Food for the Brain: Delicious Scenes in Pinoy Lit

JK Rowling was apparently living on welfare when she was writing the first Harry Potter book, evident through her vivid descriptions of the many dishes served at the start-of-term feast (treacle tart, anyone?). Presenting your literary protagonist with a spread of culinary delights is, after all, one way for a starving writer to satiate her own intense cravings, albeit vicariously.

Clearly, food can be used to evoke all sorts of themes and emotions in literature. Our local works are no exception, as beloved Filipino dishes can be a means to move the plot forward or to illustrate a point. Below are just a few examples from obscure and not-so-obscure literary pieces that demonstrate this quite vividly.

Sinigang as a Plot Device: Ang Alamat ng Sirena

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There’s a superstition claiming that pregnant women should be given anything that they crave for. In a local legend surrounding the origin of the mermaid, a farmer’s pregnant wife develops a fierce hankering for something sour, specifically milkfish in a sour broth (i.e., sinigang na bangus). The farmer’s initial attempts are successful, and he is able to provide his wife with the dish she so longs for. That is, until she decides to eat nothing but sinigang for the duration of her pregnancy.

One day, the farmer waits by his usual spot in a seaside cove while his basket remains empty. He ends up throwing fish back into the ocean because they are simply not the milkfish that he is seeking. Hours later, the skies darken, and the waves part. Amidst them appears a giant fish with glistening golden scales (sort of like a gigantic Magikarp, I imagine), and the King of the Ocean asks the farmer why he keeps tossing so many of his subjects back into the water.

The farmer then recounts his dilemma. The King of the Ocean offers to provide him with one milkfish every day on one condition: after seven years, the farmer must give him one of the twin daughters that his wife is currently carrying in her womb. Thinking that he could outsmart the King Triton wannabe, and move his family away from the coast during the seven years, the farmer agrees to the Faustian deal.

Seven years later, the twin daughters of the farmer and his wife have grown into lovely little girls who were named Maria and, wait for it, Sirena. Intoxicated by happiness, the farmer seems to have forgotten the deal, and as a result, never moves his family away from the coast line. One day, a brightly colored boat drops anchor onto the shores near the family’s little hut. Maria and Sirena run over to the beach and wade over to the side of the boat, when a wave crashes over the two girls as they are playing in the water. When Maria’s head bobs up for air, she discovers that Sirena has disappeared.

Decades later, a fully-grown Maria is out on the shore looking for her own daughter when she hears a soft voice singing a song that her mother taught her and her sister when they were kids. She turns, and sees a woman reclining onto a rock near the shore. The woman appears to be naked from the waist up, though her damp tresses are draped over her chest, and her lower half is hidden in the water. She then locks eyes with Maria for a fleeting moment before the creature dives back into the water (with her fish tail supposedly in tow), the latter could have sworn that she was looking into her own face. Given that Sirena must have consumed so much of her mother’s favorite sinigang na bangus in utero, this gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “You are what you eat.”

Tinola as a Metaphor: Noli Me Tangere

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Jose Rizal’s celebrated novel opens with a feast in Capitan Tiago’s home. The party is being held to welcome back a young man named Crisostomo Ibarra, who had spent many years studying abroad as was (and still is) typical of the upper class. On the menu is a dish of fragrant, steaming tinola: a clear stew of parboiled chicken pieces, ginger and green papaya.

For some reason, the bowls sent out to the dinner guest have not been portioned equitably. Ibarra is lucky enough to have the best chicken pieces in his, while Padre Damaso ends up with nothing but a “bare neck and a tough wing,” which he then reacts to by irritably flinging his spoon down, and abruptly pushing his chair away from the table.

More than just a mere entrée, the tinola appears to be a metaphor for which there could be more than one possible meaning. One possible interpretation of the significance of tinola in the novel is how it relates to the characterization of the main protagonist and antagonist. Ibarra, with his bowl full of meaty chicken legs and thighs, appears to be highly-favored, and seems to have it all (at least, at first). Damaso’s pitiful portion, on the other hand, seems to hint at the fact that his character leaves much to be desired. The way that he reacts at not having received the bowl with the best parts is also a clue to his arrogance and self-importance, traits that are shown to be the cornerstone of his personality as the story unfolds.

Patis as a Thesis: Where’s the Patis?

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“A Filipino may denationalize himself but not his stomach.” So begins Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil’s essay entitled Where’s the Patis?

Given that Ms. Guerrero-Nakpil hails from an accomplished family (the Guerrero clan of Ermita) who were also known for their love of local food, it’s hardly surprising that her charming essay is out to prove just how attached we Filipinos are to our home delights, or in this case, patis.

Where’s the Patis? attempts to reconcile two seemingly contradictory things about the Filipino persona: the desire to be a world traveler (“In the same way that an American dreams of being a millionaire…the Filipino dreams of going abroad.”) and a reluctance to go without the such staples like rice (“…rice is considered a vegetable in Europe and America. The staff of life a vegetable!”) and patis (“And in all the palaces and fleshpots and skyscrapers of that magic world called ‘abroad,’ there is no patis to be had.).

Once abroad, the Filipino traveler is described as one who easily acclimatizes to the refreshingly cold weather, and takes on the mannerisms like hand-kissing and spouting phrases like “D’you mind?”. However, the unease kicks in once s/he is presented with a plate of tournedos, which is pretty much a rare piece of steak, red and dripping with juices, and is certainly a far cry from the well-done pieces of tapa that s/he might prefer. In desperation, the tourist seeks refuge in a restaurant in Chinatown (each major city in the world seems to have one), perhaps to sink his or her face into a fragrant, and steaming bowl of white rice. Yet even here, the humble patis remains nowhere to be found, much to the hapless tourist’s chagrin.

If there’s anything to be taken from the aforementioned literary pieces, it’s that food easily transcends the boundaries of time, and the dusty pages of old books or writings. Those of us who are used to reading books in the English language may find it difficult to read Noli Me Tangere or Ang Alamat ng Sirena in their unabridged forms, but we can certainly comprehend being irritated after being served only the neck and wing of a tinola dish, or yearning for a piping hot bowl of sinigang.

What’s your favorite food scene in Pinoy literature? What food evokes strong memories for you? Share your thoughts and stories below!

4 Responses

  1. That Nakpil story is one of my all-time favorites. Hits the spot, so to speak. For Noli, though, I would have gone with the lake scene (where Elias is a croc-killing hero). The description of the food there was well-done, hehe 😉

    1. I love Guerrero-Nakpil’s essay too! We studied it in literature class back in high school, and it’s resonated with me every since. 🙂

      I was choosing between the tinola scene and the lake scene (where they were preparing the sinigang broth on the boat so they could slip the fish right in once they were caught). But since my first excerpt already featured sinigang, I went with the former. That said, the lake scene painted a vibrant picture of rustic cooking in those days and if I recall correctly, there was something of a green joke in that chapter too. Something about the “holes” in the boat that needed to be “plugged.” @.@

      1. Hahaha yes, I remember that part! Hmm. Must dig up my 21-year-old copy of Noli again 🙂

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