The Ancient Filipino Diet - Episode Transcript

Find the transcript of my interview with Dr. Ame Garong below.


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

I would like to start off this episode by saying that, there were a lots of times over the past couple months, where I’ve felt way in over my head. And that’s pretty common, right? I don’t always trust that I can figure stuff out, and when that happens, my confidence just tanks when things don’t go right.

But when they do, things can turn out really, really well. This summer I co-hosted a Filipino food tour in Toronto, where we visited three Filipino food spots in the city that were run by second-generation Filipino-Canadians. They’re really different from each other, and honestly, I loved getting to know this community!

It was fantastic getting to know these different business owners who were totally passionate about sharing Filipino food in ways they knew how to do best. The first place we visited was a fast-casual restaurant that used to be some place where you could buy groceries and send home a “Balikbayan Box.” The other was an artisan ice cream shop - you know, the kinds that sell those black ice cream cones - with lines out the door for creamy ube ice cream and polvoron pie. The third was a bar, and oh, I love bars! They make everything in-house, from noodles made with squid ink to longganisa sausages with this crazy good marbling, made with pasture-raised pigs just outside the city.

Talking to these really driven, super passionate people about the businesses that they’ve built their lives around made me realize a couple of things:

One, you really can’t take away this knack that Filipinos have for being hospitable people.

Another is that we really do want to cook this kind of food, the food we know best, for others because it is legitimately good and we want you to try it.

Third, we do what it takes to educate ourselves and our customers about the tastes and the food culture of the Philippines.

Those types of realizations, it’s pretty profound when you think about it - these guys are in their 20s and 30s, they’re people my age, and they’re doing what they can to bring that food culture forward.

All of this, in essence, drives the question that I want to answer this episode: Why do we need to know about the history of our foods, and going a little bit deeper into that, about the ancient Filipino diet?

That’s what we’re talking about this episode.

Thankfully, we’ve got the foremost authority on the subject as guest on our show today. Dr. Ame Garong, who’s a researcher of the Archeology Division at the National Museum of the Philippines, wrote a book in 2013 called “Ancient Filipino Diet.” It’s the first study of Filipino food in prehistory, before any colonizers or foreign influence arrived in the Philippines. It’s written to explore and understand the prehistoric diet of our ancestors.

Admittedly, the book itself is pretty technical, but its contents are outstanding. Today, we’re talking with Dr. Garong about her research and her experiences at the different places they visited, digging for clues to tell us what our ancestors ate. Also, kind of answering how much of this lines up with what we eat today as Filipinos both in the Philippines and outside the country.

I’ve been so excited to do this episode for some time now, so let’s get straight into it.


04:34 What it’s like to be a Philippine archeologist

NA: Dr. Ame Garong has worked at the National Museum of the Philippines for 21 years…

AG: So it’s quite a long time already that I’m working in the Archeology Division and eventually that became my career as an archaeologist. I’ve been doing lots of excavation, more on burials. My focus is more on zoological research that entails understanding food resources, subsistence of humans in general.

NA: She graduated with a zoology degree in one of the Philippines’ oldest universities, and…

AG: Originally, my intention is to be a doctor. However, I failed to achieve that ambition. Because of my frustration that I did not go to medical school, my father, who is a Methodist pastor, he suggested that why don’t I take a master course in anthropology. So I said, “why not?” Then my father said, “It’s about culture, it’s about humans, so you can know other people by studying them.” So I said, “Oh! That sounds interesting.”

05:55 How her career started

AG: And then along the way, I had a classmate who told me that the National Museum is in need of a zoologist. Since I had a zoology background, and I already had a year of anthropology courses, I decided to apply. However, at first I failed, because they only needed one, and they hired someone who had more experience.

So, again it’s another frustration. However, maybe I was destined to be an archaeologist. A month after, they called me back, informing me that there’s another position. They need a researcher, so I immediately did not think twice. I said, “Yes! I am available…”

NA: Even amongst the most accomplished people, frustration and failure can be pretty common. Despite being a subject that deals with a lot of ancient stuff, archeology in itself is a relatively new field in the Philippines.

AG: It’s like 20 years in the Philippines that we’ve had this. So, maybe not everybody knows that we are offering that course.

