Recording Filipino Food History - Episode Transcript

Find the transcript of my interview with Felice Sta. Maria below.


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

Today we’re talking with Felice Sta. Maria – an award-winning author, cultural heritage advocate, and culinary historian who specializes in the Spanish and American periods of history in the Philippines.

Talking with Felice is a real privilege and pleasure. She is an incredibly esteemed researcher in her field, not just of culinary history, but of Philippine colonial periods in general. If history, to you, is something you associate with a class you just couldn’t get out of, my goal for this episode is to change your mind completely. It’s a tall order, but we’ll walk through it together.

Cultural, and especially food history, is one of the most exciting fields that I can think of. To be a historian, you need to be detail oriented and laser-focused, patient, curious, and persistent to the core. You’re the kind of person who asks questions that no one else thinks of. I admire that determination to simply get to the bottom of things. It makes you like a real-life detective, who uncovers secrets and alternate endings to stories that have been hidden away in dusty old libraries and archives.

The value of all this, for anyone interested in food, is that we can tap into this recorded knowledge by looking to historians for help. They are our translators who provide context to questions like, why is Filipino spaghetti sauce toothachingly sweet and studded with hotdogs? Or, why is a particular fruit better for souring the sinigang in this region of the Philippines? And more importantly, why does all of this matter today?

We’re gonna find out. Join us as we speak with Felice Sta. Maria.


FSM: My name is Felice Sta. Maria and I have been writing about Philippine food since the 1970s and more seriously since the turn of the century. I’m currently engaged in writing two books, one of which would be the first historical narrative for trying to understand Philippine cuisine during the Spanish and American colonial eras.

02:43 Who is the Filipino?

FSM: Many years ago, I came across descriptions of Japanese culinary vocabulary. And there were so many words that I started wondering, what about the Philippines? How many words do we have? And if we put the words together, what stories would the words tell?

FSM: I didn’t want the Philippines to be left out of the global conversation. So, over many years, I have been trying to understand who the Filipino is based on whatever I can find about our food and our foodways, using historical research.

NA: That sounds really interesting! Historical research – especially with regard to food – is always something good to have more of. So what can historical research about food tell us, specifically, I asked? How did you get started in this field?

03:50 Developing an interest in food

FSM: Well, my interest in food really began as a hobby, Nastasha. In my generation it was not unusual for girls to want to cook well, and so by seven years old I knew how to cook rice. I received a Betty Crocker cookbook for children. I baked my first brownies, my very first sugar cookies. So, I realized that I enjoyed baking and cooking and I was always in the kitchen. By the time I was nine or ten, I persuaded my mother to buy me an American hardcover book on how to entertain at home. I guess I was really into it even as a child.

FSM: As a teenager, the books of Elizabeth David became available in Manila. It was different then. We didn’t have the computers and things like that. It wasn’t easy to get subscriptions to foreign magazines. We didn't have anything local that was the equivalent. And some of us used to go to Angeles, Pampanga to a little town near that called Dao. It had a market that sold surplus from the nearby American military base. Sometimes I found back issues of Gourmet magazine. Gourmet magazine at the time was based in New York, and it became my example of how to write food stories even if I wasn’t thinking of writing at the time.

FSM: Then I got married, and decided I wanted to see if I could write, because it was the kind of work where I could be at home and at same time earn a little money. So I began writing for women’s magazines, even if I had no experience and no training as a writer.

FSM: About that time, I met a wonderful writer about 10-12 years older than myself, was very well established.

NA: That writer is an author named Gilda Cordero-Fernando.

FSM: And she gave me the break to not only write in the women’s magazines, but also to write for Filipino Heritage. Filipino Heritage was a project of Paul Hamlin Australia. The idea was to come up with a 10-volume series of something like an encyclopedia. Articles about Philippine history, but written for the 14-year old English language reader of the 1970s. That was my first sortie into writing anything with a historical bent.

FSM: The articles I wrote for Filipino Heritage were generally not about food. But I kept discovering material about food. So I would jot down what I found, and eventually I found myself xeroxing articles. I was buying reprints of colonial-era books. I was buying vintage menu cards, collecting antique and out-of-print cookbooks. Before I knew it, I had so much data about Philippine culinary history of the colonial era, which is why I wrote “The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes from 1521 to 1935.” That’s what started me off.

