By Sol Vanzi
Images by Noel Pabalate
Glad we ignored the threat of rain and the actual onslaught of traffic, we shared an enjoyable evening of cultural heritage appreciation, savoring the flavors of Negros at the very folksy Serye Restaurant inside the Quezon City Memorial Circle.
Food served was the result of a lengthy immersion in Negros life and culture by students of anthropologist Dr. Fernando Zialcita, who heads the Cultural Heritage Studies Program of Ateneo de Manila University. While in Negros, the students got familiar with atsuete, batwan, sinamak, Pulupundan salt, and Negros sugar which are some of the indigenous ingredients used in local dishes on the menu that night.
Our dinner started with deconstructed kinilaw, which had unadorned tuna cubes surrounded by: Pulupundan salt, minced ginger, sliced red onions, and a small bowl of sinamak, the famous Negros flavored vinegar. We readily detected the superiority of local salt over the commercial store-bought kind.
The event was called “Mga Kwentong Pagkain: Sabor Negrense,” which celebrates the region’s cuisine and aims to increase awareness and support for the growers and makers of local products in Negros.
Mga Kwentong Pagkain is an annual food story-telling contest created by Mama Sita Foundation which gathers and documents little-known food stories from around the country, contributed by people of all ages from various parts of the country.
That night, we heard stories of discovery from the lips of Zialcita’s students, who had just emerged from a cultural experience they will never forget.
Salt, Vinegar, Sugar
Molo, Iloilo was a cultural and economic center in the 19th century, with Chinese and Spanish mestizos engaged in sugar farming in Panay. They later expanded their plantations to Negros Island, building huge sugar centrals when the Americans took over the country. Eventually, the Silay-Bacolod area became the cultural and economic capital of the south.
Sugar gave prosperity to Negros. Vinegar is a by-product of sugar cane. Naturally-produced sea salt completes the culinary triumvirate.
While most Filipinos take local salt for granted, professional and amateur chefs around the world consider sea salt, or fleur de sel, preferable. On the internet, French fleur de sel sells for $9 for ¼ kilo.
Unfortunately, we are restrained from fully enjoying local sea salt by a law which requires iodization of all salt sold for human consumption. This requirement adversely affects food manufacturers because iodine, when added to salt, tends to be more predominant and even disturbs the natural fermentation of native delicacies such as kesong puti, patis ,and bagoong.
A current drive to amend the law recommends that iodine supplements be given to iodine-deficient Filipinos instead of the current mandatory iodization of all sea salt.