07:18 Early fieldwork

NA: I asked Dr. Garong about what some of her early experiences with field work was like. For example, her first excavation site was something called a “habitation site” where…

AG: What I first saw were old potteries, the remains of utensils…

NA: ...and then she got to work on a real burial site, in the province of Negros, where…

07:42 “An accident happened…”

AG: We were excavating this plaza, and they have these funerary goods, Chinese wares or ceramic goods together with the remains of the humans. Of course it’s my first time…

NA: ...and like many first times…

AG: An accident happened. There was this pebble on the ground…

NA: This is like on ground-level ground. So, technically above the actual pit where Dr. Garong and her team was busy cleaning up their latest find.

AG: ...and then there was a movement from the surface. That pebble fell on the skull of the individual and caused the skull to be broken.

NA: Oh no! I would have cried on the spot if that happened to me!

AG: My senior was shocked and I was scolded. But actually, it’s an accident. I was not really aware that there was a pebble there and something just made the movement. I don’t know because I was really engrossed in exposing the skulls, the bones. So I really felt bad after that. It was on my hand, it was under my responsibility. But that’s another lesson learned. From then on, I was so careful and always checking my square if there is something like that. I should remove it before I go down. After that, I’m a bit okay.

09:32 How do we find out what our ancestors ate?

NA: So, if we wanted to find out what our ancestors actually ate as a part of their paleo diet, where would we start? If you were someone like Dr. Garong…

AG: Since I am doing archeology, it’s far beyond the history. So, I’m focusing on diet. We use the paleo-diet analysis. NA: And far beyond the concept of a food trend even existing, this paleo diet was the real deal. That means early humans ate these foods because it’s what they knew how to prepare and consume.

AG: One of the best way to know the paleo diet of our ancestors is by using stable isotope analysis.

NA: But what exactly is stable isotope analysis? That’s pretty technical, I know. And, how does it help us identify what prehistoric Filipinos actually ate? In Dr. Garong’s book, she explains that for stuff that’s organic - think of flesh and blood and anything that goes into a green bin - the ratio of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in that organic matter tends to be stable enough, so that even thousands of years later, we can apply modern technology and scientific techniques to find out where the protein in that properly preserved sample of bones usually comes from.

AG: That’s the best way if you wanted absolute information on diet.

NA: I am totally getting flashbacks of playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” and thinking about how awesome it would be, now, to join Dr. Garong on one of these digs.

11:20 What exactly was in their paleo diet?

NA: So, what exactly were some of those foods that ancient Filipinos ate? According to Dr. Garong, she says that, “Food sources in the Philippines, especially plants, haven’t differed much then as now.” She adds that, “Plants collected for this study served as staple food since prehistoric time.”

What that means is that, it includes indigenous varieties of sugarcane, rice and millet. Meaning, ancient Filipinos knew how to grow these crops, and if you momentarily blank on what the Banaue rice terraces are – that’s pretty close to one of the sites Dr. Garong worked in – I suggest you look this up right away.

At some “newer” burial sites, they found corn that came with the Spanish galleons - a much later part of our ancestors’ diet. There were also root crops that included native varieties of taro and yams, and lots of old world bananas. Sago palm was consumed in some regions.

There were gastropods, bivalves - snails, coconut crabs, oysters – shellfish of all kinds. Prehistoric Filipinos, like many people across the world who lived in coastal areas, knew that seaweed was a delicious and really nutritious source of food. There were fish of every size, shape and color. Early ancestors of things like catfish, tilapia, mudfish, dolphin fish and flying fish that you see in some Philippine markets today. Maybe the flying fish is a bit uncommon but in rural areas they might still be around.

Across the archipelago, and especially in mountainous areas as we expected, our ancestors hunted and killed a lot of wild game, including carabao, deer and wild boar. They trapped smaller creatures like bats, civet cats, low-flying birds and other kinds of local fowl like chickens. When they learned how to domesticate animals, a lot of them learned how to herd goats and keep pigs to add to the community’s food supply. Remember, in prehistoric times, barangays, or these communities with a leader usually called the datu, were common ways the communities in the Philippines arranged themselves.

13:53 Stuff they’ve found in archaeological sites

NA: So I asked Dr. Garong if she could give us a few examples of what they found in different areas of the Philippines.

