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More Than Taste: How Filipino Food Act As a Vehicle For Connection

Filipino food is an integral part of Filipino culture, one that we–those in the mainland and those in the diaspora–share. It’s a method of communication (an apology after a fight, a token of love, an encouraging boost), a reminder of home (a travel jar of patis, warm sinigang on a cold night), and a show of hospitality (“have you eaten?”). In these ways, food shows us its potential for more than just taste. If it can embody all of these things, what else can food hold?

Like many Filipinos in the diaspora, I find myself longing for connection to our homeland. My original intention in writing this piece was to connect with indigenous Filipino roots by learning about indigenous farming, and thus about our food and culture. I found a queer Pilpinx owned farm here in Oregon called Kasama Farm and made plans to interview them. I was going to ask them about their farming methods and tie that in with indigenous farming practices; I thought this was going to be a fairly straightforward research piece.

I began by researching indigenous Filipino farming practices. I learned how farmers in the Philippines worked with what was around them, such as preserving seeds by placing them above a smoking stove, as well as practical experience and knowledge that has been passed down. I also learned that indigenous methods of farming in the Philippines are currently in danger of being lost to us, in part due to stigmatization of indigenous farmers in an effort to control land and in part due to a changing interest in Filipino youth–which is also a ploy to control land, but more on that later.

In learning about indigenous practices in the Philippines, I also came across articles that outlined Philippine History and colonial periods through Filipino food. These articles outlined timelines that show how Filipino food has evolved interdependent on foreign influence: Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian traders; Spanish and American colonizers. It was through these resources that I was introduced to a renowned food writer in the Philippines named Doreen Fernandez who made me question the methodology of my quest for indigenous knowledge.

As I began learning about Fernandez, I was shocked that I hadn’t come across her work–which spanned from 1968 to her sudden death in 2002–prior. However, upon further investigation, I was saddened to realize that, until recently, her work has been nearly impossible to access. In fact, it is only due to recent revitalization tactics by people like Dr. Catherine Ceniza Choy, that accessing Fernandez’s work globally is somewhat possible. There are still challenges though: Fernandez’s collection of essays, Tikim, is $40 for a paperback and a whopping $198 for a hardcover copy. Select essays can be found and accessed online (though some require subscriptions to academic databases) but other collections, such as Sarap, Palabas, or Palayok are simply out of print.

Regardless, Filipino Americans are flocking to Fernandez’s work and it’s no surprise why. Fernandez’s work in food writing was not just rooted in taste, but in the culture and the self. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wrote in her foreword for Culture Ingested: On the Indigenization of Philippine Food, Fernandez believes food works as “an accessible point of entry into Philippine culture and history” and “a mirror that Filipinos could hold up to themselves…an opportunity for self-knowledge that was grounded in immediate experience, embodied knowledge, and personal and collective memory.” It was through two particular essays, Why Sinigang? and Culture Ingested, that Fernandez shone a mirror on me and my approach to this article.

In her essay Why Sinigang? Fernandez initially posits that sinigang should be considered the classic Filipino dish as opposed to adobo, leading the reader to believe that the essay will focus on that. However, Fernandez delves deeper, moving beyond why sinigang is so beloved by Filipinos and instead questions, “Why does one like anything at all? How is a people’s taste shaped?” Fernandez goes on to discuss the landscape of the Philippines: how seafood like fish, shrimp, or crab are natural choices for protein due to the people’s proximity to the ocean; the availability and versatility of rice, the coconut, and gulay in the Philippines, making them natural staples in the Filipino diet. It was around this point that what I like to call “diaspora panic” started to set in.

While discussing the vegetation available in the Philippines, Fernandez refers to “an American friend” discussing Americans' limited use of vegetables. Fernandez goes on to say that the “uninhibited Filipino, on the other hand…” In this situation, I was not the “uninhibited FIlipino”, but the “American friend.” I don’t use the vegetables she is discussing in my sinigang. My sinigang has broccoli and onion and tomato and maybe mustard greens if I can find them, because that’s what my grandma put in it, because that’s what she could find. As hard as I tried to stay focused and unbiased as I went through my research, I began to doubt myself. Sinigang is my favorite Filipino food…am I doing it wrong?

As if she heard, Fernandez responded in her essay Culture Ingested: “What has become available to sinigang, however, is the new technology. Sour broth from tamarind can now be had in an instant “add-water-only” package, which Filipinos consider good for emergencies and for Filipinos in the U.S., but which housewives here scorn to use because the fresh ingredients are available and of better value even if less convenient.” This snippet felt like a stab through the heart to read. In fact, after hours of researching indigenous farming in the Philippines in the hopes to connect it back to the diaspora, this entire essay felt personal.

In Culture Ingested, Fernandez acknowledges that Filipino food is hard to describe or pinpoint due to the high volume of “cultural borrowing and change” it has endured. However, Fernandez believes that Filipino food becomes Filipino food through a process called indigenization. This occurs when a foreign meal is presented to a native Filipino, who then “adapts” the meal to the landscape available to them. As the meal transforms into something more readily available and accessible in the Philippines, it becomes indigenized. Lumpia, for example, is the result of egg rolls from Chinese traders becoming indigenized to the Philippine landscape. As Fernandez outlined the process of indigenization–including ingredients available to the Philippines, Filipino culture surrounding adding sauces to dishes, preservation tactics enmeshed with the cooking process due to lack of refrigeration–I felt a deep sense of grief. I was completely unable to connect with this process, as someone born and living on American soil.

