred. For instance, a lowly Spanish peninsular concoction like the pochero (boiled meat and vegetables) became a status dish at the dinner table of the Philippine middle class. The transformation made paella, an otherwise Mediterranean peasant dish, high class-cookery. By the same process, the lugaw (porridge) and tripe became arroz caldo. The Spanish elite may have stuck to their true Iberian culinary regimen, but the mestizo middle class appropriated and transformed the trappings of this elite into its own Hispanic-Chinese-native tradition. 

Pancit Phenomenon

Food is a good gauge of how one’s culture has assimilated aspects of another. This is exemplified in the evolution of the pancit (noodle) dish. Pancit, pien e sit, in Hokkien Chinese, were easy-to-cook noodles that required frying and a sophisticated culinary technology. Not only was a special rice needed to make the noodles, special kitchen utensils—siansi, kawa, bitay—were needed in its preparation. In the indomitable Filipino kanya-kanya  (to each his own) attitude, the generic nature of pancit encouraged regional varieties, some kind of culinary schismogenesis, or a splitting into many new parts: pansit luglug, pansit Malabon, pansit Canton. This process, by the way, was encouraged by our linguistic tradition of extending meaning by adding action syllables or descriptors to a root word to create a semantic shift. In this case, pansit, which in Hokkien Chinese means simply something easy to cook usually by stir-frying, became in Tagalog cookery a noodle or non-noodle dish, fried or boiled!

Once renamed, a dish may be claimed as one’s own. What motivated the Malaabonenses or the Ilonggos to claim the pancit is a sociological mystery. Perhaps it was a way of appropriating a patently generic cooking style to make it distinguishable from everyday food fare. Since serving pansit also meant wishing one's guest longevity, a distinctive pansit style gave status to that offer. It is not coincidental that Molo (Visayan llonggo) and Malabon (Tagalog) were regional centers of Chinese mestizo elite society. Regional cuisine reflected the economic and political importance and status of mestizo society.

Pansit Molo, which by definition, was not a fried noodle dish, became associated with the aristocratic Molonenses. Unlike any other pansit that was easily prepared (a poor man's pansit would be fried noodles, sautéed garlic and strips of cabbage), the molo (requires a full complement of servants to prepare. It meant a rather laborious process of wrapping bits of ham or shrimp (a la wonton) in rice wrapping to produce the molo. Its production, therefore, symbolized the Pancit Molos class origins. Not for these aristocrats was the lowly, stir-fried, easy to-cook pansit.

Yet, it was patently Filipino not to abide by another person’s success. For nothing is better than one's own. Hence, the regional flavors. (A positive note to this phenomenon: although Filipinos are wont to disparage each others region especially in language and politics, there is no known historical record of a food fight.) The salutary benefit of this regionalism was the evolution of exquisite cuisines—Tagalog, Pampango, and lIonggo— each one admired by all.

Michael Gonzalez, son of Philippine National Artist N.V.M. Gonzalez, is a faculty member of Philippine Studies at City College San Francisco. He teaches History and Anthropology.