AG: In archeology, once you have decided, you will have an idea of the food resources. If you have some animals that you recovered from your excavation, and then you identify it as a bovine or pig or goat, that will give you an idea. That’s a clue of the possible food sources of those individuals. But then, it’s just a clue…

NA: Which means that a scientifically-backed isotope analysis basically trumps what we simply used to presume, were the things people ate, because we found some gnawed-out bones buried with the ancients.

AG: What I did, I used the protein to get their sources of nutrients. I extracted the collagen from the bones. I took samples from many individuals. And then, in Japan where I finished my grading, they have a laboratory where you can do everything that you need for a stable isotope analysis. So, you have to extract the collagen from the bones of those individuals and once you get the values, I need also to establish the food resources from those municipalities or areas that I use.

15:32 Batanes and ancient fish

NA: Let’s go on a trip to the Philippines. Some of the sites we visited are: Batanes, Lal-Lo in the Cagayan Valley, Benguet Province, Sta. Ana in Manila, the city capital of Cebu province, and a couple of other places.

AG: One of them is Batanes. Both the National Museum and U.P. Anthropology have excavated in that area. So that means I can get more than five individuals. I also went to Batanes to get samples of their staple food. I can also use that to gauge the value that I can get from my analysis. I went to the fishing village. They have this fish that they said they’ve used as a staple food for a long time. I interviewed elders to ask what they remember as their old food.

NA: This particular fish from Batanes is known as the arayu. It’s a type of dolphin fish that’s line-caught and really a lifeline for many, many generations of local Ivatans. This fish, which is often slung two or three at a time – they’re huge, across fishermen’s backs when they haul them in from the sea – are split down the middle, scored into equal portions, then salted and dried for a week in what can only be called “unpredictable” Batanes weather. Remember, Batanes is at the very tip of the Philippines.

NA: In Batanes these fish are either hung in a dedicated smokehouse that’s made of bamboo and palm trees just outside the kitchen in people’s backyards, or over the hearth in the kitchen, slowly smoked as they go about with their daily cooking, to last for the rest of the year. What’s amazing is, how these local fishermen, called mataw, have perfected this preparation for arayu fish over centuries. It’s such a testament to the artisanship that’s needed to preserve this kind of fish, and it just lasted through time for the very same reasons that their ancestors had this fish for a staple food.

18:07 A giant heap of shell trash in Cagayan Valley

NA: In Lal-Lo, Cagayan Valley…

AG: Going down from Batanes, I worked in Lal-Lo, Cagayan Valley for 10 years from ’95 to 2005. Lal-Lo is very famous for its shell midden. It’s made of freshwater shells. The locals they call it kabibe. We found some burial sites in the shell midden…

NA: …and this shell midden, as Dr. Garong describes it, is basically a large trash heap of discarded shells from sea creatures. They were thrown into this huge pile by generations of prehistoric Filipinos in the Cagayan Valley. Over time, these prehistoric garbage dumps basically also became burial sites. The dead were laid to rest above this layer of shells, and then finally much later on, they were also buried under layers of fine, silty clay that flowed down the river from the mountain ranges up north.

AG: You can see how our ancestors relied on this Cagayan river by gathering and collecting the shells as their food - for the meat - and they just threw it in the riverbank, and it piled up.

NA: And here, Dr. Garong says, some of these shell deposits can get up to 10 feet deep. While some other sites are from the 16th century, and some have been dated to come from as far back as the neolithic period – that’s when people learned how to use metal tools like shovels and axes to domesticate crops and herd animals – this neolithic period in our global history is also widely considered the beginning of farming.

AG: So, that’s the shell midden along the Cagayan river. That is really very interesting.

NA: I’ll say! It’s easy to forget a lot of the history that literally lies under our feet.

One question that stumped Dr. Garong and her Japanese colleagues, though, has to do with what they found after examining those human bones that were at the top of this shell pile. Remember, there’s the 10-foot layer of discarded shells, and then above that were human bones from ancient grave sites. Those human bones must’ve had traces, in somewhat large quantities, of all the shellfish they ate, right? But...

AG: We found out that those who got the shells, they did not eat the shells. Instead, they make the salted kabibe - salted meat - and then it’s like preserved food. Then, they will sell it.

NA: So, all that work that our ancestors did to harvest the shells and extract the meat, turns out that wasn’t even for their own consumption. Instead, it was to make preserved oyster meat, that may have been traded with inland communities or early seafarers that traveled along the Philippine peninsula, possibly going all the way to China, possibly even in encouraging the development of oyster sauce. Mind blown!

