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Adobo under fire? Not quite: it’s diplomacy

THERE has been an uproar recently over many people’s favorite dish, adobo. Apparently, the government wants to control the recipe —  or so said the wags. And as it is safe to say that every family in the country has their own version and every other person vows that their mom or lola’s version is the best, it was pretty much guaranteed that this would blow up like a defective pressure cooker. But is it all just a tempest in a teapot? Or rather, a tempest in a stewpot?

On July 9, the Department of Trade and Industry-Bureau of Philippine Standards (DTI-BPS) said in a release that they had established a Technical Committee on Filipino Dishes (BPS/TC 92) to develop Philippine National Standards (PNS) on popular Filipino dishes such as adobo, sinigang, lechon, and sisig. According to the release, the BPS/TC 92 has “started developing a PNS for Philippine Adobo on 11 May 2021 with Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine serving as their main reference in creating a comprehensive guide in preparing and cooking the Filipino favorite cuisine — adobo.”

Some people took this to mean an autocratic approach to cooking, and jokes started to be made about being sent to “adobo jail.”

In a matter of days, the DTI posted a statement on its Facebook page. “Nothing to worry on this. This is just among the many groundwork (sic) to develop more creative industry exports,” said the statement. “There was a suggestion in the industry to have consultations among chefs and what will be in a TRADITIONAL recipe especially for international promotions (example your adobo won’t become paksiw or humba or your menudo won’t become afritada) or we heard there’s also adobo from Mexico. Again, this is for promotion abroad.”

“Obviously, this is NOT A MANDATORY Standard because there are thousands or millions of different ‘lutong adobo’,” the message went (the capitalized words were in the original message). The DTI sent a statement to the press bearing the same message.

To be fair, the original July 9 statement from the DTI did quote chef Raoul Roberto Goco (representing the Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines) as saying, “Adobo is not a recipe. It is a cooking technique.” Mr. Goco is a vice-chair of the BPS/TC 92 committee. His fellow vice-chair, author and chef Myrna Segismundo (representing the Food Writers Association of the Philippines), was quoted as saying in the same statement, “There will be different approaches and opinions [on cooking Philippine adobo]. As long as I have, say one to three steps, it’s this recipe. Anything else you add to it is a variation to the cooking technique.”

The two vice-chairs are joined in the committee by restaurateur, presidential caterer, and Via Mare founder Glenda Barretto, and representatives from the University of the Philippines Diliman-College of Home Economics, Philippine Chamber of Food Manufacturers, Inc., Philippine Association of Meat Processors, Inc., Department of Science and Technology-Industrial Technology Development Institute, Philippine Association of Food Technologists, Inc., the LTB Chefs Association, Asia Society Philippines, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Inc.

Some of the same names have been involved in codifying Philippine recipes in the recent past, namely, in writing the aforementioned recipe reference for the committee, Kulinarya. Ms. Barretto and Ms. Segismundo share authorship credit for the 2017 tome, along with Margarita Fores, Jessie Sincioco, Conrad Calalang, and Claude Tayag, all huge names in the Philippine culinary scene thanks to their various restaurants, books, appearances and recognitions here and abroad. The project was spearheaded by Asia Society Philippines, with the cooperation of the Department of Tourism, with grants from San Miguel Corp. and Del Monte Corp. The book was produced in cooperation with the Center for International Trade and Expositions and Missions (CITEM) and the Department of Agriculture.

Ms. Barretto already had the foresight for the issues surrounding “standardizing” Philippine cuisine: in Kulinarya’s preface, she wrote, “The principal problem in branding and defining standards for Filipino cuisine is that Filipinos are by nature highly individualistic and diverse. Standards in our culture seem to exist not so much to be followed strictly, as to serve as a basis for personalization.

“The Kulinarya project’s primary purpose, however, is not to define how a dish should look, nor is it to suppress variation in favor of a single strict interpretation. It focuses instead on defining guidelines to improve the selection of ingredients, preparation, and presentation… the goal is to establish a reproducible baseline of quality, with characteristics that persist through all variations,” continued Ms. Barretto in the cookbook’s preface.

On another point, even adobo itself, the baseline and cause of all this uproar, is the subject of several debates: is it the country’s national dish? (Or is it sinigang? Or tinola? Or is it something else?) Should one have it dried, or soupy, or fatty? Soy sauce as an adobo ingredient has been taken for granted as a matter of fact, but as late as the 1990s, the late culinary grande dame Nora Daza (herself responsible for several cookbooks that taught generations of home cooks and who brought Philippine cuisine to Paris) acknowledged that soy sauce was a recent addition (and therefore, part of a variation).

“Pork adobo is cooked in a mixture of vinegar, salt, garlic, and peppercorn. Over the years, chicken was added to the pork and so was bay leaf and soy sauce to give not only color but add flavor as well. The soy sauce was a substitute for salt although some still put salt with the sauce,” she wrote in her 1992 book A Culinary Life. In another section, she also wrote, “I consider adobo our national dish.” (Score one for adobo, then).