NA: These all sound like things I would LOVE to make my life’s work. Imagine… getting to just pore over these documents and records to learn about things that shaped Filipino culture over time. It’s like being a time-traveler!

FSM: And you will find that Gilda also wrote about food. In fact she came up with the very first – what we would call – a coffee-table Book, a hardbound, glossy book about any topic. That topic happened to be Culinary Culture of the Philippines, and she kindly included me among the authors for that anthology.

NA: That book Felice mentioned, called the Governor General’s Kitchen, is one of my favorites. Much like how Amy Besa’s book really got me into stories about regional cooking, this book really opened my eyes and sparked a real interest into how much of ourselves today, we can really understand by looking at history. It’s not a straightforward path, but that’s what makes it unique. The Philippines has always been a bubbling pot of cultures and traditions, and that continues today, like a multiplier effect where Filipinos themselves are the ambassadors for their own culinary culture, wherever they are in the world.

NA: I highly recommend getting a copy of this book, and I’ll share a couple sources in the show notes for this episode. In the meantime, I asked Felice, could you give us an overview of some of the topics you cover in the Governor General’s Kitchen?

9:33 Research on the Spanish era

FSM: Well, the kind of research I do is on the Spanish era which starts in 1565 with the arrival of Legaspi, although we do have the written recollections of Pigafetta who was the chronicler of the circumnavigation which took off in Magallanes in 1519.

FSM: Aside from that, I’m also doing the American colonial era, which is from 1898 until 1945-1946. I’m mining not only the Spanish era, but the American era, and of course our food history continues non-stop until today.

FSM: So there’s probably several important areas that your generation may want to look into. Firstly I think is the history of Philippine agriculture and how it developed. Same with husbandry, marine science, and things like that. The archipelago has different climate/weather zones affecting food supply, and each zone is an agro-ecosystem. Each zone has to be studied over time. It’s when all the results of these different agro-ecosystems are put together over time, that we might be able to make some sense of how new botanicals arrived, older botanicals disappeared, and how all of that affected what we were cooking and eating uncooked.

11:18 Research on canned goods

FSM: I think the second – and this is not a difficult topic for your generation to handle – is the history of canned and bottled food products that are made in the Philippines, like the luncheon meats, sardines, fruits in syrup. It’s time, really I think, that for those interested in eating at restaurants and cooking - it’s time to catch up with food scientists, with home entrepreneurs, with companies that have started out new products and new brands. This is all very important, especially now that we’re talking about sustainability of food and food security for different countries, and changing weather. How are we going to handle changing weather? Did we have anything similar in the past and how did we handle it?

FSM: So even if you catch just those more recent histories, I think we will find examples. We will find role models among people. We’ll find clues as to how we can solve the incoming challenges for food. And if you look into either of those, the agriculture history or the history of prepared foods, as a researcher you’ll really end up going back into time, because the Spanish brought ranching. We didn’t have any cows here, and they wanted to have the kind of food they were used to in Spain. So they brought the cows to Mexico, crossing the Atlantic, and they started cattle-raising there.

FSM: And then they decided they were going to do the same thing here. So can you imagine a cow or a whole bunch of cows, horses, and other live animals being transported on the galleons from Mexico to Manila? I mean, those poor creatures! You know I was wondering how did they manage? And can you imagine the noise on the boat from all these very uncomfortable animals. In addition to that, what they used to do was carry as many as 200 laying hens in cages so they will have eggs everyday!

FSM: I just really chuckle every time I think about how we have managed to have enough food, whether it’s at home or on voyages. It’s amazing how innovative we have been. There were botanicals that went from the Philippines to Mexico on the galleons – the tamarind, the mango, ginger. These were plants that were not only liked as part of the diet, but these botanicals had profit. So the idea of the king was to try to get some of these Asian botanicals into America, which was closer for them. I mean there’s only one ocean away. You just cross the Atlantic and you get your ginger, you could get your tamarind, instead of having to go all the way across the Pacific as well.

