How the ‘sawsawan’ culture has defined us

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The Filipino is known to turn to soy sauce or vinegar at the dining table when he feels that the dish on his plate lacks a little something. But why is the “sawsawan” such a hallmark of Philippine cuisine? Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I love soy sauce. I really do. It’s dark, it’s unctuous, and it has excessive amounts of sodium — a Philippine standard when it comes to food. I cannot fully enjoy a steaming pot of nilaga without a splash of soy sauce spritzed with the juice of kalamansi. It’s paramount to experience, and though slurping down broth with tendrils of beef stuck between your teeth is tempting enough, inhaling a spoonful of squashed potatoes, slivers of Baguio pechay, morsels of beef, rice, and a flourish of toyomansi is downright sinful. There is a veritable difference between the two, one that has defined the very vernacular of Philippine dining. How the simple dipping sauce has become the cornerstone of our entire cuisine.

There is no ego when we cook, because food is never for ourselves; we always cook with someone else in mind. That is why tinola is light, nilaga bare, and sinigang unadorned.

 

The definition of Philippine cuisine has always been a floating subject, something that years of colonization has made into a confusing mess. Not to be helped by the fact that we are an archipelago of 7,107 islands — let’s just say that unity has never been our strong point. But while we ponder on the complex identity of our messy food history, we can come to an agreement that Philippine cuisine is one that adapts. The late food writer Doreen Fernandez called it “indigenized cuisine.” We take what’s given and make it ours. Like the way we’ve taken an already American-Italian dish and made it into an even more indistinguishable Filipino dish complete with banana ketchup and sordidly manufactured hotdogs: It’s all kinds of wrong and right all at the same time. Purists would be scandalized at the sight, but our history is a clear sign that we are not purists. We do things as we want to do them; there are no originals here — nothing and everything is authentic. “Authentic” is how your mother made it. And really, what’s the harm in that?

The thing that makes our food so fascinating is that it places a lot of stress on plurality. We’re people pleasers; we like being liked. And that saying, “You can’t please everyone,” falls on the deaf ears of doting titas who feel that all their inaanaks are severely undernourished. That’s why most of our food are more techniques, rather than full-blown dishes, like adobo, kinilaw, or pinakbet. Because the fundamentals of Philippine cooking are simple: We cook with our audience in mind. There is no ego in the way we cook; that’s why we don’t take offense when people add patis to their soup because they find it bland. It’s them adjusting it to their tastes. We don’t aim for perfection, because we all know that perfection is really just preference. There is no ego when we cook, because food is never for ourselves; we always cook with someone else in mind. That is why tinola is light, nilaga bare, and sinigang unadorned. These dishes are blank and easily manipulated. And our barest, most fundamental food has always been simple. Even before the arrival of the Chinese and the Spanish, we’d already had a developing cuisine, one that revolved around three techniques: curing, boiling, and cooking over open fire. Unobtrusive and simple, always a blank slate, always editable. That is why the sawsawan exists. It’s for us to paint our own experience — it is for us to make the meal our own.

This gravitation to the sawsawan, to this intimacy, just speaks volumes. Because food talks, and Filipinos are quite fluent in it. Because food is an apology, a comfort, and a present, it is emotions unheard and unseen, but never unfelt.

 

Sawsawan is not necessarily limited to things we dip pieces of food in. It comes in the form of ingredients that add texture and flavor to our dish. From the wonderfully tangy atchara best eaten with chicken barbeque straight from the grill, or buro, the fermented rice often served with fried catfish and steamed vegetables. From fresh red pepper to tamarind juice. Our cuisine is a plethora of what can be. And often it is the dipping sauce that really makes the meal. Because kare-kare is beautiful and gratifyingly succulent on its own, but a little speck of bagoong makes it transcendental. The paste transforms a simple peanut stew into this exciting, invigorating mouthful of meat, vegetable, and fermented shrimp. It’s gratifying and euphoric, but it’s not for everyone. That’s why bagoong exists outside the dish. That’s why sawsawan is always just served on the side. Because these things are not required, only highly recommended. Our cuisine is participative, it is communal. It asks and implores one to touch the food, not only to consume, but also to partake. To allow ourselves to connect with the things we eat on a deeper, more spiritual level. It asks us to treat food intimately.

This gravitation to the sawsawan, to this intimacy, just speaks volumes. Because food talks, and Filipinos are quite fluent in it. Because food is an apology, a comfort, and a present, it is emotions unheard and unseen, but never unfelt. It is many things, but most importantly to us, food is a connection to ourselves and others. The sawsawan is one of the most important facets of this trait. It defines the very structure of Filipino culture. It shows us how we adapt, how we change, how we are hospitable, and how we love to please. It is many things all at once, but more importantly, it shows how much of a reflection food is. It shows how a tablespoon of soy sauce can change the very fabric of our identity. It illustrates how food is so connected to us, how it defines us as a people.