Coming to the Philippines: How the Spanish Invaded Our KitchensJanuary 18, 2016
Nobody expects the Spanish expedition. Certainly not us, the Filipinos, who before the colonial period were enjoying not just the bounty of indigenous species but spices from the southern trade routes. Additionally, cooking techniques and ingredients from the small boats that traded with the Chinese mainland. While Magellan himself brought little of immediate culinary value, those who came after him brought bounties of both the old world and the new.
Spain, and the rest of Europe, were undergoing a culinary revolution at the time. While the potato, tomato, corn, and chilis were at first regarded with suspicion in European court, succeeding generations of botanists and agriculturalists were able to realize their potential. The first record of a potato being eaten in Spain was in 1573, in Seville. It is hard to imagine Spanish cuisine without its frittatas made from potato and tomato, or its paellas fragrant with bell peppers and paprika. The colonization of the Philippines coincided with the biggest change in agriculture and culinary habits around the world, known as the Columbian Exchange. Although it bears the name of the man who discovered the new world, much of it took place in the century after his ships landed in America. What we came to understand as Spanish food was actually a cuisine in transition.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the French court during those years. Marie-Antoinette wore a garland of potato flowers on her soon-to-be-famous head to celebrate and popularize the potato. The dishes that we think of as archetypically Spanish evolved during this time in Spanish homes while the courts were dominated by French influences. The Spanish peninsulares ate their favada stews at home (made with beans from the new world) and taught their Filipino servants how to make it for them. But the most lasting influence that the Spanish colonial period had on Philippine cuisine was the introduction of new domesticated animals: the European pig, cow, and chicken came to dominate the indigenous species.
What we came to understand as Spanish food was actually a cuisine in transition.
In a parallel to how the Latin American countries had a more lasting Spanish influence than the Philippines (because they were taught how to read and write) Filipino food has less of a distinctly Spanish flavor than that of its other colonies. The influence was certainly there, but when we think of the most basic Filipino dishes such as sinigang, paksiw, kinilaw, and the like, they outnumber the more obviously Spanish dishes such as morcon, menudo, morcilla. The Chinese, as laborers and cooks, had as much influence on the emergent Filipino cuisine from the bottom up, as the Spanish did from the top down.
From the late Spanish colonial period up to the time we entered the American era, Filipino cooking was still mostly Filipino; Spanish was cooked in Spanish and mestizo homes, and restaurants were mostly French. The Manila Hotel’s Champagne Room served French food. On the other side of the social scale, some of the oldest restaurants in Manila were Chinese pansiterias. Spanish restaurants came into being in the American era when down-at-heel mestizos in search of a trade decided to serve their home cooking to the general public; these were mid-tier restaurants, not where you’d go on a date or propose, which is what the French restaurants were for; but not places where a decent lady wouldn’t be seen at, like those squalorous Chinese shops where they steamed meatballs made from cats.
Spain as a culinary center was a very recent occurrence; Spanish food being taken seriously outside Spain, even more recent.
People of this generation will find it difficult to believe how much influence France and French cuisine once had, even just a generation ago. Literate people did not just have to know how to speak French, but had to know their way around a French menu and know which utensil to pick up for the langoustines. The inaugural dinner of the Philippine Republic was French; how could it be otherwise? Spain as a culinary center was a very recent occurrence; Spanish food being taken seriously outside Spain, even more recent. That it has now eclipsed French food, in prominence and creativity, is as almost much of a culinary maelstrom as the Colombian Exchange.
In the Philippines, Spanish food has a special place in the minds and stomachs of the upper classes, but it is an old-fashioned idea of Spanish food. Just as Italian restaurants had to escape the image of the quaint trattoria with a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle—dispelling stygian gloom out of which was equally likely to emerge a cream-laden carbonara or Uncle Vinnie with a shotgun—Spanish restaurants are slowly shedding the image of the taverns that heaped huge servings of comfort food: heavy, oily, long-simmered stews and roasts. Pintxos and tapas bars, creative restaurants like Vask and Donosti, are changing the way we see Spanish food. People are looking up at it for the right reasons: not because it’s the cuisine that the colonial master eats, but because it’s one of the most brilliant and exciting cuisines in the world today, reinventing itself as light, flavorful, playful, and versatile. This is the second coming of Spanish cuisine in the Philippines, and this time it’s changing the local culinary landscape for all the right reasons.