15:01 What the new world brought to us

FSM: So, there is the story of what we brought to the New World, but there’s also what the New World brought to us. And so we have tomatoes for instance, and it wasn’t until about the 1600s that the tomato was being grown in large quantities in Spain itself. And so at about that time you can also see the tomato now coming our way, and becoming part of the diet. It was starting to grow wild, in fact.

FSM: So again you’re back to researching into the Spanish era. And of course the American era, they also brought different kinds of tomatoes. Like now you can walk into a supermarket in Manila, in Cebu, in Davao, and you will have those beautiful large salad tomatoes. We never even had those in the 1960s. We had what we call the ‘kamatis Tagalog’ which was the smaller tomato. But that isn’t even the tomato that was available in the 1800s. The tomato then was more like a cherry tomato.

NA: I love hearing about this stuff. I wonder what those early, heirloom cherry tomatoes tasted like? Is there any chance some of those varieties still exist today? I think I know a few cooks who’d travel far and wide to try some of that in their dishes.

FSM: We never had the golden tomato – the pom de oro – that became very popular in Europe. I haven’t found records of that. What is interesting is that there are descriptions of the early tomato, and so that would have been more like the cherry tomato. But then by the mid-1800s there’s a Frenchman who’s in the Philippines, and he’s saying that his marketing list included large tomatoes. But he doesn’t describe how large they were.

FSM: So we are aware that at some point there were no large tomatoes, there were only the small cherry tomatoes – some of which were growing wild – and then at a later period, these larger tomatoes came in.

17:30 “How were our favorite dishes cooked originally?”

FSM: So if one is trying to ask, “How was the food or the dish cooked originally?” I honestly don’t know. We haven’t found the recipes. But we do know there was a particular kind of tomato that was being used.

FSM: These are the interesting spin-off conclusions that would interest chefs who are trying to determine what is the traditional savor, what is the baseline Filipino savor from which one can innovate.

NA: Case in point? The sweet Filipino-style spaghetti sauce.

FSM: It advertises the fact that it’s sweet. I remember doing a talk at a culinary school. I lined up recipes for tomato-based spaghetti sauces from the 1920s up to about 1970s. It showed that there was no sugar. See, the sugar came in a lot later because in the 1960s, whenever we had children’s parties, the goal of the spaghetti sauce was to have lots of ground meat, very good beef.

FSM: I remember we would have the butcher in the market ground up sirloin to put in the spaghetti sauce for the children. What’s Filipino in many ways about the sauce then was that we mix meats. It was a very Chinese style of cooking where we would have a little bit of pork and a lot of beef, and we would have the butcher grind all of that together. And that’s what we would use for our spaghetti sauce.

FSM: So it wasn’t the sweetness. It was the desire to have the meatiness. And then eventually there were companies making luncheon meats and Vienna sausages and things and hotdogs. And so of course they would advertise putting Vienna sausages and sliced hotdogs into what is already a very meaty sauce. Eventually, the meat disappeared, the sausages were retained, or the hotdogs were retained, and became sweet. It’s a very, very interesting study how Filipino “spaghetti sauce” evolved.

NA: Looking into this stuff can send you down a rabbit hole pretty quickly, if you’re the kind of person who possibly watches too many ‘related’ videos to something you originally started with. What’s fascinating to me about untangling these little histories that don’t seem like much from the outside, is that they inevitably play a crucial role in how Filipino food and culture takes shape, and that’s until today.

NA: While you can easily dismiss the fact that Filipinos prefer their spaghetti sauce cloyingly sweet – that adding sugar to everything is “just a Filipino thing” – the fact that it became a popular way of adjusting dishes to suit your taste, is in itself a reflection of society. When you start to understand that a combination of low sugar prices, that housewives in the 60s took pride in sourcing canned tomatoes, and that middle class families considered serving spaghetti that was studded with ground beef for their kids’ birthday parties as a status symbol, you see a much bigger picture.

21:54 The importance of food studies

FSM: And that is why I’m suggesting that your generation look into the impact of the canned food products on Philippine cuisine. You’ll find that that pattern is not just in the Philippines. It’s also in other countries when they started producing manufacturing canned food products that would – as you mentioned – provide a consistency of flavor.

