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Pinakbet: A cultural symbol of Filipino traits and values

Marlowe U. Aquino, Ph.D.

pinakbetIn the sphere of food and culture, a particular food is associated with culture. Why is this so? In the early days, people grew crops according to their needs. What they did not know was, they produced crops and raised animals for specific reasons. Crops are grown in small parcels of land or on one's own backyard as a ready source of fresh food. On the other hand, crops are grown to augment household finances and supplies for better farm production. Nonetheless, what is the relationship of food with culture? The way people, places and events are intertwined to describe a true Filipino trait.

What is pinakbet?

Pinakbet is a local Filipino dish complete with a variety of indigenous vegetables cooked in a big pot and seasoned with bagoong or fish sauce. Pinakbet originated in the Ilocos region (Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, La Union and Pangasinan) which is prepared specifically by true blooded-Ilocanos.

The local dish is a mixture of eggplant (either small, green round-shaped or slender purple in color), okra, bitter gourd (the small mature ampalaya), garlic, onions or shallots (locally termed as lasona), tomatoes, lima beans, string beans, green chili, and sigarillas. The Ilocanos do not place squash (kalabasa) unlike other ethnic groups cooking pinakbet. The squash distorts the taste and aroma of the vegetables, which are uniquely delectable and sumptuous. The variations in the vegetables came because of their availability and the inter-marriages that happened in the course of cuisine development.

Dish preparation

Traditionally, the vegetables are harvested at the backyard of the family. They are prepared immediately to maintain their freshness. This is associated with the local song Bahay Kubo, in which the vegetables are grown in the small lot of the farmer or family.

The vegetables are washed, sliced and chopped according to desired length and size. In most cases, these are cut and mixed together in one big clay pot. Cooking in the clay pot is believed to enhance the flavor of the vegetables. The garlic, onions and tomatoes are sautéed in a separate pan using coconut oil. As soon as these are cooked, they are seasoned with the bagoong placed on top of the mixed vegetables. The vegetable dish is made to simmer until cooked and then served immediately. The secret to delicious Pinakbet is: DO NOT OVER COOK THE VEGETABLES. The heat of the pot will do the rest. Over-cooked vegetables sag and lead to discoloration resulting to loss of vitamins and minerals.

Cultural symbolization

The pinakbet is one of the Filipino dishes that reveals a story of Filipino life and culture. During the early days, vegetables harvested in one's own farm signify openness and warmth. It provides an atmosphere of freshness and willingness to share. It gives an opportunity to discuss with other families or farmers the manner of vegetable production including the varieties used and management followed. In short, the start of production until the vegetables are cooked and served is already associated with the farmer and his/her family's as industry and generosity. Ilocanos may be questioned on their generosity but they really spend and share whatever they have that is worthy and valuable.

In addition, pinakbet is served during the farming season. The activities include land preparation, irrigation, fertilization, crop protection management, and harvesting. No household will miss serving the dish because it is believed to provide strength and vitality to the farm workers. If the farm is rich with hito (African Eel) and dalag (Mudfish), for sure the pinakbet would be sumptuous thus encouraging the farm laborers and neighbors to go and help in the farm activities.

Beyond pinakbet

Over the years, the crops have become part of the Filipino cuisine and lifestyle. In order to maintain abundance and supply, farmers started to diversify and increase their production not only for household purposes but also for other uses. Majority of dishes now include these crops as main vegetable ingredient or as garnishing. The crops can now be identified with specific places where there are Ilocanos attending to farm operations; Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur as the sources of garlic, tomato and in some instance, onions. La Union became the center of string beans and lima beans at one time. Pangasinan still maintains their eggplant, okra and ampalaya production to meet the demand of Metro Manila and nearby provinces. These places remain as the prime Ilocano pinakbet producing areas.

Presently, the need to increase production of these crops led to the launching of two major programs under the Department of Agriculture (DA). These are the Ginintuang Masaganang Ani of the High Value Commercial Crops for pinakbet to meet market demands at a lower cost and the Gulayan Para Sa Masa to address food scarcity and malnutrition in the rural and urban poor areas. These DA programs are jointly implemented with other support agencies like the local government units, rural and public health offices, state universities and colleges and financial institutions.

In implementing these programs, true Filipino values and spirit such as strong partnership and leadership are always integrated shown through cultural identification and integrity.