21:29 “Tinapa” mummies in Benguet

NA: In Benguet province…

AG: They have this ritual that will last for a year. It’s removing all the muscles, the fat of the individual, like tinapa.

NA: Tinapa is a Tagalog term for smoked fish. Traditionally it’s made with scad or milkfish. It’s salted or brined, hung out to dry and finally, smoked. Tinapa taste intensely of the sea, and I kind of love them ’cos they look like little sun gods basking in their golden brown glow, especially when they’re all laid out in these neat circles on a woven tray called bilao.

AG: All you can see is the skin. It’s only in Cagayan where we can find the practice.

NA: So these mummies in Benguet province, the ones that are found in wooden boxes, have been dried and preserved in a process similar to smoked fish. I wonder if these practices are connected.

In Manila…

AG: If we go to Manila, we have this Sta. Ana site. It’s close to the Pasig river, actually, and based from my studies they utilized the Pasig river for their food.

22:50 Why Cebuanos love corn

NA: In Cebu...

AG: If you go to Visayas area, we have the Bolho-on.

NA: That’s in the province of Cebu. And here’s an interesting thing. If you ask native Cebuanos about some of their favorite foods, no doubt a large chunk of them will swear by corn. But have you ever wondered why is that so?

AG: They cannot grow rice. That’s why they like mais or corn, and millet.

NA: According to what Dr. Garong’s research uncovered, despite being so close to water, most of the human bones they found were actually not composed of sea creatures, but instead largely of plants that are called “C4 plants.” In the book she identifies these as rice, corn and millet. So what we can surmise is that in pre-colonial times, dating back to the same metal age of those shells up in the Cagayan valley, indigenous people in Cebu grew millet. Over time though, rice became a staple crop in other regions of the Philippines and never really took hold in Cebu because the soil was mostly made of limestone, and rice simply don’t grow well on limestone soil.

Later on, when the Spanish brought corn to the Philippines, that’s when locals realized that corn loved this kind of soil and growing environment. So, mais thrived and never left the Cebuanos’ diet.

Next, I wanted to know: what were some challenges that Dr. Garong and her team came across?

24:51 Challenge #1: Time and thieves

AG: If it’s already past 5:00 pm, we need to stop our digging, our excavation. Before you remove and recover all the materials, including the bones, you have to properly expose it. Our scientific illustrator needs to draw the whole structure or the whole skeleton, including the artifact, together with the human remains.

NA: So, as Dr. Garong tells us about her early digs, they’d go about their work and, at the end of the day, cover up the site they’d started digging, for the night.

AG: Actually we’re not really that cautious because we thought that the local people, who used to watch us during the day...would protect that. We’re doing archeology and we’re doing lectures in the schools.

NA: But, then…

AG: The next day when we returned, somebody did the excavation and they removed the ceramics. So, from then on I started to gauge, to have the sense of time. We really need to estimate whether we can still finish or not.

NA: So basically, as soon as they see hints of a new layer of bones - if it’s close to 4 or 5 pm, at the end of their day – they realized that it was safer to leave the site undisturbed for the night. Because once you start working on it, you can’t really go back. You gotta keep those bones and artifacts away from extreme exposure to harsh winds or humidity. Then, the illustrators and photographers they have on the team have to document where everything is in relation to the skeletons and other markers that they’ve found. So, you have to actually do the work of carefully excavating these items that are hundreds of years old.

AG: So, it’s better if you have the whole day, the whole time to do it. Then at five o’clock you have this peace of mind that you don’t worry that other people might be doing “archeology” at night...whoever has this negative feeling about archeology. So it happens, always.

NA: I could say it breaks my heart to hear that, but in reality, I prefer being optimistic. The core of the problem is that locals see this group of scientists digging about their land. Maybe they don’t fully understand what people find so interesting in a pile of bones. But what they do know is that sometimes, these digs unearth pottery, and they know how to make money from that, in some way.

28:11 Challenge #2: On rituals and religion

AG: When it comes to burial, it’s very sensitive. You need to be an anthropologist. You need to observe if they have some rituals that they perform for burying their loved ones.

Even though I am a Christian, I am a Methodist, in my faith - we pray. In other communities, in other ethnic groups, they have their own ways di ba (don’t they) of remembering the dead.