FSM: But I think what you will find – whether you’re studying the canned products or fresh ingredients – is that all the stories are going to reveal how we cared for or didn’t care for the country’s food security. While one is interested in looking at the little stories – which is very, very interesting – I think what’s very important for people who are looking into food studies and food history is the macro picture. What does it say about the society? Sometimes it’s not just what we are eating that is the story. There’s always this quest for food security and you’ll find that even in Spanish records. I mean, the Spanish were here and they were looking for food. The Filipinos were already here and the presence of these newcomers was straining the food supply.

FSM: What I have found, which really shocked me, was that during the time Legaspi and his small group of men were in the Visayas, the Filipinos in the Cebu area decided they just were not going to plant rice, hoping that they could starve away these invaders. Even if that meant that they have to sacrifice, they just wanted to find ways to peacefully get rid of these people. So they said, “Let’s starve them!” But unfortunately, the Spanish were able to buy rice because there was a very active trade of rice in the inter-island Southeast Asia region. And so they were able to derive.

FSM: This is what I mean. It’s very interesting to read Spanish material. The good thing is there is quite a lot of Spanish material about the Philippines that is already translated into English. So to me if you are an English language speaker, or that’s your primary international language, then start reading those translations. But then you’re going to want to read more, which means that you’re also going to want to read the originals because you’re going to see something here isn’t making sense. For instance, the Pigafetta documents about the first circumnavigation. They got here in 1521 and he makes a word list of Cebuano food terms. And then he starts recounting what he had eaten with the datus or the chieftains. What always perplexed me, was he kept saying that he had been served fish with sauce and meat with sauce.

NA: So now I’m curious too. Why is this a big deal?

FSM: I think you know, I know that sauce is a very complex, highly sophisticated dish. A sauce, you have to go through a lot of processes before the sauce comes out correct. But if you read the other kinds of food he was being served – I mean it’s just basic roasted meat, roasted fish, boiled fish – and you go, it doesn’t sound like a cooking culture that is already at the stage of development where it can make a sauce, as we formally define sauce.

FSM: So, I looked for the original and sure enough, the translation was wrong. It didn’t say “sauce”. It said “brodo” – broth. So it was fish in broth, beef in broth, which makes sense because at that point in the development of culinary techniques here, it was basic boiling. So the translation was wrong, and it was very misleading because it implies – as I said – a different level of sophistication: kitchen technology, taste, understanding a complexity of taste.

FSM: That is why sometimes when you’re researching and you’ve been doing it for a long time, you get a eureka moment and you say, “You know? That doesn’t make sense. I’ve got to go back to the original.” And that means – in this case – it was Portuguese, which I don’t speak, but I was able to find the phrase and get that translated. But sometimes that means really going back to the original Spanish, and I really sincerely believe that for those of you who want to really study things about the Philippines – not just food – you have to become proficient in the Spanish language.

NA: So while my own Spanish is really limited to what a tourist needs to know, Felice mentions…

FSM: You have to go a little deeper, so that you can read a government document, you can read a little bit of the literature, and get the meaning of it all. And remember, the Spanish language has changed – like English and Filipino – over centuries. The word change, structure changes, the spellings change. So, once you start getting used to reading printed or published Spanish, then you’ll also probably want to look into the handwritten work. And that is a totally, totally different field. You look at documents and say, “Oh my gosh! I can’t understand the writing. It’s totally, totally different.”

29:35 “It’s like being a detective”

FSM: You can find many of those original documents at the archives in Seville, where they are lovingly kept. And it’s like being a detective when one does research into history and you use actual documents or writings of a period. You’re really like a detective trying to figure it all out.

30:15 A human element to history

FSM: It’s also why it’s important that even if one is following the science of history, that one also remembers once humanities background because you need to read the literature. You need to sense the humanity. All these scientific documents, for instance, that you’re reading. It’s very important not to miss out on the human element.

FSM: So now with Google Books and all these many, many sources for online material – a lot of it being free – that is amazing. Now you can ask questions about the past, and chances are you’ll be able to find a good enough answer. And hopefully, you will start asking more questions that will lead you to, not only understanding the period, but understanding how people reacted during that period, hopefully finding what is the best in their humanity.

