7 Filipino Dining Superstitions (And Where They Came From)September 23, 2013
- Serna EstrellaWords
Old habits die hard, especially if they’ve been in place for centuries. From a purely logical standpoint, superstitions should have been eradicated long ago. They came into being as our great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents’ way of explaining the mysterious natural phenomena that was happening all around them. And yet, there are still plenty among us who say “tabi tabi po” while passing through a secluded garden or refrain from getting haircuts at night for fear of the supernatural consequences.
If the trove of superstitions I’ve compiled below is any indication, abiding by their rules at the dinner table nowadays can be more complicated than following the most uptight etiquette manual.
1. Don’t eat chicken on New Year’s Eve/Day. Instead, eat twelve round fruits at the stroke of midnight at the end of the year.
New Year’s traditions are all about setting the tone for the next year. It’s widely believed that whatever you do or possess on New Year’s Eve will dominate your life for the following year.
Symbolism plays a huge role in the selection of food for the New Year’s Eve dinner. We all know how chickens eat: they’re forced to putter about digging through the dirt each time they get hungry. Feasting on one come the first of January puts diners at the risk of a difficult year ahead, forced to work hard for each mouthful. Round fruits, on the other hand, signify nature’s bounty. Their shape represents continuity, so eating twelve of them is supposed to mean abundance and prosperity the whole year round.
2. Pregnant women should avoid eating ginger root because it will make their baby grow an extra toe or finger.
Before the advent of modern obstetrics, pregnancy and childbirth were mysterious and unpredictable events that were often fatal. Medical knowledge was severely limited, so midwives and folk healers would base their prescriptions mostly on pure speculation. They also believed that a pregnant woman’s cravings were clues to how her baby would turn out. Those who craved for pointed, long-stemmed vegetables were thought to be carrying a boy. If the mother yearned for crabs, she was expected to bear children who could never keep their hands still. You get the idea.
Eventually, this belief grew to reverse itself, introducing even more wrinkles into the already suspect connection between the mom’s merienda and her baby’s destiny. Now, what the mother eats supposedly influences what traits her child would have rather than the other way around. Eating conjoined bananas was presumed to result in twin babies, while the ginger root, with its offshoots resembling fingers or toes, was thought to induce the growth of an extra digit or two in the fetus.
3. Dropped utensils announce the arrival of a visitor. A fork means it’ll be a man, while a spoon indicates that a woman is coming to see you.
No one is really certain as to why fallen utensils are omens for unexpected visitors, but it seems to be a widespread belief in other countries as well. One theory is that dropping utensils during the after-dinner clean-up is supposed to be a visitor’s presence making itself known, and thus asking the family to wait up before they turn in for the day.
Even the meaning behind the specific utensils varies from country to country. Some believe that the direction of the handle indicates the direction from which the visitor is coming from. Forks symbolize the male gender supposedly because of the protrusion between the tines (though I have yet to learn of a guy who’s THAT well-endowed), while the concave bowl shape of the spoon allegedly invokes a woman’s womb.
4. Don’t clear the dining table unless everyone has finished eating. If you do, you doom the last single dinner guest to a life of loneliness.
Mealtimes are sacred. They’re central to just about any culture in the world. There is something both intimate and communal about satisfying a basic need alongside other people. Since the shared experience casts a certain bond over all the participants, clearing the dishes before everyone is finished somehow breaks that magic, leaving whoever wasn’t done eating out of the loop, and thus, all by himself/herself (i.e., foreveralone) permanently.
Furthermore, clearing the table while a diner was still eating was akin to sentencing that person as a “leftover,” someone who was left on the plate while everyone else was picked up, so to speak.
5. Bringing home food from a wake or funeral is bad luck.
In the Philippines, we have plenty of traditions surrounding wakes and burials due to our great respect for our dearly departed. While it’s customary to offer food to fellow mourners at such occasions, it’s also believed that any food brought in to the wake or burial should not be taken out of it. Visitors who hoard the proffered snacks are frowned upon.
The spirits of the dead are also thought to linger about at wakes and funerals,thus taking home anything from the event would be like inviting their ill luck over to one’s house. Hence, those who drop by to pay their last respects are encouraged to consume any edibles at the event onsite.
6. If a fish bone gets stuck in your throat, ask a breech-born person to stroke it and the bone will vanish.
Breech babies are born feet-first instead of head-first like the rest of us. Called suhi in the vernacular, they’re thought to be innately-gifted healers with a unique touch. Their hands are supposed to be quite adept at relaxing muscles, crucial for getting embedded fish bones to go down smoothly.
7. It’s important to leave behind a clean plate after you finish eating. The number of rice grains left behind on your plate signifies the number of days you’ll spend in purgatory.
According to legend, we picked up this superstition from the Chinese. Their variation claims that the number of leftover rice grains totaled the amount of blemishes on your future spouse’s face. While our take escalates things rather drastically (going from acne to eternal damnation is a pretty big jump), it’s probably safe to consider that both versions were made up to discourage kids from wasting food.
Since rice is a treasured food source in both cultures, there are many more superstitions from both sides that discourage its waste. For instance, a popular Filipino saying also states that each grain of rice symbolizes a drop of sweat that resulted from our farmers exerting massive effort to grow our food.
Food science may have evolved considerably from when our ancestors were kids (we now have refrigerators that can generate grocery lists and some lighting that adjust themselves according to a homeowner’s mood), but I think that superstitions remain with us as links to our history (and as a reminder of how far we’ve come as a people). Besides, it’s a lot more fun to credit dropping utensils to imminent visitors than to one’s own clumsiness (or to blame an overeager waiter as to why you still don’t have a boyfriend).