The Language of Food in the Philippines

by Mickey Fenix

"MANILA, Philippines -- For her upcoming cookbook, Nora Daza wrote in her Pumpkin Pie recipe introduction that squash can substitute for pumpkin.

She also wrote that she never ate squash because "it has this negative connotation in our culture. We call squash 'calabasa' and to be called that means that you're a failure."

That set me thinking. What other food words in our language connote something else, whether bad or good?

Failure is also what nangangamote means. Sweet potato or camote is my favorite whether simply boiled or cooked as camote cue or sliced thinly,fried then eaten with sugar.

Why it should be used to mean not making the grade is beyond me. I do remember that, for a while, there was a movement to eradicate its negative meaning because the root crop is a healthy and cheap food.

But that campaign did not quite make it because it is difficult to eradicate what has been so ingrained in our culture and thinking.

On the other hand, I have always found it amusing that at the Philippine Military Academy, to be called the "goat" means being the last in the class academically. That I learned from my father, a PMAer.

Whenever we watched the graduation ceremony of the military school in Baguio, we always waited for the goat, the last one to be called to get his diploma. He or, now, she, usually gets the biggest applause because, in spite of the ranking, the cadet made it.

Treasured animal

That puzzled me because during my father's time, majority of his classmates were Ilocano like him, and so goat was a treasured animal in their culinary culture, the only ingredient worthy to be made into papait and kilawin.

Goat is better, though, than tonto. In Leyte, that is the name of a seasonal fish that is highly prized because of its milky flesh. Why the name? Because it was stupid enough to be caught, Leyteños told me. But then so are all the fish in the sea.

The misuse of an idiomatic expression was also heard in Leyte where a candidate thanked those who voted for him, claiming he was the "apple of your eyes." It was irritating to see those posters all over the place but it was worse to hear that he actually threw apples at people during a victory parade. The apple became a missile as it hit unsuspecting receivers of his bounty.

I can almost hear some friends expressing exasperation upon hearing that story. And they will always use two phrases: "anak ng tupa" (sheep's offspring) or "anak ng tokwa" (child of a soybean cake). In the vein of my uncle's "lekat!" those are in my collection of inexplicable phrases.

Food expressions depend also on which generation you belong to. My son orders most of the time from the restaurant Lutong Macao. He was surprised when I told him that the name meant a "cooked deal."

For his age group, the language-food connection only goes as far as "value meals."

Congee as profit

Yet my son understood "tubong lugao" right away. It describes a huge profit made from whatever business is undertaken. I suppose it is because he likes congee though I told him that lugao had more water and less rice.

Funny in a bizarre way was how one friend was told he was almost "na-lechon" because he did not wake up when the fire alarm went off in a hotel where we were staying. In other words, if the fire reached his room, he would have been roasted.

When a messenger boy climbed a tall coconut tree and lost his footing,he was lucky that an able-bodied fellow messenger boy instinctively caught him otherwise, he was told, "pagkakapehan ka na sana namin." Drinking coffee to stay alert, after all, is what one does during wakes.

For me, the best phrase to indicate a person's kindness is pusong mamon. It is being soft-hearted but at the same time being naive as to be swayed by some sob story.

While I get the sense of nagmumurang kamatis as acting too young for one's age, I don't have the exact explanation for it. I am thinking that when a tomato is still young, it is greenish and when it ripens, it becomes red. So, to go back to that youngish stage, means one is trying to go back to the state of being greenish or mura.

Which brings me to "may asim pa," again a phrase that refers to a person still looking and feeling young in spite of the obvious biological age. I have heard it said of older athletes also who still have the skill and stamina.

Apart from asim, there are other tastes used to describe certain conditions.

Mapait na karanasan is bitter experience, often heard in Tia Dely's radio program. Matamis na pagmamahalan is literally sweet love.

Those are all Tagalog terms, however. If Pampangos, Cebuanos, Ilocanos,Warays and Bicolanos out there can give me other samples of food and taste in language, please e-mail me.

This article was sent to wordhouse via email from* November 15th, 2007 Contact the author at lhtml/20071114-100943-xml.html