Acclaimed US-based restaurateur and Filipino food advocate explains why culture is jut as important to farming as soil and water.

 

By Yvette Tan

To eat is to have a stake in agriculture, whether one realizes it or not. “I really feel very strongly that our food cannot be separated from the source—from the farmers, from nature, and from all the people who have been cooking it for ages,” Amy Besa, Filipino food advocate and co-chef and co-owner of Purple Yam Filipino restaurants in New York and Malate, says. “Those are the elements that are needed to be looked at if you want to say something meaningful about this cuisine.”

Besa, and many like her, believe that giving importance to a crop or livestock’s sense of place will help uplift it in the market. It’s why grapes from a certain area of France are prized, or why beef from a certain area in Japan can command high prices.

Terroir: Personality by Way of the Land

This is called terroir: the valuing of a crop based on where and how it was grown. Originally used in reference to grapes used in wine, the use of the term has spread to other site-specific agricultural products as well.

“I’ve always valued terroir. In fact, several years ago, IRRI had an heirloom rice project and me to go and talk to them. And I started talking to them about terroir. They adopted it and they use that now to promote heirloom rice,” Besa says. “You can have the same variety of rice but you grow it in all of those five different provinces, they will all taste different. And also the way it was grown and harvested and hulled and polished and how. It’s handled, it will all be different. To me, that is terroir.”

Territorio: Terroir, and then Some

Besa recently discovered territorio, an Italian term also connected with wine that expresses the concept of “terroir plus culture, tradition, and identity.”

There are four aspects to the concept of territorio: place, culture, tradition, and identity. “Every area will have very specific characteristics in what they grow. Even the microorganisms that grow in that soil. They all affect the flavor of whatever grows there. That’s the concept of terroir,” she says, before further expounding on territorio: “Beside that sense of place and microclimate, you also include the foodways—how people eat and drink in that particular area. You take that into consideration, and that’s what makes that food taste good.”

Bringing Back the Indigenous

Besa also stresses the importance of using indigenous crops and products—plants and agricultural products that grow in one’s locality and that used to flavor the dishes of old. “They’re good, they taste delicious, they’re very healthy, and for me, they embody the flavors of our environment and that is the taste of Filipino food,” she says. “If you really say ‘I want to understand Filipino food,’ you need to go to the rural areas and see what grows around us and what’s edible because that’s the flavor of our soil. That’s ours. I’m proud of that.”

Examples of these include native vinegars and sea salts, heirloom rice and native grains like adlai; and greens like talinum, pansit-pansitan, and cosmos flowers. “I wish we could bring back the palm sugars because they’re all extinct,” Besa muses. “But I think a lot more people now are using coco sugar and coco nectar, which is fantastic.”

Interest Abroad, Interest Back Home

Interest in Filipino cuisine is at an all-time high, with Filipino food hitting the mainstream dining scene overseas. This is a great opportunity to introduce both local and foreign audiences to Filipino ingredients beyond those used in the usual sisig and lumpia—it’s a chance for everyone to discover and/or reacquaint themselves with delicious regional produce like kadios from Ilocos, batwan from Negros, and even the balimbing that everyone used to just pick off trees around Metro Manila, and the culture and foodways that surround them. In short, our very own territorio.

“I think if people start interacting with their food once you start understanding that there are names for different varieties—and isn’t it great if you can identify those—then life is a little more rewarding and more layered and substantial,” Besa says. “You only go through life once, but if you choose to go through it ignoring all the good things around you, then you’re losing a lot.”