Friday, 8 March 2013

FCC: Food and Southeast Asia

Last week, we focused our attention on lesser known (yet very much integral) aspects of Chinese and Japanese gastronomies, "lesser known" being relative to typical American sensibilities. This week, our Food and Culture Colloquium module further exemplified the intimate connection between food and cultural (and even personal) identity, and the relationship between national/regional food identity and personal preference and heritage. Further, as we looked to Malaysia and the Philippines as our southeast Asian "case studies," it became (or at least, it should have become) even clearer that the intimate relationship food and culture affects the identities of both the individual and the group.

Professor Jim Pletcher, who last semester spoke about Zambian maize production, began his presentation and the first half of this module with demographic information regarding the landscape and composition of peninsular Malaysia, another of his former research sites. As a whole, Malaysia enjoys a healthy, well developed society comprised of three major groups of citizenry: the Bumiputera ("sons of the soil," who for the purposes of this recap refers to indigenous, peninsular Malays), and the Chinese and Indians. When Jim first began his research (on Malaysian palm oil), bumiputeras made up about 58% of the population, the Chinese 33% and Indians 9%; since then, the numbers have shifted to 71% bumiputera, 21% Chinese and 7% Indian. It's important to note that this shift, if not at least these clearly defined lines of separation has direct ramifications to Malaysia's social landscape. In terms of religion, most Malays practice the state religion of Islam, whereas Chinese Malays draw from Buddhism and Daoism and most Indian Malays are Hindus. Recalling previous modules (1, 2) one's religious/spiritual identity is oftentimes linked to diet, and the Malay case is no different here; while in Malaysia, for example, Jim had learned of a fear among bumiputeras of Chinese vendors sneaking pork into prepared dishes at market, an act which could lead to the clear violation of pork consumption as it relates to Islamic practice and diet.

Malaysia is also witness to residential (and concurrently political) segregation, evidenced by the three largest (of 14) parties of the National Front coalition: United Malays National Organisation, Malaysian-Chinese Association and the Malaysian-Indian Congress. Juxtaposed against the National Front is the looser coalition of opposition known since 2008 as Pakatan Rakyat, i.e., the People's Pact. As we consider how all of this connects with food (and I promise we're getting there), it's important to emphasise the fact that the NF coalition reflects Malaysia's deep ethnic divisions which must be appealed to and of which concerns must be met so as to survive. In case it's not evident, this means that there's a lot of movement within parties and the opportunity for altering the balance of power seems evermore unlikely.

So, how did this structure come to be? Particularly considering the notion of survival--both politically and culturally--the large presence of the bumiputera in politics is tied to the defense of the indigenous right to rule. And despite the fact the numbers don't seem to reflect equality among all groups, it's practically illegal to question the system and discuss such power dynamics, especially in Parliament. While political leadership and control rest among the upper echelon of bumiputera, the twist to this story is the economic imbalance facing this population.

Of all things at the nexus of Malay identity is something as "simple" as rice. In essence, the quintessential bumiputera is a rice farmer, or rather a grower of padi (unmilled rice; milled rice is processed into beras and traded by non-bumiputera, often coupled with the assumption of exploitation of rice producers). For a period of time under British colonial rule, and in an attempt to preserve Malay cultural identity, it was prohibited for anyone but bumiputera to grow rice. Unfortunately, this came with a price, as growing rice yielded the lowest point of return; post-independence, the large proportion of the population who produced rice--overwhelmingly bumiputera--were cemented in both a political and economic system that tied padi production and indigenous Malays, a tie that also sealed their fate of poverty within the padi sector. Such poverty persisted despite heavy government regulations and expenditures and will most likely continue to persist without land reform. Indeed, there isn't enough land for bumiputera (and all those being born into bumpiutera/padi culture) to grow enough rice to earn poverty level income. This leaves for us (and all Malaysians) many questions as well as creative possibilities to consider (e.g., can citizens transition to a new crop/s, and if so, what does it mean if they're no longer growing rice?).

With the aforementioned questions in mind, another to add is what would southeast Asia and its inhabitants be without their rice? As this article notes, more than 90% of the world's rice comes from Asian farmers (particular from this region), and even one nation's rice fields--those of the Philippines--are even listed collectively as a UNESCO world heritage site. But of course rice is only one part (albeit a very important part) of Filipinio culinary culture. Or rather, cultures. Given the more than 7,000 islands which make up the Philippines and the fact that just about a touch over 28% of these islands are inhabited, geographic distancing from one island to another, the immense number of languages, and the international influences on the people (1, 2) and their food (1, 2), among other factors, it should be no surprise that it's a bit difficult nailing down what exactly Filipino food really is.

Indeed, and as our panel which included Alanna, Ephraim, Liz and Nicole shared, how we define Filipino food is very much relegated to our individual experiences and what's passed down and shared from one family's kitchen to another's. In this way, and in its absence, we are essentially ascribing (or at least seeking) an identity to Filipino food. As the aforementioned article highlights and this one proclaims, our cuisine is suffering from an identity crisis. As an aside, this article even suggests all we need is better marketing.

And to an extent, I suppose we did pull off some marketing on Wednesday (in fact, that's certainly one way to view this year's Colloquium and the cultures being represented in our discussions of food throughout the year), with a chicken adobo taste test prior to the official start of the module. Using one of her wedding gifts, Liz made a whole lot of rice to pair up with Alanna's and my takes on the unofficial national dish of the Philippines, both of us calling home for what we consider to be authentic; we cooked using each of our mom's recipes. Below, I've included my version which of course is a deviation from the familiar and a mélange of recipes and techniques from others. In this spirit, the differences among recipes for this single dish exemplify the fact that despite a national liking for it--as well as pancit and lechon--there isn't a standard recipe. Instead, there seems to be a unique recipe for every household, or at least one that tends to be attributed to a specific region.

