Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Syncretic Culture

If there is a a single word that could be used to sum up Filipino culture, the word would be "syncretism".

Over the millenia, the islands that now comprise the Philippine nation have encountered a myriad of cultures and synthesized them into a coherent whole. The influences range from Malay, China, Indonesia and Japan (geography), to India and the Arab world (trade routes and conquest), to Spain and America (colonial.)

In an increasingly post-modern world — "Sushi and Coca-Cola" — as a friend of the CC's so memorably put it; it is extraordinarily surprising that a syncretic food culture should not just be unknown but invisible to the point of surprise when it is mentioned.

There are primarily three reasons for this.

The first that hits the tongue directly is that Filipino food lacks a sharp flavor profile. There is nothing that "hits" you in the way that, say, Thai food does. Instead, the emphasis is on extraordinarily fresh ingredients prepared simply.

This makes it doubly ironic since the phrase "extraordinarily fresh ingredients prepared simply" could equally well be attached to Italian food which has been the subject of food fetishization for the last twenty years.

In an increasingly super-marketized world, it is simply not possible to experience the absolute wondrous nature of this food. In fact, one could argue that in large cities like Manila, this nature has been lost for a very long time.

The CC ate the most magical pork grilled with nothing but salt in the rural Philippines. The pig had been freshly slaughtered. Two days later, it was prepared again on the CC's request but it was nowhere near as good.

The explanation?

My sister prepared it. She doesn't know how to do it. She washed the meat but it's the blood that gives it the taste."

You can absolutely forget about eating stuff like this in a super-market world. In short, you are unlikely to have a "Filipino food experience" unless you actually use the absolutely best ingredients that money can buy. When done right, it should rightfully blow your brains out even lacking the afore-mentioned sharp flavor profile.

The second reason, and this comes from the simple fact that almost any great food culture is the food of poverty. Not only is there an extraordinary "waste-not, want-not" attitude to food but that there is positive celebration of offal.

(Incidentally, the Spaniards amped up this already ingrained agrarian logic, particularly the love of pork, to unprecedented levels.)

Given conventional food mores towards the "nasty bits" then, there seems to be this ick-factor that a lot of people will have to overcome.

(You can read Fuchsia Dunlop talk about the same phenomenon in the context of traditional Chinese cuisines.)

In Filipino culture, every organ is not just eaten but celebrated. Tuna jaw, tuna ovaries, pig lungs, pig offal in pig's blood, you name it. There's a dish. When mentioned, there's almost always a wistful sigh, "Oh, I miss that." (which has its own sentimental ick-factor, "Didn't we just eat that last night? How can you miss it?")

Since we live in a world of increasing offal-fetishization, this argument is going to become increasingly irrelevant. In five years when offal goes mainstream, that will be the time when the hoi-polloi "discover" Filipino food.

The third and very likely, the dominant reason of the invisibility of Filipino food, is that they have never had in the entirety of their history, a firm royalty. Sure, there have been local rulers and chieftains but there has never been an Emperor.

It may come as a surprise that an accident of history like that would have profound consequences on how we eat today but it does. Cultures that have had a firm sense of royalty and there are many -- French, Thai, Italian, Japanese, Indian, Chinese -- have not only a history of "fine dining" but an entire cadre of dishes that effectively migrated "top-down". From the Emperor downwards to the royal classes and then downwards to the middle-classes. Additionally, there is a very strong sense of what constitutes "fine dining", and a sense of how to go about it.

Modern restaurant culture at the highest end is nothing more than a generalization of royal cuisine. In short, you are still a slave to the whimsies of an emperor of a country that you have never visited and whose name you still don't know.

The pursuit of food as an active object of desire, discussion, detail has always been something that could only be pursued by the relatively well-off. That it even shows up in mass culture (TV shows, food porn!) is based on the fact that we are extraordinarily more economically productive than people in the 16th century. The average person can afford to waste their time in a pursuit that goes beyond daily sustenance. The Industrial Revolution has done its job, and extraordinarily well to boot.

If you were not particularly flush with money in older times, and wanted to eat great food, presentation and all, the only mechanism open to you would have to know someone a member of the elite, and be invited to dine at their table. The elite, after all, have always had their servants to make their food. Excellence was expected as a routine matter of course. If they were bored of the ordinary excellence that came out of their own kitchen, they would just finagle an invitation to dine at their friends' places where they would encounter an ordinary excellence that was totally different from their routine ordinary excellence.

(On a side note, that's why great artists with patrons have always eaten well. They may not be from the elite themselves but the influence rubbed off.)

In the Philippines, this sense of "older times" would be a scant twenty or thirty years ago. The food culture is still evolving because of the absence of a strong sense of royalty and a mechanism of presenting the cuisine. Thankfully, the modern world via its restaurant culture is doing its job, and increasingly in the places where money is flush, you see Filipino cuisine presented in all its glory.

The aging conservative Rimsky-Korsakov once warned his budding student, Stravinsky, about the strange delightful harmonies in Debussy's music -- "Better not listen to him, otherwise you risk getting accustomed to it, and you might even like it."

"Better not eat Filipino food, otherwise you risk getting accustomed to it, and you might even like it."


reva said...

Great post and eye opening insight for me about why restaurant menus looked so different from home menus for so long in India.

ShockingSchadenfreude said...

One of the goals of criticism is to help raise in a sympathetic observer a greater understanding of their own specific circumstance.