FSM: That’s the idea of all of this when we do any kind of research in culture. The goal is really to see if what we find will affect us. Make us assess what we found. Make us try to express – in one way or another – what all of that historical evidence is saying. Have our opinion about it. But in the end, the goal is to make us think in terms of our own attitudes, behavior, and say, “How does this improve us? What does this say? What should we avoid? What should we follow? What should we be aware of?” That’s what all of this is actually for. It’s not just finding out the origin of halo-halo, or ube, or anything like that. One has to only – I think – be a bit aware of the philosophical side of doing research.

32:42 On traditional tastes

FSM: There’s a recurring theme, Nastasha, in our baseline taste it seems. From the 1500s all the way into the 1700s and early 1800s, the observation is that Filipinos seem to like salty and sour tastes. I remember reading something very curious, which was that the common Filipino meal in different parts of the archipelago was rice with the sour juice of a leaf. So, very, very basic. The only thing that you cook is the rice. Sometimes that was accompanied by a small piece of fish. Sometimes a small piece of fish that had been salted and dried.

FSM: I actually found a slightly long list of sour leaves, and they would call the juice of these leaves “the vinegar of the poor people.” So, the list of leaves that I have, for instance, I will be sharing in the book because our innovative chefs may be able now to look into those ingredients and see if they can use those ingredients today. And those ingredients might be more reason for Filipino cuisine to be distinct in the world and attract attention. So that’s the practical application of historical research.

NA: Then there’s also the direct benefit to local communities that this kind of research provides.

34:48 Benefit to locals

FSM: The more people there are who’re interested in Philippine food, the more chefs there are that cook it – whether in an old fashion or a very contemporary way – the more desire there is for the original Philippine product. Once that happens, if that product can meet its market, then again, the ones who are raising the trees and the herbs and the raw sources – for these materials – will now be able to earn.

FSM: As a parting shot, I think it’s wonderful that there are more Filipino chefs, Filipino restaurants, that there are even non-Filipinos who are looking into Philippine food and integrating ingredients, cooking processes, Filipino dishes into their own line-up on the menu. I think this is really very, very important. Not only because of the cultural pride that it brings to Filipinos all over the world, but the fact that there is this economic benefit that can help our farmers, our fishers, and our husbandry professionals.

36:16 Catch the interest now!

FSM: You’re right in the field Nastasha where – if you’re looking for a good topic, contemporary topic – if you could even just plot the interest and the connection between the new IT technology and the spread of interest in Philippine cuisine, that in itself is an amazing topic that is going to continue. And again, it’s something that has to be caught now. I mean you got the Filipino movement page, there are all sorts of blogs that have come up, there are all sorts of resources that weren’t there. And the fact that there is that much of it, and it’s all new information, because people are only now beginning to discover or rediscover Philippine’s cuisine, that would be a very significant addition to Philippine culinary history of now. That’s going to be so significant very soon.

NA: I can’t even describe how that fills my heart with so much love and joy, to hear Felice vocalize the idea that we can, and should, start plotting our own paths to help contextualize a cuisine and a culinary heritage that we are literally still discovering ourselves. As home cooks, restaurant patrons, and people who support Philippine products and keep those food traditions alive in whatever way we can, I’m enamored by the thought that within a few short decades, we might be able to collectively pool our research together on the ingredients, cooking techniques and flavors of the Philippines to fill in the gaps in our culinary map.

NA: The best part is we’re all in this together: everyone who’s listening to this podcast and everyone who’s had some kind of hand in participating in this movement towards a greater knowledge and acknowledgment of Filipino food. It’s such an exciting time.


Today’s music is by David Szestay, Squire Tuck, Eric and McGill, and Maria Pien.

My sincerest thanks to Felice Sta. Maria for this interview. Please visit for information on Felice’s books and some extras from this episode. If you haven’t yet, please take a minute to click “Subscribe” on iTunes or your podcast app for this show. I also wanna take a second and say thanks to people who have left a review. It helps and I promise to check my episodes for dead air next time. I really do want to hear from you, so please drop me a line by searching Exploring Filipino Kitchens on Facebook or iTunes.

Thank you sincerely for listening.

This is a transcript of “Episode 04: Recording Filipino Food History With Felice Sta. Maria” (Click the episode link for the audio!)