detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Saturday, July 20, 2002

: . The Pleasures of Sourness:

I don't know why I ever hesitated to buy a copy of the late Doreen Fernandez' Palayok. With all due respect it reads the way I thought it would -- as a rehashing (reworking?) of previous essays from previous books, columns, and articles, but better. The book is written with greater economy as if it were a distillation of the author's previous thoughts on Philippine cuisine. Design wise, the book is a pleasure to look at but a pain to read: it looks more like a piece of conceptual art as if its designer labored over the appearance of each and every page. Words and sentences are arranged in artful blocks of varying colors and sizes thereby stressing the materiality of written language. Each essay is therefore fashionably surrounded by plenty of white space which is elegant in and of itself but all that emptiness only highlights the need to elaborate upon Fernandez' work -- more studies on regional and on non-lowland Christian cuisine perhaps? Below is a snippet from a chapter entitled "The Pleasures of Sourness" which could also have been taken from Fernandez' older essay "Why Sinigang?" previously published in Gilda Cordero Fernando's 1976 "Culinary Culture of the Philippines" and published elsewhere before that (one could charitably think of "The Pleasures..."as the culmination of a 20 year work in progress). It is followed by a highly suggestive snippet from the note to the reader ("Sa Babasa Nito") in Florante at Laura which confirms Fernandez' speculations. I'm surprised that Fernandez neglected to cite Francisco Baltazar's oblique reference to what we would now call "Filipino" tastes and his conflation of sensual and intellectual pleasures:
    Does our taste for asim come from our sour green landscape? From the proliferation of sour-towards-sweet tastes in our fruits and vegetables? Certainly we Filipinos have a tongue, a taste, a temper for sour notes, which is one of our chief flavor principles. We not only sour our soups (sinigang) and cook sundry dishes in vinegar (paksiw,adobo); we also use vinegars (nipa, coconut) and citrus (calamansi,dayap as dips and marinades...
    We Filipinos are...the champion lovers of sourness. We nibble green mango slices, dip many things in suca't bawang, pucker our lips at the memory of good sour tastes, discuss the right vinegars and condiments for particular kinilaw, long for sinigang. We know our landscape, and have tasted its nuances. From it we derive these subtleties of healing, flavor and pleasure.

    Kung sa biglang tingi'y bubot at masaklap,
    palibhasa'y hilaw at mura ang balat;
    nguni't kung namnamin ang sa lamang lasap,
    masasarapan din ang babasang pantas.

    At a glance, this may look unripe and sour,
    being green and still immature,
    but savor the taste of its meat
    and it will be enjoyed by a literary sage

The translation can be found in Bienvenido Lumbera's Tagalog Poetry. Any reader of Tagalog will notice however that Lumbera's translation, like all translations and all approximations of taste, is unavoidably imperfect.

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