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[OPINION] The Bahay Kubo and the making of the Filipino

While preparing a chapter for my book on the archaeology of the indigenous history of the Philippines, I thought about how the long history of Spanish colonialism shaped the country's diverse cuisine of the Philippines. From adobo to laing to sinigang, various Philippine ethnolinguistic groups have developed distinct preparation techniques, although the base ingredients are the same. This got me thinking about how food defines Filipino identity – or is there such a thing as Filipino food? 

Take for example the Bicol Express and the spicy-hot Bicolano laing. We know that gata ng niyog (coconut milk) and dahon ng gabi (taro leaves, Colocassia esculenta) are endemic to the Philippines. There are actually multiple species of coconut and taro in the country; each species has specific characteristics that local communities use for a particular cuisine. However, without the introduction of the sili (chili peppers), the Bicol Express and the spicy laing would not be Bicolano at all.

But this is not an isolated example. A song that almost all Filipino kids learn in school, Bahay Kubo, provides a window into the Philippine's connection to the world. The song goes,

Bahay kubo, kahit munti (Nipa hut, though small)
Ang halaman doon ay sari-sari. (It is surrounded by various plants)
Singkamas at talong, sigarilyas at mani (Jicama and eggplant, wing beans and peanuts)
Sitaw, bataw, patani. (String beans, hyacinth bean, lima bean)

Kundol, patola, upo’t kalabasa (Winter melon, sponge gourd, wax gourd and winter squash)

At saka mayroon pang labanos, mustasa (And there is also radish, mustard)
sibuyas, kamatis, bawang, at luya (Onion, tomato, garlic, and ginger)
sa paligid-ligid ay puro linga! (And all around are sesame seeds)

This song is a great example of the Homogenocene, the widespread expansion of plants (and animals) brought by maritime exchanges that started when Columbus accidentally ended in the island of Hispaniola in present-day Dominican Republic. Among these, only upo (wax gourd) (also native to South and East Asia), garlic and labanos (radish) (possibly SEAsian in origin) appear to be the only potentially local species. The rest of the plants mentioned in the song originated from the Americas, Africa, or mainland Asia. As such, the quintessential Philippine garden is a product of global connections that started more than a thousand years ago.

Trans-oceanic exchanges and mobility have been documented archaeologically and ethnographically. But most importantly, community stories and memory talk about foreign traders interacting with our ancestors. Philippine languages for example are filled with borrowed South (Indic, Tamil), Southwest (Arabic, Persian), and East (Chinese, Japanese) Asian terms. Of course, Spanish terms are now considered part of our existence. What a lot of present-day Filipinos don’t know though, is that we have borrowed Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) terms including nanay (mother), tatay (father), tiyangge (outside/open-air market) and many more.

The number of Nahuatl terms in Philippine languages points to the influence of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade that connected the Philippines to the Americas and Europe. It made the Philippines an important hub in the Trans-Pacific trade that brought ideas, animals, peoples, plants, and even pathogens to the country. Whatever they are, for better or for worse, made the Philippines that we now know. 

The Filipino then, is an outcome of recent history, of our recent experiences. However, our predilection for all things ancient gets us into the trap of romanticizing the past. Understanding our deep past is important but it should not be the basis of national pride. For instance, our archaeological tradition is still heavily invested in reconstructing pre-colonial societies, so much so that pseudo-nationalists appropriate the narrative to talk about “authentic” and “original” Filipino culture. (READ: What's a 'real Filipino' anyway?)

The concept of a “pure” Filipino is founded on the perceived civilizing effect of the colonial experience among Philippine lowland and coastal groups. An anthropology PhD student at UCLA, Maddie Yakal, argues that this is an example of “othering,” an imagined identity that is contrasted with highland groups that are described as “uncolonized.” The problem with the concept of “othering” is that it implies that pre-Spanish Philippines was a monolithic culture. These boundaries do not acknowledge the diversity of the Philippine ethnolinguistic groups prior to Spanish colonization, or the diversity that persisted even after Spanish contact. 

In the first place, the term Filipino itself was not applied to the local inhabitants of Las Islas Filipinas; the term specifically referred to the Philippine-born Spanish (insulares). It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the wider inhabitants of the Spanish colony (i.e. Indios, Chinese, mestizos, creoles) co-opted the term and started to call themselves Filipino. This is the beginnings of our identity as Filipinos, born out of resistance and protest amid the repressive colonial regime. (READ: Citizenship, identity and global Filipinos)

The Filipino identity is not just for those who are indigenous to the country; it is clear that the 19th century Filipino included the indio, Chinese immigrants, insulares, and peninsulares. But it was not until after 1898 that the rest of the inhabitants of the country became Filipino. 

The concept of being Filipino, indeed, is represented by the Bahay Kubo. We come from different corners of the globe; we are descended from peoples whose mobility was not hampered by high mountains and vast oceans. Our food is also a fusion of the world’s cuisine. Take for example our version of menudo: garlic, tomato sauce, flavored with fish sauce, and garnished with oregano. 

So, to this end, identity is now. We don’t have to look at the distant past to realize who we are. We just have to acknowledge that we have diverse experiences and recognize the flawed narratives that we were exposed to. Using food as an analogy, Bicol Express did not exist 600 years ago, but it does now. – Rappler.com 

Stephen Acabado is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a Bicolano from Tinambac, Camarines Sur. His archaeological work revolves around indigenous responses to colonialism. He is a strong advocate of an engaged anthropology.