Luckily, I met with Leilani Mroczkowski and Jihelah Greenwald. The farmers at Kasama Farm in Hood Ranch, Oregon shared their first hand experience of cultivating connection through the food and land and helped me recognize the enormous task we in the diaspora are meant to take up.

When I first met the duo, I confided in them that I had started off this article with the intention of researching indigenous Filipino farming practices in order to connect to indigenous roots through food, and how I was quickly realizing that, as a Filipino American, I can and can’t. Leilani immediately understood, stating that part of being in the diaspora is grieving: grieving family we can’t see, food we can’t grow, places we may never see. “That’s not necessarily bad,” they were quick to reiterate, “but it is a part of our experience.” They discussed how, “growing up, we didn’t have the right ingredients.” Sinigang was not sour because their family didn’t have access to the produce necessary to create that flavor. “I knew our dishes were different, but we had to adapt to what we had.”

As farmers, Leilani and Jihelah find a balance between grief and cultivation. Leilani gave a poignant example about growing calamansi in Oregon. While calamansi is a classic Filipino staple, the only way to cultivate growth in Oregon would be with a heated greenhouse. Leilani reminds us that there is a balance and urges us to “connect to the land as opposed to forcing it to yield specific crops.”

Instead of relying heavily on modern farming, Kasama Farm focuses on what they can control. In an effort to help ease the potential for grief and facilitate food sovereignty, Kasama Farms contributes to food pantries hosted by the Filipino Bayanihan Center in Oregon and the Japanese Ancestral Society. They also follow what they call a market-style CSA. Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, “enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market.” This, in turn, empowers farmers, as opposed to exploiting them. It has also helped Kasama Farm build a community that doubles as a safe space for those in the diaspora.

In fact, Kasama Farms works hard to cultivate a relationship between those in the diaspora and the land. Jihelah discussed the importance of “being in a relationship here as well,” by learning indigenous farming not only from farmers in the Philippines, but from native Americans as well. In teaching the diaspora community indigenous farming techniques from native Americans, who understand and have a relationship with the land, Kasama Farm believes we can cultivate a better connection with the land. These teachings also lead to the empowerment of people, which is Kasama Farm’s ultimate goal for the diaspora, in regards to food. “I want more people to know how to grow food and that they can,” Leilani says. Jihelah agrees, “anyone can be a grower. We can all be stewards of the land.”

This, we all conceded, can be challenging–especially in the United States. Considering the violent history this nation has with the land, Leilani says they are constantly asking themselves, “How do we ground ourselves in a place that’s not ours?” Jihelah mentioned Kasama Farm is consistently addressing how to move away from exploitative systems. This is one of the burdens that those of us in the diaspora end up having to bear: holding the history of multiple cultures and landscapes.

Especially since these exploitative systems are not only found in the United States. Globalization in the Philippines, explains Leilani, has shifted community farming to commodity farming. As crops continue to get commodified, indigenous farmers become more vulnerable. Remember when I said that the youth’s shifting interest was also a ploy? Leilani asserts: “It’s all strategic.” By creating a social position around farming, corrupt governments are able to disway youth from continuing the practice, thus making it easier to take land. Leilani insists “farming is not unskilled, but necessary labor that needs to be political.”

This is a sentiment shared by most critical thinkers, particularly those connected in some way to food and land. Doreen Fernandez wrote for a magazine that discreetly upheld anti-Marcos agendas and nursed leaders of the National Democratic Front in the 80s. Filipino academics are working to document eco-friendly indigenous farming practices in the hopes that preserving these methods will give alternate options to modern farming on a global scale.

The approach that Leilani and Jihelah had to farming was reminiscent to me of the indigenous Filipino farming practices I had researched at the start of this article. Leilani shared a philosophy from farmer Kristyn Leach: farming doesn’t stop at harvest. Kasama farm works to preserve seeds and also receives seeds from different community members. The act of seed sharing not only works as a form of community farming, but also as a method of preservation. Beyond this, they also collaborate with their elders, having them taste produce and give opinions based on memories from food in the Philippines. By creating this dialogue, not only do they pass on food knowledge, it has opened up opportunities for intergenerational healing. These conversations allow elders to work through shame surrounding food and farming, and gives the next generation new knowledge on food and family.

When I first read Culture Ingested, I thought that those of us in the diaspora were unable to “indigenize” our food, as we are not native Filipinos adapting foreign meals to our landscape. However, as I reflected on mine and Leilani’s stories of improvised sinigang, and how the owners of Kasama Farm embodied so much of what I had been learning, simply by being themselves, I began to rethink my initial takeaway.

As of 2013, there were 4.9 million Filipinos living as permanent residents in countries outside of the Philippines. That means there are Filipinos in varying parts of the world indigenizing food to fit their current geographical landscape. In her foreword to Fernandez’s essay Culture Ingested, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, “To be considered Filipino, culinary practices did not need to be FIlipino by origin. Nor did they need to preserve some original or authentic form…Filipino is as FIlipino does.” Just as FIlipino food does not have to start out as FIlipino in origin, our “Filipino-ness” is not based on where we are located. We are Filipinos of the diaspora, an iteration all our own, that holds our ancestors–both from home and here. Our food is a reflection of that and us. While our cultures will vary interdependent on where we are in the world, we are still practicing the same process of indigenization that Fernandez claims makes Filipino food Filipino. In fact, we in the diaspora are doing exactly what our food has done for years: adapting, surviving, and persisting.

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