One of my favorite food stories from Good Friend F happened in America, when a restaurant opened to rave reviews. One of her nieces brought her there, telling her dessert in the place was superb. And what was this dessert the Americans –and Pinoys like F’s family — were raving about? Bananas dipped in batter and deep-fried in hot oil, kombo in the local dialect.
That was similar to my experience in this uppity hotel restaurant where we were served bukayo or candied coconut strips.
Of course these were served with ceremony and drama. The American kombo came with chocolate sauce. The five-star bukayo came as the highlight of a dessert called “Sugar Surprise,” spun sugar shaped like a bird and a bird’s nest. In the nest was an egg, made from sugar as well, which you break, and from which oozed out the bukayo.
Stories like this simply affirm what many of us suspect but refuse to embrace: that Pinoy food, even and maybe especially, the ones we consider plain and ordinary do have what it takes to be served in the global dining table. It just takes a little really, but for which we need to unlearn generations of folk wisdom, for these foods to get the worldwide notice they deserve.
Who would have thought that the kombo could earn rave reviews from American foodies? Not that Americans are the measure of good cuisine, but that they, as the rest of the world, could enjoy our own food too.
But why, you might want to ask, is it important for the world to discover our ordinary everyday cuisine? Simple: because this is a validation of how rich our culture is, and realizing how rich our culture is can go a long long way in our quest for national identity and nation-building.
Big words you might say. Let’s take the practical side to things: making the world accept our food, especially the ones that can only be sourced from our farms like bananas and coconuts, is good for the economy, for tourism as well as agriculture.
It isn’t incidental that the tourism success of Thailand came parallel to the rise in global popularity of its cuisine, particularly its hot dishes. A world which knows Tom Yam soup and sticky rice with mango slices can easily be enticed to go visit Thailand, there to, what else, eat more Tom Yam and sticky rice, and perhaps the hundred other dishes its street vendors cook up and sell. That’s tourism dollars in.
It is a wonder why for all our push for tourism, we have not embarked as yet on a serious program at promoting our indigenous dishes. While the kombo and the bukayo are good enough as they are now, there are other things we need to do to bring them up to global standards.
First order: how do you keep their flavors fresh for the longest time. I am awed, for example, at how the Thais can keep coconut milk fresh at any time in the day, such as they can serve it even at midnight in their airports where foreigners usually eat sticky rice with mango as their one last taste of the country before boarding their planes.
If we only realize how much potential our fried bananas and bukayo and the rest of what we eat in our everyday, ordinary tables, we would have found an entire food industry where everybody will have a chance to participate. After all, cooking and preparing these dishes is not rocket science, every other Pinoy can do them. To get to that, however, we need to first love them and be proud of them.*