The adobo police state

Why standardizing food can be a good thing. And no, it’s not an attack on lola’s cooking

ADOBO DEBATE The hot question of the week, 'Should the quintessential Philippine stew and other Pinoy dishes be standardized?'

When I first read the news that the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) would standardize the adobo recipe, I joined the tons of netizens laughing at its seeming ridiculousness.

I imagined tossing tsukemono into my adobo would be immediately followed by the front door being wrecked by a PNP-SWAT team, my still-salty hands being cuffed as they drag me away to Bilibid.

Social media is a dry forest waiting for a single match to start a wildfire and boy did it burn when this latest spark was flicked. The algorithm gods, however, seemed to be on the side of nuance and clear-headedness when a little-engaged post from a mutual showed up on my timeline asking if standardizing adobo was really a bad thing, opining that Korea and Thailand respectively standardized kimchi and pad thai, helping their presence on the world stage.

And this wasn’t simply a case of filing a proposal to the ISO, but moves fraught with diplomatic barriers. Kimchi for one was contested by China, as it tried to subsume it into its standardization of pao cai, as reported by the Korea Herald in November 2020.

The same article mentions that a standard kimchi recipe was recognized by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in 2001 and then designated as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

Meanwhile, pad thai has the same weight for Thai identity, as it was a dish borne in a time of political turmoil, when the Thai government faced constitutional change and the looming shadow of World War II as Western powers tried to sway the country under their respective influences.

Admittedly, Thailand had to resort to fascist policies to deal with the instability of the day, and the dish was derived (some say appropriated) from the cuisine of its minority migrant Chinese community.

And while the debate rages on today if Thailand had to do what it did in the early 20th century, there’s no denying that standardizing pad thai proved to be a form of soft power that protects Thai identity today.

Identity is not just a process of defining what we are, but also what we are not.

A comment on the same post acknowledged that while countries like France and Italy needed to protect their champagne and parmigiano recipes, these are for the economies of the specific regions where they were produced, arguing that adobo was “not as unique” that it warranted such special protections.

UBE JAM The purple yam originates from the Philippines, and is essentially a sweet potato normally used in other Filipino desserts

But is this true? Mexico has its own adobo recipe. And a foodie friend shared that they happened across an American cookbook that suggested Filipino adobo was made of pork, seafood, corn, tomato sauce, pineapple, and several ingredients minus the soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and bay leaf.

Remember how ube became viral worldwide before the pandemic? Some Filipinos screamed “cultural appropriation!” and now that the DTI is trying to do something about that, here we are, bashing them.

Another (and admittedly more urgent) argument levied against the DTI’s plan was its timeliness given the current global pandemic and rising food (and pork!) prices, wondering why resources and time had to be diverted to such an endeavor.

Well, with that reasoning, the Film Development Council, the Philippine Sports Commission, and the Commission for Culture and the Arts should all be defunded to funnel funds and manpower to the COVID response, but we don’t see that happening.

Instead, we saw the Trese series going viral in countries around the world, Filipino filmmakers continuing to hold workshops for students not just in the Philippines but the region, all as our athletes qualify for the Olympics.

Of course, there is a fine line between callous ostentatiousness and necessary “unessential” work, but I’d like to believe this move by the DTI skews toward the latter. This isn’t a case of “let them eat cake.”

If anything, all this hullabaloo about marinated dishes hints at a growing international interest in Filipino food and culture. In the grander scheme of things, cuisine too acts as a form of diplomacy, of staking out a nation’s unique contributions to the world.

I remember a scene back in college with friends who were sharing about future plans on the eve of our graduation. One guy was insecure that his choice to focus on film and culture was not contributing as much as the other aspiring writers in our batch who wanted to do “hard news.”

Eventually, he arrived at the conclusion that while certain issues in the world always seemed to compete against each other for urgency, that’s not necessarily true. I’d like to believe everyone, from healthcare workers to culture workers, is doing their part for the whole.

The nation is facing a pandemic and rising poverty, all exacerbated by a very polarized political climate. But there are good things too. If anything, all this hullabaloo about marinated dishes hints at a growing international interest in Filipino food and culture. In the grander scheme of things, cuisine too acts as a form of diplomacy, of staking out a nation’s unique contributions to the world.

Special thanks to Marco Javier for additional research.