The History of Filipino Food and Kitchen SuperstitionsMay 17, 2019
Bite your tongue while eating and it means someone is thinking of you, but how do you find out who? You have to ask a friend to give you a number. This figure is equivalent to a letter in the alphabet. The name of the person who remembered you starts with that letter. Simple, right?
Remember to always serve water to relatives who’ve just arrived from far away to ensure they only bring good news. Drop a fork or spoon while serving the table and the possibility of a surprise guest excites you, with the gender decided by which utensil hit the floor. Never stack dirty dishes as this may, somehow, lead to adultery.
We never questioned these superstitions, out of fear and respect for our lola.
Those little warnings and reminders are examples of pamihiin (superstitions) specific to Filipino culture, many of which had been taught to us either while eating with our family or helping around the kitchen. We never questioned these beliefs, out of fear and respect for our lola. We listened to our elders and formed habits that stayed with us as we grew older, even though the lessons didn’t really fit with the scientific method we learned at school. One thing we’re never told, though, is how exactly did our ancestors first originate these stories.
A lot of our superstitions have roots in the religious and social practices specific to the Spanish colonial period. Tracing their origins through the historical accounts of that era is only logical. The majority of our known pamihiin were recorded and put together in Father Modesto de Castro’s Urbana at Felisa. Another example lies in the book The Governor-General’s Kitchen, Felice Prudente Sta. Maria introduces the chapter “Saints in the Kitchen” with a litany of novenas dedicated to Saint Anne, the patroness of housekeepers. Saint Martha is another religious figure associated with blessing cooks and cooking, mostly due to her serving Christ when Jesus visited Mary and her brother Lazarus.
Other ancient sayings were ways to pass down the importance of observing good sanitation through the generations. A few examples compiled in 1913 are actually meant save the cook from spreading disease. The saying that “when a botfly repeatedly lands on you, a relative will die,“ was actually a warning against dysentery outbreak.
Before colonialism, however, events in the kitchen and at the table were considered as “gifts of heaven,” as Sta. Maria describes, that could “uncannily influence tomorrow, if not foretell marriage, wealth, illness, a child’s personality, and even climate.” Much like the, half-serious, hope we hinge on our Libre horoscope, our ancestors tried to find concrete connections between the present they saw and the uncertainty of the future through the interpretations of signs and symbols around them.
“A deep respect was given to the sources of our food. There was a need to respect the land or else it wouldn’t feed you.”
Professor Jimmuel Naval, a teacher of pop culture and fiction at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s Filipino department, emphasized that our country’s agricultural landscape shaped much of our folk beliefs. “Since most of our food comes from agriculture,” he explained, “A deep respect was given to the sources of our food. There was a need to respect the land or else it wouldn’t feed you.”
Women were the target of many kitchen related superstitions.
Women are the target of many kitchen related superstitions. There’s one in Father Modesto de Castro’s Urbana at Felisa that states that a woman who shifts positions at the dinner table too often would receive many suitors. These kinds of beliefs draw from the then feudal and patriarchal society, “where the law was made and enforced by men.” The book was the Church’s means of converting the Indios into Catholicism, and part of that campaign included efforts to keep women in the house. According to Naval, the belief was that a woman’s place was always dependent on a man, who himself had a permanent place on the table. A woman who kept switching positions was therefore weak.
Another mystery is where the association of women to spoons and men to forks came from. Naval explained that this belief stemmed primarily from welcoming guests and the Spaniards’ need to “civilize the savage Indio natives.” Since our ancestors ate only with their hands, the Spaniards saw the Indios as savages who didn’t use forks and spoons. In order to strengthen the colonial influence, kubyertos were introduced as the more civilized means of eating. Possession of a set of kubyertos also meant your home was ready for guests. “Forks and spoons didn’t really have a gender association at first,” Naval said. “The distinction came later, but the kubyertos was primarily for evolving the Indio into a more civilized people.” Who first linked spoons with women and forks with men, however, remains unknown.
Not all our beliefs came from the authority of our Spanish colonizers. Bangungot may be associated with eating too much and sleeping too soon, but the word itself means nightmare.
“There are places like Ilocos that believe in spirits that stay in their area. Actually, the belief (related to bangungot) is oriental in nature,” explained Naval. The body is believed to have a twin spirit and when the person rests, that is when the other spirit leaves you. “That’s why we have what we call the ‘out of the body experience.’ At that time, different spirits enter your body, such as the earth bound ones or the spirits of the dead.” If your spirit is unable to return to your body, then no one can wake you up the next morning. Central Asia (India in particular) believes that while you are dreaming, that is when you are able to travel to your past life. He posits that perhaps the warning against bangungot was partially influenced by the Indians’ arrival on our shores.
As our traditional pamihiin change and evolve through the passing of time, it’s interesting to learn how they came to be in the first place. Like all other things passed down in our country’s complicated history, these superstitions hold value beyond the superficial lessons they impart. They are cultural artifacts that had been shaped by the specific periods that birthed them. They offer one way to better understand our mixed and diverse present identity as Filipinos.