Pass the Sawsawan Please

Does anyone remember the movie “When Harry Met Sally”? A quirky, 1980s romantic comedy, it was about the antagonism between two people evolving into acceptance, then friendship and ~ finally ~ love.  Now hold onto that thought.

Whenever I think about Filipino food, one scene from that movie keeps playing in my head: Sally & Harry, newly acquainted, are on a road trip across America, and whenever they stop to eat at a roadside cafe, Harry notices that Sally can never order straight from the menu, but always adapts it to suit her own tastes. This infuriates him and he accuses her of being high maintenance, mimicking her order and remarking that “On the side” is a very big thing for you.’

In my world, this is not only high maintenance, it would be considered the height of bad manners to mess the cook about like this. Mothers cry out in horror as their children drown their dinners in tomato sauce (ketchup). Some western diners at high class establishments are even wary of adding salt and pepper in case the chef is insulted by the insinuation that his or her dish is not quite perfect.

In the Philippines, fine-tuning a dish is not only acceptable, it is normal. In the Philippines every diner is expected to give the finishing touches to own his meal with what one food historian refers to as  ‘a galaxy of flavour-adjusters’.

These flavour-adjusters consist of a vast array of dipping sauces and condiments known collectively as sawsawan (pronounced sow-sow-won) that add depth to a dish by providing the accents of sweet and sour, saltiness and spice. The most common and popular accompaniments are patis and bagoong, salty sauces or pastes made from fermented fish and shrimp. You can also try soy sauce, vinegar, pickled green mango, native chillis and kalamansi.

And each diner mixes in his own preferred combination of flavours, enhancing his meal in an action so reflexive that at a recent workshop, most Filipinos were surprised when it was brought to their attention.

This participatory approach to food preparation is an integral part of Filipino dining, the key to Filipino cuisine, without which some dishes might taste a little bland.

On the other hand many of us non-Filipinos have come to expect that a green chicken curry will taste the same in Thailand, Tokyo or Timbuktu. This trend for homogenized dining began in France in the 19th century, when chefs began to write down their recipes for posterity and popular consumption.  Since then, the Thais, the Italians, and the Indians have followed suit. This standardization has become known as McDonaldization and it is a piece of marketing genius – which does not necessarily make it a good thing – but helps it to sell, as most people prefer to know exactly what they are going to get when they order from the menu.

This concept is totally foreign in the Philippines, where innovation is at the heart of Filipino cuisine. Doreen Fernandez, a renowned Filipina food historian claims that it is impossible to standardize the adobo, when every household boasts its own version. One local writer claims Filipino cooks have never been as innovative as they are today. Even as a group of celebrity chefs attempted to fulfill western expectations of standardization in the beautifully presented coffee table cook book Kulinarya, local restaurants continue to explore, creating imaginative blends of past and present, east and west. It’s what they do. It’s who they are.

Filipino cuisine is like halo halo: a mix of tastes, textures, cultures and colours. Or as local writer Molina A. Mercado put it so clearly:

Filipino food was prepared by Malay settlers, spiced by Chinese traders, stewed in 300 years of Spanish rule and hamburgered by American influence

Some call it the original fusion cuisine, but it is not the ingredients from different countries that are blended, as much as the entire menu: where sinigang, Hokkien noodles and paella may all sit together at the same table. And for 90 million Filipinos it is the best cuisine in the world.

Yet I have heard many Filipinos complain that foreigners don’t take Filipino cuisine seriously. They just don’t seem to get it. Many have had the cheek to insinuate that Filipino Cuisine is an oxymoron.  It seems to be one of the most misunderstood cuisines in the world

Personally I have had mixed experiences. Our first exploratory dining experience in Manila was a culinary disaster of fatty beef and tepid noodles. Since then, I have persevered, and I have discovered some dishes I thoroughly enjoyed, although there are still many I find challenging. However, I hope that is about to change.

At a recent food writing course, one exercise referred to renowned food critic Jeremy Steingarten, a fussy, faddish lawyer, with more food phobias than I’ve had hot dinners. The list of things he would never eat even if he was starving to death on a tropical island was longer than the list of things he actually liked. Realizing that he could hardly fulfill his new role as food critic for Vogue magazine with so many food ‘allergies’ he goes on a mission to overcome his finicky taste buds.

It’s a known fact – a standard Year 10 science experiment – that we can actually retrain our taste buds. No food phobia is innate. Force yourself to eat something you hate 8 times, and you’ll suddenly find you are enjoying it. As mothers, we’ve all done it to our kids: make them eat their broccoli and – short of power play – they will eventually like it.  I’ve even persuaded my husband to eat olives.

Now, in conclusion, I would like to take you back to that thought you were holding… remember? Like Harry & Sally, it is possible to adjust your taste buds and your expectations and learn to love something you thought you loathed. So, as Mr Steingarten suggested, I am on a mission to learn to appreciate the unfamiliar tastes and textures of sisig and sinigang, and to educate myself on how to apply the sasawan… I may have to draw the line at balut – “Avian infanticide” is just one step too far – But I already drink my kalamansi juice with-syrup-on-the-side!

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