When Asia Society proposed a book on Philippine cooking in 2008, the initial plan was to follow the model of Thailand where some dishes were chosen to promote the cuisine. But talks with Filipino chefs (especially those involved in the project), some food writers, plus many in the food industry were averse to the idea. The questions mostly asked were: who will say this dish is better than the other or why that region and not my region?
Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine (Anvil Publishing, 2008) chose instead to identify dishes cooked all over the country. Its purpose was to show the proper way to cook those dishes.
When it comes to food, Filipinos are regionalistic. It was only by chance that the chefs involved in the book came from different provinces so at least that showed some representation of the whole country in terms of dishes and preferences and ways of cooking.
Because the Philippines is an archipelago, one can conclude that interaction between islands must have been limited before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. And then during the Spanish occupation, travel by land and water to other areas was restricted, each person carrying a cedula (identification paper) and requiring not only a travel permit from the local government but from the friar of the local Church.
With limited interaction, it is no wonder then those different languages, customs and cuisines developed in each Philippine region. The kind of cuisine, as well, depended on many factors—the lay of the land (if the place was landlocked and had no or limited access to the sea); what plants were grown and animals found in the region; and later, Spanish influence on the cooking.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that any discussion on regional cuisine focuses on the differences.
The northern area of the big island of Luzon, where the Ilocos provinces (Norte, Sur, La Union, Pangasinan) are situated, is known for mostly vegetable dishes. The reason being, the limited arable land is mostly grown to cash crops like tobacco and sugar with the remaining areas for vegetables and root crops.
Limited arable land in the Cordilleras in the middle of northern Luzon did not, however, deter the ancient peoples known collectively as Igorots who live in the Mountain provinces to create a space to grow rice on the mountainside. The rice terraces, until today, yield traditional rice varieties. Their food, however, consists mainly of root crops. There are no pasture lands, so meat was limited and the big bovine, the carabao, was only slaughtered for special rites.
The eastern part of Luzon faces the Pacific Ocean. Big fish such as blue marlin and swordfish are landed especially in that longish strip of the province called Quezon (named after its distinguished son and first Commonwealth president).