NA: So in every community that they visit for a dig…

AG: I ask somebody to pray, like a shaman. I will ask if someone can lead us, so in that way, we are making ourselves visible to the community, in a way trying to adopt in their practices.

NA: They provide offerings of food, sometimes cigarettes and liquor…

AG: And after that, once we do the excavation, I always invite people to visit us.

NA: They found it’s a way of educating people, and…

AG: Telling them that we’re trying to recover it carefully, not to destroy it, because we need to study them. And after, they will be brought to the museum for proper storage. Prior to that, we will try to study them first and hear if they have other things to tell us beyond the historical aspect. Nobody can tell us unless we try to dig it. So, that’s the only way we will know how our ancestors lived during those times.

NA: To many of us, that probably sounds a little archaic, but it’s a reality that researchers like Dr. Garong face, working in remote and deeply rural communities in the Philippines.

And this leads into…

30:33 Challenge #3: A lack of knowledge and involvement

AG: The community, they’re always there in their community. But the National Museum only goes there for a month. After that we will go back to our office. But it’s the community who will protect whatever heritage we can tell them that they have.

NA: I just want to add here that “telling locals of the heritage they have” in this context, means explaining how and why archeology is important, why it matters. For Dr. Garong and her team, who work with a respect for local communities front and center, it’s not about “stamping out” beliefs or even falsifying an ideology that’s been in place for hundreds of years.

When outsiders come in to make changes or propose a new way of doing things, naturally they’re met with resistance, and that’s common anyplace in the world. The study of anthropology in itself, deals so much with this really complex way that humans behave.

But what’s important is getting locals on board with that basic need to keep these kinds of sites undisturbed. This kind of involvement…

AG: We’re protecting the cultural aspect. It’s really important also. So they should know and they should also be informed that they should not ruin it or do something bad. Instead, they have to really protect it, kasi (because) it’s part of our heritage, and that’s the only way we will know our past.

NA: And with this approach, Dr. Garong hopes that…

AG: The community will understand and be familiar with what we are doing. They can also report to us if they’ve seen those materials already, and we can check and we can explore. So, it will also add information for the National Museum.

NA: …and by extension, the body of knowledge in Philippine archeology as a whole.

32:56 What’s next?

NA: “So, what’s next?” I asked Dr. Garong.

AG: Actually, Nastasha, it’s my dream to continue the isotopic analysis and to reveal more of the resources.

NA: In addition to building a body of research on ancient Filipinos and how they lived, this stable isotopic analysis…

AG: It can also reveal environmental situations or conditions.

NA: …in other words, it gives us information about what the country’s climate and geography used to be like. And combined with modern day research, this helps scientists better understand how to tackle the big questions that we face today, like how climate change affects farming, fishing, and everyday life in the Philippines.

AG: Hopefully I can still continue doing this in the future. There are still other sites that can be explored with this kind of research. At the moment, I’m still working with other burial sites in Negros and still working, with understanding the funerary practice in the Philippines during prehistoric times.

There’s still a lot to study about the practices of burying our loved ones and other analysis that can be done, like ancient DNA, that’s also one of my dreams.

NA: And working on ancient DNA, I just discovered, is an actual thing.


My warmest thanks to Dr. Ame Garong for speaking with us for this interview and answering all the questions I had about the Ancient Filipino Diet. I hope you learned as much as I did in the process of researching for this episode.

Music for this episode is by David Szestay, that’s his music you hear in the opening and closing credits of the show, “Gillicuddy” and “Blue Dot Sessions.” Visit to hear from these artists and more.

My special thanks to Rajiv at “The Kitchen Bookstore” for connecting me with Dr. Garong. If you’d like to get a copy of “Ancient Filipino Diet,” visit and head over to their Filipiniana section to order. They’ve got some amazing titles.

Finally, if you’ve come this far, I do wanna ask you a favor. I would really, really appreciate a short review on iTunes. That helps me reach more listeners and in turn, gets more people get to hear about these awesome stories of food in and from the Philippines.

As always visit or find “Exploring Filipino Kitchens” on Facebook for updates.

See you next month at maraming salamat - thank you, for listening.

This is a transcript of "Episode 08: The Ancient Filipino Diet With Dr. Ame Garong" (Click the episode link for the audio!)