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Fusion in Philippine Cuisine

Originally written in the year 2001.

Fusion technique in cooking has been a norm in Filipino kitchen long before Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines in 1521. One may note that while “fusion” has just been popularized by the elite group of modern chefs, and dubbed by some as “East Meet West,” the original concept was introduced to and adopted by Filipinos as a result of migration and colonization.

It goes back to about 20,000 years ago. The Ice Age reduced the levels of the oceans creating bridges between landmasses, making migration possible. The Malays were the first inhabitants of the Philippine Island. The Malay influence can be found in popular dishes such as Kare-Kare (a meat and vegetable stew in peanut sauce), Pinakbet (another meat and vegetable stew flavored with shrimp paste), and Dinuguan (a stew made from pork meat and blood, spiced with chili peppers). The Arabs were already settled in the islands in considerable numbers before the Spanish arrived. Chinese, Japanese and Hindus had permanent settlements, as well. The Japanese introduced Halo-halo.

Chinese traders sailed across the South China Sea around 300 AD, and by the year 1000, trading was taking place on a regular basis with the coastal ports and colonies that the Chinese had established. By 1400, they had made their way inland and become established as part of Philippine culture. Their contribution to Filipino cooking reflect in noodle dishes called Pancit, steamed dumplings like Siopao, Siomai, Pancit Molo, and varieties of eggrolls, fried or fresh called Lumpia.

The Philippines was already engaged in a thriving cultural and commercial exchange with China, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia before the Spaniards arrived. The colonists found a culture whose family structure, diet, outlook and language was already formulated within the Asian context.

Ferdinand Magellan claimed Philippines in the name of Spain and the ruler at that time, King Philip, and thus begun 400 years of Spanish influence and domination. History stated that in the sixteenth century, Pope Alexander VI, in an effort to quell the feuding between the major world powers, — at this time, Spain and Portugal -–took a map of the known world and drew a line down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. All that lay east of the line was given to Portugal and all that lay west of the line was given to Spain. Portugal sphere and influence encompassed the eastern-most tip of South America – what is now part of Brazil – all of Africa, and eastern Asia. Spain’s influence extended to most of South America, all of North and Central America and most of the land bordering on the Pacific Ocean including the Philippines. Further, historians also noted that although Spain received more land, it was most unexplored, while Portugal gained control of trade routes and bases that were already established. This division of the world explains why the people of Brazil speak Portuguese while the rest of South America speaks Spanish. Although the Philippines is part of Asia, Filipino language and its regional ethnic dialects are heavily studded with Spanish words and phrases.

About 80% of the dishes prepared in Filipino kitchen today can be traced to Spain. The Spaniards introduced tomatoes and garlic along with the technique of sautéing them with onions in olive oil. Add to that, as in popular baked good and desserts like Pan de Sal (a crusty dinner roll), Flan (an egg custard), Ensaymada (cheese buns), rice dishes as in Arroz Valenciana or Arroz Con Pollo, etc. Most Spanish recipes had been modified to accommodate what were readily available re ingredients. Thus, the emergence of a cuisine Filipinos called their own, adapted to their
tastes.

Spain managed the Philippines through Mexico for more than two hundred years. The Manila Galleons plied the waters between Acapulco and Manila, heavily laden with goods and treasures from Asia and Europe. Through Mexico, Filipinos were introduced to the use of bay leaves and annatto seeds (also known as atsuete or achote). Evidence to this influence can be found in Adobo (braised pork or chicken in vinegar and salt or soy sauce), Menudo (pork and liver stew).

The Dutch also made several forays into Philippine waters throughout the 17th century only to be repelled by the Spanish Armada. Britain occupied Manila briefly in 1762 and left behind Indian deserters who migrated up the Pasig River, made settlements along the way and intermarried with the Malays.

By 1890, the Spanish-American War erupted and the once Spanish-held possessions, including the Philippines became American territories. Filipinos were introduced to potato and macaroni salads, baked fruit pies and more recently, fast foods such as hamburgers, french fries and pizza. In the aftermath of World War II, Filipinos were introduced to canned goods. Fruit salad was born using canned fruits (drained) mixed with native sweets like buko (fresh young shredded coconut), kaong (palm nuts) and bits of langka (jackfruit) mixed with Nestle cream or condensed milk and cream cheese, top with cherries and served chilled on a bed of lettuce for presentation.

The most significant American influence to the Filipinos has been the English language. No one could have expressed this more eloquently than Stanley Karnow, journalist and historian, in his book titled “In Our Image,” America’s Empire in the Philippines. “America conquered the Filipino nationalists in a cruel conflict and then, infused with missionary zeal, sought to remake the Philippines “in our image” – complete with American political, educational and cultural institutions. The American imprints remains but it has barely altered traditional Filipino values. During its half century of colonial tutelage, American had endowed the Filipinos with universal education, a common language, public hygiene, roads, bridges, and, above all, republican institutions.” As a former foreign correspondent covering Asia, Stanley Karnow found that the Philippines differed drastically from any other region he visited or from any other places he previously covered like Europe, Africa or the Middle East. He found Filipinos to be very familiar with Americans, most spoke Americanized English and many had been educated in the United States or in American Schools. “They knew far more about the United States than I knew about the Philippines, as if they were some kind of lost American tribe that had somehow became detached from the U.S. mainland and floated across the Pacific.”

There has been an influx of Filipinos going to Japan and Germany as contract professionals, entertainers and laborers. Likewise, Japanese and German tourists visit the Philippines. Sushi bars emerged together with tempura and noodle bowls. Filipinos found a kindred spirit with Germans in their use of vinegar, spices and salt. German sauerkraut has a cousin in Filipino Atsara (shredded green papaya).

As in metamorphosis, and for as long as Filipinos adhere and practice its tradition called “Filipino Hospitality,” its cuisine will continually change as it takes the best from those cultures and adapting them to the Filipino taste.

– Shared in November 2001 by a Filipino sous chef who remains anonymous.

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