Homecoming: Food and country

By Harold Clavite

Sometimes all you need to appreciate home is a change of perspective.

Working for the private sector and the United Nations in New York, I spent close to seven years away from the country that raised me. On any other occasion, to have built a family in another country and then be called back for a job in the Philippines would have been a tough setup. But when I got the post of Director-General at the Philippine Information Agency, I could not pass the opportunity of returning home and using my skills and experience to serve my people.

Being the head of the government’s development communication arm that advocates grassroots involvement and proactive participation in public information, I constantly have to go around the country to ensure the right information is coursed through proper channels to reach out to communities. For more than 30 years, PIA had established working systems and, for decades, served its mandate of providing timely, accurate, and relevant information to the public. Looking at these systems and introducing innovations and new thrusts, I got the opportunity to get to know the Philippines better. My constant engagement with PIA local teams, stakeholders, and the communities we serve allow me to understand my birth right a lot better.

And what better way to get to know your roots than through food? The Philippines’ long and eventful history, as well as its ageless customs, are reflected by its cuisine. Almost every town in the archipelago has its own specialty and different ways of preparing popular dishes.

When I think about delicacies that are exclusive to certain areas, the curacha of ZamBaSulTa (Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) immediately comes to mind. My first encounter with this exotic dish, popular to locals and known by people who have been to this area, goes way back to 2001 when I worked and lived as a community worker in the island of Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. Curacha means “cockroach” in chavacano, but don’t be put off by the name—this crustacean is much meatier and tastes just as juicy as your regular crab. It has its special savor that would make one crave and long for it.

Fulfilling my duties in western Mindanao has led me to try this special meal once again, this time at Alavar’s in Zamboanga City, which undoubtedly serves the best variant. Their ginataang curacha, or curacha in coconut milk, is drizzled with the secret Alavar sauce, a mixture of aligue and spices that makes the already flavorful dish even more delectable. This special sauce has become popular itself with more people ordering them separately to take them home or bring as ‘pasalubong.’

If you’re looking for a much more affordable and easier-to-eat meal around this part of the region, look no further than the satti of the Zamboangeños. If it sounds familiar, it is because you might have heard it said in another way: ‘satay,’ a variant of Malaysian barbecue. Satay comes from the Hindu-Arabic word shatein, which means “food of Satan” and is an apt image for its traditional red spicy sauce. The satti draws its inspiration from this, albeit only uses three strips of chicken, pork or beef on skewers. Contrary to most street food in Manila which areserved in the late afternoon, satti shops offer breakfast and are open as early as 4 a.m. for those looking for an early kick in their morning routine.

Through one of our information dissemination platforms, we have showcased several delectable meals prepared in unique and different manner from several locations in the country. In 2017, we launched “Like ‘Pinas,” a magazine TV show that highlights the many reasons to like Pilipinas. The show is committed to highlight good news and positive stories of national and local governments that are actually making a difference and changing lives of people.

These high-impact projects affect the very lives of ordinary Filipinos and deserve to be told in a massive scale. Behind every negative news being fed to the Filipino audience on a daily basis through traditional and new media, there are hundreds of these success stories that truly uplift the lives of our people. In this same show, we highlight the amazing people, community, and food in barangays, municipalities and cities.

This way, we also get to tell the story, hard work, passion, and dedication of government and non-government workers as they serve Filipino communities. On its maiden year, Like ‘Pinas was nominated as Best Adult/Cultural TV Show in the 2017 Catholic Mass Media Awards and very recently, the show won in the 2018 Anak TV Awards. Like ‘Pinas is now on its 3rd season and runs every Sunday, 3PM via GMA News TV and in more than 50 countries worldwide through GMA International.

To complement this broadcast platform, we are launching this month of December the Good News ‘Pinas webcast, a collection of more good news and stories including programs and services of government that a lot of people need to know more about.

This is only one of PIA’s many tasks: to put on a spotlight on the treasures we have like the success stories in communities, government programs and services, and the prominent qualities and best attractions of our provinces— good food and exotic dishes included, among other important elements of the various cultures we have.

