Is That Adobo?
A statement released by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and picked up by various news organizations has stirred the pot among Filipino netizens online. In the statement dated July 9, 2021, the DTI’s Bureau of Philippine Standards (DTI-BPS) announced that it has established a technical committee that will develop the Philippine National Standards (PNS) on popular Filipino dishes such as adobo, sinigang, lechon, and sisig. More importantly, it added that the committee will take “into consideration the variations in cooking techniques observed in all regions of the country.”
The DTI justified the effort by explaining that “with various cooking methods for Philippine adobo published online by food writers, bloggers, and vloggers,” the committee “aims to standardize the cooking technique for the well-known Filipino dish.” The statement quoted BPS Director Neil Catajay expounding on the endeavor: “Standardizing the basic cooking technique for Philippine adobo will help ordinary citizens, foodies, and food businesses determine and maintain the authentic Filipino adobo taste (underscoring mine)”
I am not sure if DTI got it’s cue from similar efforts abroad or whether that is precisely the direction they want to take but it immediately reminded me of Pizza Napoletana and the efforts to “write down the fundamental rules in order to recognize and differentiate the True Neapolitan Pizza from the other type of pizza.” This gave birth to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napolitana (AVPN) in 1984 and which came out with a 14 page “international regulation” with the purpose of protecting “the tradition of this old recipe and spread its secrets, defending its uniqueness and peculiarity (AVPN Website: https://www.pizzanapoletana.org/en/storia_avpn).
The “regulation” is very strict. For instance, it only recognized two types: “Marinara” (tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic) and “Margherita” (tomato, oil, mozzarella or fior di latte, grated cheese and basil). Further, the AVPN insisted that genuine Neapolitan pizza “is roundish, with a diameter max 35cm,” with a “raised edge (the famous ‘cornicione’), swollen and free from burns, 1-2 cm,” and “must be soft and and fragrant.”
Is this the intention of the DTI-BPS committee? Are we going to have, in the future, a standardized regulation that will say, “Hey, you cannot call that adobo because it does not follow our regulations?”
My first reaction to this standardization proposal is one of disbelief and confusion. When I ran for the Senate in 2001 and 2007, and for the presidency in 2010, I had the wonderful opportunity to go around the country. And these were not just campaign visits — motorcades, rallies. I insisted that I need to be able to meet ordinary Filipino families and talk to them about the challenges they face and the their dreams. So we also went to palengkes where nanays buy ingredients for that day’s meals and tatays who would butcher an entire pig to be sold to market-goers. This is the part of the campaign I genuinely enjoy. Laking palengke kasi ako. I grew up helping out my mother sell shrimp and fish in Divisoria.
But I digress. Anyway, during these national campaigns I was able to really experience the country. Sometimes, a family would insist on cooking for us lunch or dinner or we would stop by a local restaurant to enjoy their food. And I have tasted so many variations of adobo — with pork or chicken or both, saucy or dry, with potato or without, with pineapple bits or gata, with patis instead of toyo. You can plot out the regions of the country by naming the kind of adobo popular in these places. I have learned through my visits around the country that the beauty of the Philippines lies in its diversity. This is not a boring country! And the divergence, the differences are simply mesmerizing.
I understand that the committee has good intentions: “benchmarking the cooking technique for Philippine adobo will help preserve the country’s cultural identity despite the variations made to it.” This is particularly important now as Filipino food is becoming extremely popular abroad especially in the United States where everything is gets modified and “Americanized.”
My only worry is that when we start standardizing and setting up guidelines on how to do things a certain way, there is a tendency to exclude others. Culture, including food, is never static. I love my Nanay Curing’s adobo and her cooking but I also enjoyed the variety of adobos, sisigs and sinigangs I tasted over the years.
If the purpose is to preserve tradition and protect identity, fine. But remember that traditions do not exist in a vacuum and that identities are complex and evolving. The DTI statement quoted a member of the committee as saying: “Adobo is not a recipe. It is a cooking technique.” It’s neither. Adobo is a way of life. It is an expression of being a Filipino, wherever in the world they may be.