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Seasoning of Life

What does time taste like in the Philippines

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By MONICA ARANETA TIOSEJO

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A man and a woman meet for the first time, sparks fly, and so begins a timeless love story. From sweet nothings to spicy kisses, sour grapes to salty tears, bitter regrets, and everything in between—it’s a delicious read until there is nothing left to devour. You learn that two things make or break a relationship: chemistry and compatibility. The same goes for food.

Unlike people, if food goes sour or salty, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not the end, just fermentation. In death and decay, there is life, bacteria specifically.

Their byproducts, if edible, are valued not just because of taste, but because they were needed to survive.

Fireless fare was the result of naturally adapting to a pre-refrigerator environment. The techniques were not introduced by foreigners, they are our own, developed and perfected from science to art. Part of the knowledge is that the chemical reactions cause increased levels of protein, vitamins, and amino acids, making functional food, that is, they provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

The Philippines is rich in its diversity of indigenous fermented food items often found in rural communities. Writers have pinpointed that their acquired tastes are savoriness, booziness, and sourness. In fact, at the time of the Conquest, the Spaniards observed that Filipino cuisine was salty, bitter, and sour—the taste of success after circumnavigating the globe looking for spices. Imagine, we were colonized because of our food!

“Native” cooking was salted with bagoong and patis. Bagoong is the precipitate of salted fish or krill. The paste is found all over the country, although the characteristics of bagoong and what it’s called in Luzon are different from the ones in Visayas and Mindanao. The Tagalogs, for example, totally ferment baby shrimp by packing it with salt and occasionally dayap leaves. The compact masses are stored and left in a cool, dark place for over four to six months.

Patis, a glowing amber liquid, is what’s separated, and then fermented in earthen jars for a year to a year-and-a-half. Unfortunately, to keep up with our population’s demand for salt bombs, modern industry has hastened fermentation by boiling bagoong, forcing patis to rise. Also, big businesses have packaged processed and enhanced food-like substances that resemble our traditional seasoning. The best patis, they say, is clear, golden and does not smell fishy.

We also love our souring agents, especially vinegar or suka. Here, the acid can come from nipa, coconut, buri, sugar and sugarcane, sago, kaong, and sometimes even fruits like pineapple and banana. Coconut vinegar, for example, is made from either coconut water or fermented coconut sap, with a starter culture of yeast and bacteria to aid ethanol and acetic acid fermentation. Vinegar is produced by alcoholic fermentation of coconut water by adding 10 to 12 percent sugar. This usually takes two to three weeks. After, you have to decant, pasteurize, and cool immediately. Then mix the solution with a vinegar starter, cover, and set aside for a month or until maximum sourness is obtained. You can age the vinegar further in barrels or earthen jars to develop aroma and flavor. If left too long and to its own devices, suka can turn into alcohol.

Fermentation know-how is learned and practiced at home and then handed down from generation to generation. Extended shelf-life creates livelihood, and small-scale industries grow, and contribute to the country’s economy. All this because you took the ingredients for what they are and gave them time. Nothing more and nothing less. The story goes on.

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