FOOD EXPEDITIONS: Filipino Cuisine is Art, and Rice is the Canvas We Paint On.

Be sure to check out the accompanying gallery, The Many Faces of Filipino Rice.

Asian countries, particularly those in the South East Asian region, share a common thread – rice as the staple food, and in the Philippines, no meal is ever complete without a heaping serving of steaming hot rice – and sometimes, rice itself is made into a no-frills no-fuss meal. 

When rice (Oryza sativa) was domesticated in Asia almost 15,000 years ago, it changed the course of agricultural and culinary history forever. As it spread to other Asian regions, rice became the most versatile ingredient and component in every meal. In the Philippines alone, A Filipino consumes an average of 128 kilograms of rice annually, cementing its place in their everyday lives as the filling partner to a hearty stew, soup, fried fish, and even noodles. 

Rice is not only served as a medium to carry flavorful viands, rice itself serves as the base for many of the country’s local dishes. From breakfast to dessert, Filipinos have found a way to use these diverse varieties of grains and incorporate them in any dish. This humble crop is used as a base to soak up flavors, bake cakes, and even elevate a dish with its varying flavor profiles – rice is the canvas we paint the art of Filipino cuisine on. 

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In fact, people from all walks of life in the country view rice as essential, especially by low-income populations and households. With less than a kilogram of rice, families can easily whip up some lugaw, a Filipino version of rice congee or porridge often served with boiled eggs or chicken (which is called arroz caldo). 

Unsurprisingly, rice is also used to make desserts in the Philippines. Some take glutinous rice and cook them in coconut milk to make the sweet and sticky treat called biko (which is a rice cake topped with latik, or reduced coconut milk). Bibingka, a traditional rice cake which is often made and sold during the Christmas season, is made from glutinous rice flour, coconut milk, and sugar topped with cheese, salted eggs, butter, and coconut shavings. 

Another interesting variation of rice used in Filipino cuisine adopted from other Asian culinary cultures is making noodles called bihon out of rice flour. Bihon is somewhat similar to vermicelli noodles, but made with rice flour and water. This is often stir-fried with vegetables like cabbage, carrots, and chicken liver or chicken meat to make pancit, a Filipino party staple. 

Because rice is rich in carbohydrates and is filling, it plays a major role in every Filipino meal because it gives you enough energy to get you up and ready to face a busy day – even a famous fast food chain in the Philippines gained its massive popularity because it serves unlimited cups of rice.

Essentially, it is the lifeblood of anyone hustling the daily grind. 

Did you know?

Han dynasty records dating back more than 2,000 years distinguish between two varieties of rice, Keng and Hsien, now known as japonica (short-grained) and indica (long-grained) respectively. Research1 comparing dozens of wild and domestic strains has suggested that japonica and indica are more closely related to distinct wild varieties than they are to each other, pointing to two separate domestications: japonica in China and indica in India. 

(Callaway, E. Domestication: The birth of rice. Nature 514, S58–S59 (2014).

Rice production is one of the major agricultural livelihoods in the Philippines. It takes millions of farmers and hectares of rice farms to supply the country’s demand for rice. Rice is cultivated in various provinces in the country, in different altitudes and climate conditions. This diversity in geography and topography where they are planted resulted in the discovery of more than 300 varieties of rice with different colors (there are varieties that are red and purple!), textures, and flavor profiles. 

The possibilities are endless for rice in the Philippines. Aside from the usual white and hybrid varieties commonly seen and consumed by the majority of the population, traditional heirloom and open-pollinated varieties are making more waves now in the development of new dishes, taking contemporary Filipino cuisine to a whole new level. Filipino chefs are taking these varieties on the international culinary stage and introducing them in their dishes for other cultures to enjoy. 

This diversity of varieties and dishes made from rice is a testament to the creativity and colorful tradition where agriculture meets cuisine, and everything else in between is and endless space where Filipinos continue to find ways to use rice not just as the vehicle to deliver the viands with, but as an ingredient to enhance and elevate the flavors of a dish. 

Filipino cuisine will never be what it is today without rice, and it continues to develop and grow through the skillful and creative chefs and local cooks who do not tire of innovating and experimenting with the cuisine. As long as rice is there, it will always be the canvas that these chefs and cooks create their art on. 

WORDS: Patricia Leuterio.

IMAGE CREDIT: Elmer Domingo.

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