BusinessWorld asked stakeholders in the food industry about the efforts of the DTI. Chef Myke “Tatung” Sarthou, who has written several cookbooks about Filipino cuisine, as well as presenting them in his restaurants and his YouTube channel, said in a Facebook message, “There seems to be some merit on the move. I think there is really a need to set the basis of how to name Filipino dishes and the parameter of how it can be interpreted before it becomes something else.”

He added, “I’ve recently learned of the group of culinarians tasked with the job; I think they are very capable. Let’s see how it goes.”

Restaurateur and activist Waya Araos Wijangco was more dubious, saying in a Facebook message, “DTI backpedaled, they are saying they are doing this for international promotion of Pinoy food. Again, why would you promote only one version? Adobo is a cooking technique, not a recipe,” she said.

“They are trying to use the Thai model of promoting food abroad. The pad Thai was invented to be the national dish by a fascist dictator PM who forced the populace to adopt the noodle dish and address a rice shortage. The adobo is much older, has evolved through the centuries, adapting through various terroirs of our archipelago and economic statuses of our populace. Even our OFWs have contributed to its expansion, using ingredients available in their adopted countries. As opposed to pad Thai’s dictatorial history, adobo is more democratic and inclusive. And that is why they should leave our adobo alone.”

On this note, the website Atlas Obscura wrote about the origins of pad Thai in an article titled The Oddly Autocratic Roots of Pad Thai. Apparently, back in the 1930s, while Japan’s Imperial Army began crunching down on its neighbors, in the spirit of nationalism, “(then Prime Minister) Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s  government took action. As part of a national campaign called ‘Noodle is Your Lunch,’ the Public Welfare Department gave Thais free noodle carts and distributed recipes for a new national dish: pad Thai.” The article goes on to mention that the Prime Minister (more known as Phibun in the West) “liked to compare himself to Napoleon, and cast himself in the mold of fascist leaders such as Mussolini and mandated fawning coverage of himself as ‘The Leader’.” He was eventually driven out of office, along with his many autocratic policies (one of them was mandating clothing styles), but pad Thai remained in the country’s dining repertoire.

Thailand also spearheaded cultural diplomacy through food —  which is implied to be the mission of the DTI in standardizing recipes “for promotion abroad” —  through their early 2000s Global Thai program.

A 2002 story from the Economist titled Thailand’s gastro-diplomacy, it said, “The Thai government has discovered that foreigners quite like Thai food. There are about 5,500 Thai restaurants around the world. In a plan ambitiously called Global Thai, the government aims to boost the number to 8,000 by 2003. This, it is argued, will not only introduce deliciously spicy Thai food to thousands of new tummies and persuade more people to visit Thailand, but it could subtly help to deepen relations with other countries.”

It continues, “More modestly, the Thai government aims to make it easier for foreign restaurants to import Thai foods, to help them to hire Thai cooks and sometimes to benefit from soft loans.”

The Thai approach to culinary diplomacy seems to be consistent: a 2017 Bangkok Post story (“Food Institute gears up standardization of authentic Thai foods for export to the world”) says that the Thailand’s National Food Institute under the Ministry of Industry launched “The Authentic Thai Food for the World” project. “The standard embraces applied sciences in food element analysis, both physically and chemically, to develop a taste test system that offers a single standard of taste in line with original recipes.”

Food historian Guillermo “Ige” Ramos, meanwhile, said in a Facebook comment (which he allowed BusinessWorld to quote): “We learned how to cook from our lolas and mothers and other family members, but we have to understand that not all families are like ours. We have to check our privilege. Not everyone is born with a nice home with big kitchens, where [a] family can cook their heirloom family recipes and have convivial dinners and Sunday lunches. Whereas, we can still pass on our family recipes to the next generation, while others have nothing. If these basic, standard recipes are shared to those who [don’t] know the difference between adobo and humba, or mechado and afritada, if they learn the basics, eventually they can adjust the taste and invent their own.

“Alalahanin mo, hindi lahat sa Pilipinas nakakakain ng tatlong beses isang araw. Hindi dahil lang sa poverty, kundi dala na rin ito ng walang kaalaman sa nutrition at food literacy. (Remember that not everybody in the Philippines can eat three times a day. Not only due to poverty, but a lack of knowledge about nutrition and food literacy.),” said Mr. Ramos.

“Remember ang keyword dito ay ‘Standard,’ o Pamantayan. Nilalagyan lang natin ng sukat o baseline. So, kung sa palagay mo, na mas masarap ang timpla ng adobo mo sa standard o pamantayan ng DTI, e di mabuti (Remember that the keyword is ‘standard.’ We’re only placing a baseline. If you think your adobo recipe is better than the DTI standard, that’s great).” — Joseph L. Garcia

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