But first (and because I didn't do the best job taking notes), I do want to note that as part of the panel's discussion, one of the things we did agree on was that Filipino food isn't all that spicy and in some cases may be borderline bland, except when soy sauce is involved. In addition to the saltiness of it, soy sauce plays umami (meaty) notes, as especially exemplified when Alanna notes that there are "lots of meat dishes for an Asian cuisine! Everything (rice, vegetables, noodles) plays to the taste of the meat, and even the vegetable dishes have a meaty quality to them." We also happened to share the fact that our Filipino tables often included a hybridisation with Americana and other international cuisines, arguably adding to the difficulty of trying to define or at least differentiate Filipino food from others. Certainly Filipino cuisine at least includes the potluck staples of adobo, pancit and lechon, as well as the bagoong, leche flan and tilapia; and as far as Filipino gastronomy is concerned, I think it would be safe to end this recap by suggesting that where there's Filipino food there are more often than not leftovers. And where there are leftovers, you're bound to see tupperware or Ziplocs!

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our colloquium sessions, click here


And now a quick recap and lessons learned while making my first batch of chicken adobo. As I learned early on in my foodie career and have admitted quite freely, Filipino food has never been a specialty of mine. While everyone on our panel credit some if not all of our Filipino food knowledge to close relatives or family friends, most of us were equally spoiled growing up: our parents, grandparents and care takers were the gatekeepers of Filipino authenticity as we knew it and still know it to be. They were the ones cooking for us and unless we either grew up being taught or were self-motivated and eager to learn, we didn't need to cook Filipino food for ourselves. I'll speak for myself when I say the following (though I think it's applicable to all of us), but now that I'm older and am continuing to grow up in the U.S. and with ever present global culinary influences, my sense of home and family away from both, as well as my Filipino-ness, rest most strongly in the Filipino food I eat, and to a limited extent can cook. Having said all of that, my chicken adobo recipe (adapted from mainly from my mom's) begins with four ingredients that are standard across recipes (measurements my own and per pound of chicken used): 10 whole black peppercorns, 1 bayleaf, 1/4 garlic bulb, 1/2 tsp salt; for this batch, I worked with 20 drumsticks weighing out at 4.5 lbs, thus: 45 peppercorns (1.5 tsp), 4.5 bayleafs (or equivalent; I used broken up pieces), 1 whole garlic bulb (rounded down and cut in half), 2.5 tsp salt.

As I understood my mom's instructions (cover the chicken with water), I went with some strange math and multiplied the number of drumsticks by 3/4 and used that many half cups of water (i.e., 7.5 cups in total). This, in the end, would be my ingredient "downfall" as most other recipes call for about 1.5 cups per 2 pounds of chicken. As you can see, I ended up using a bigger pot than I should have. Also, I filled up the pot first with water, added all of the ingredients and nestled in the drumsticks, luckily having added enough water to cover everything; I wonder how much water I would have used if I put the chicken in first and then covered it all with water. In any case, I'll note here that unlike other recipes, we (my mom and I) don't brown the chicken ahead of time. And for an even healthier option, we remove the skin (aside from health, I'm not a huge fan of the rubbery texture of boiled chicken skin, though I suppose that's why others brown the chicken first). Finally, we're only using one pot here, a technique often used in Iloilo where my mom's family is from. And so, all of the aforementioned ingredients go into the water on medium heat with the pot covered to start drawing out the flavours. When the skins have all been removed, the drumsticks are placed in the water and everything's given a gentle stir. The pot's covered and the chicken cooks for 30 minutes.

While there are variations across the board in terms of ingredients and technique, adobo (whether chicken or pork) would not be Filipino adobo without one very important ingredient: vinegar. When I spoke to my mom about her recipe, she suggested filling the pot from the start with vinegar, in the amount of 1/3 however much water I used. With other recipes also using soy sauce (another ingredient which, unlike other recipes, we don't typically use) and some not even mentioning water, I was still clueless as to how much I should add, and so I went with this recipe's suggestion and went with just a touch over 1/2 c white vinegar. I mentioned above that my ingredient downfall was the water; my technical downfall (and I think this could be argued) is the timing of when to add the vinegar. Again, my mom's recipe calls for the vinegar from the very beginning. In my version, I went with this recipe and add the vinegar after the initial 30 minute boil and continued cooking the chicken for 10 minutes uncovered. After the elapsed 40 minutes, the kitchen was smelling great and clearly reminded me of home. Upon looking at the adobo, however, something seemed off; the liquid was a lot paler than I ever remembered it being (usually it's about as brown if not a touch lighter than how Alanna's turned out). To try and remedy this, I took out the chicken, increased the heat and added about 1 tsp of soy sauce, reduced the liquid by about 20% (25-30 mins), added another teaspoon of soy sauce and cooked the chicken in two batches to get that more concentrated flavour cooked into the chicken. To finish this up, I transferred the chicken to a heatproof dish, strained the liquid (which was really at that point more like soup) to remove the bayleaf, garlic and peppercorns, and poured the liquid atop the chicken.

Despite covering the dish with plastic cling wrap, I still had to make the drive up the Hill to my office (emphasis on Hill). Lo and behold, about half of the liquid found its way out of the dish, leaving me with about the right amount of "sauce." I'm convinced that with much less water next time, I'll get this one down as well as I've perfected my take on leche flan! For these and other photos from my chicken adobo album, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment