This group is trying to get native vegetables back on the table


Farming is not a get rich quick scheme

Filipinos aren’t eating enough vegetables, and one group is out to change that.

Chef Laorence Castillo is one of the founders of Gulay Na, an organization that focuses on Filipino food heritage advocates for  food biodiversity and food sovereignty.  
The group started last year among common friends. “We [had] a common goal of promoting food heritage, food security and a plant-based diet.”

Gulay Na conducts community cooking activities  as a platform to inform and celebrate Filipino cuisine. “We thought that it shouldn’t just be food knowledge, but the idea of our food culture as involving the community,” he said in Taglish. 

He cites fiestas and other celebrations as examples of meal preparation that requires community effort. “That’s what's behind our objective. Not just a simple demo cooking, but a  multi-sensory experience where people actually cook. Even if you don’t cook, you can involve yourself because your community can foster a fast transfer of knowledge. Since last year, we've been doing a lot of community cooking, aside from pop up and other activities.”

These activities not only promote community cooking, but also highlight native produce, especially those that are hard to find or are at risk of disappearing from the Filipino plate altogether. “The generation now isn’t familiar with these ingredients, and there are many factors,” he explained. “There’s a lack of transfer of knowledge and accessibility to these ingredients, but bigger than that is because of the decline of health in our environment… many Philippine flora have become endangered, and that’s why they’re disappearing… If we're not going to do our part now, not only will they be gone from our knowledge, they’ll really be gone from our country.”

Gulay Na chooses to use native  plants because they “are a manifestation of our abundance. These plants have been naturally growing in our environment…. They’re climate resilient and we think that they're the key to our food security and at the same time, [they] will liberate us from dependence from imported products and…  from the dominant food system, which is unhealthy and does not benefit our nation as a whole.”

He rattled off a list of native ingredients that he regularly uses in his community activities, “Sapinit (Rubus rosifolius Linn), calumpit (Terminalia microcarpa), [and] different  nuts like ibuli (Cubilia cubili),” before adding that “most people know them as places or streets, but they’re actually plants and fruits.”

Gulay Na believes that the best way to reintroduce these native ingredients into the current diet is through incorporating them into tasty dishes with the hopes that it will build a demand for these ingredients so that farmers, smallholder farmers especially, can continuously cultivate these crops to save them from extinction. 

This can involve educating food sellers on their potential. “We did workshops on how to utilize these ingredients,” which has resulted in products like sapinit, lipote (Syzygium polycephaloides or Syzygium curranii), and panocha (a fudge or caramel-like candy that’s also used as a sweetener) flavored ice cream.

But the easiest way to preserve these native plants is to keep them in our foodways. “The most important thing [the regular Filipino can do] is to eat [them]. Make them a part of their daily diet and take pride in doing [so].”

Taking pride in native ingredients is just as important for conservation as consuming them. “There’s a tendency to belittle our local ingredients and our local cuisine…, when in fact we have to be very proud of these dishes because [they] reflect our natural abundance. [They] reflect our culture [of]  being creative as Filipinos. [They] reflect our culture of sharing food together [and], of being helpful to one another.”

An example of a native ingredient that’s still easy to find is the local tomato, usually called kakamatisan or kinilabasa, the latter because of its squash-like shape. 

“For example, the Quezon City local government is promoting organic agriculture in urban farming, and our plea is to introduce more native plant species in their urban gardens.”
Gulay Na also partners with other organizations to hold events. They just concluded their first Gulay Pa More! fiesta held in UP Diliman, which was organized in partnership with Good Food Community, MASIPAG (Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura), Lokalpedia, and PRESENT Coalition (Poverty Reduction through Social Entrepreneurship.) 

The event celebrated Philippine culinary heritage and the abundance of ingredients, native, endemic, and introduced those that are vulnerable and/or elusive. It also aimed to build a community and  build linkages between farmers,  consumers, and advocacy groups. 

Castillo stresses the importance of community building. “We have no ownership of the advocacy. We really want to involve as many public and private groups [as possible] so that we can really build a sustainable food system that will benefit our planet, our people, and our communities.”