Just recently, we launched the Kalinaw Kultura at different stops in Mindanao. Kalinaw means “peace” in Cebuano, a prevalent language in Mindanao, and is the perfect word for what we wanted to show to the rest of the Philippines— that Mindanao is a peace-loving land, and that we must celebrate its rich and diverse culture. Alongside the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and local government units, we brought this platform to promote peace through culture in the cities of Iligan, Butuan, Zamboanga, Koronadal, and Davao.

In last week’s launch in Davao City, we engaged with the city government and highlighted the city’s thrust and support to enhancing and preserving the moro and lumad cultures that happily co-exist with the majority Christian population in this part of the country. The Kadayawan Tribal Village, managed by the City Tourism Office, is a manifestation of the local government’s commitment to build stronger communities by taking care of its people’s beliefs and culture, an epitome of a culturally sensitive local governance.

One of the best representations of ‘peace through culture’ is the T’boli of South Cotabato, a tribe immersed in a peaceful way of life, undisturbed by the rapidly changing urban scenery around them. During the launch of Kalinaw Kultura in Koronadal last month, we visited T’boli and spent a day interacting and learning from the locals who served us their native roasted chicken dish, called the heklafak, among other locally prepared delicacies and sweets. I have to admit, it was wonderfully prepared and tasted really good.

I’m going to come clean here: I am a native of Mindanao myself, particularly from the town of Baroy in Lanao del Norte and a fan of Mindanao food. But while I’ve talked mostly about the cuisine of the south, I also had the opportunity to discover several other dishes and acquainted to some of the most loved “tatak Pinoy” food items in the country.

At this point, I would be remiss if I don’t mention one of the most iconic Filipino dishes— the lechon. For so many Pinoy non-Muslim families, lechon is known to be the “bida” in every special occasion, but not as much as it is in Cebu. One of the most developed places in the country, Cebu also happens to offer best-tasting lechon. Constantly innovating their specialty, Cebuanos are already popularizing a new variation of the dish— the spicy lechon, which has caught my attention and could easily become an all-time favorite Pinoy special. You can imagine the amount of chili they put on every lechon which gives a really sharp, spicy taste in every bite that comes with the same pleasurable original distinct flavor of the world-famous Cebu lechon.

For Manileños, La Loma, Quezon City is a popular spot for getting lechon within the Metro, and going back to the south, the cities of Iligan, Cagayan de Oro, and Butuan also share their distinct taste and local lechon flavor. My hometown, Baroy, is also home to the best-tasting lechon in the area. Every June of each year, the people of Baroy would parade around town for the Lechon Festival, one of the rarest occasions where lechon is practically everywhere.

The South does offer a lot of captivating dishes, but there are more stories one can draw from food than merely describing their taste and process. I have one such story further up north, where I would meet more Filipinos who have made us proud; not only with inspiring stories, but with their kitchen acumen as well.

Baguio City in the Cordilleras is a famous tourist destination in the Philippines, as it is much colder than the rest of the country. Aside from the Insta-worthy mountain view, the city has also become a foodie paradise. One of the residents joining this booming scene is Ms. Vicky Tinio-Clemente, who has turned her home into a restaurant she named Mama’s Table.

Clemente, a banker and paralegal by trade, is living proof that it is never too late to pursue your dreams. Only at age 50 did she decide to become a chef— learning at no less than the New York Culinary Institute. Thankfully, she brought her world-class skills back to the Philippines, where she now serves the most amazing French cuisine I have ever experienced.

I would like to think Ms. Clemente and I have our hearts in the same place. Both of us lived in and experienced New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world. It is very easy to be charmed by the so-called American dream, seemingly the center of everything. Alas, going back and serving our own people gives a different, much warmer feeling that no New York minute can provide.

The Philippine Information Agency continues to commit not only to public service, but more importantly, to empowering every Filipino to be involved and care more about their country. It is time for us to realize that no matter how many problems come our way, we were born to a gem of a country. You don’t really need to have a change of perspective to appreciate it— just look at the food we eat, and how good it makes us feel to taste something we our own hands created. Like our parents would tell us to never waste food on the table, let us not waste this beautiful country we’re lucky to call home.

The author is director general of the Philippine Information Agency and a native of Mindanao.


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