The world’s best cuisine

Dong (pronounced as zong with a hard, downward tone) is a vegetable that is rather popular in Vietnam during winter. My friend this lunchtime boiled some, and it didn’t surprise me that the translucent-looking vegetable doesn’t taste anything, though my friend promised me it is packed with fiber (I translated to her as “roughage”) which I believe is true.

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Foods in Vietnam, like in all Southeast Asian countries, are predominantly rice-based. Pho ga and pho bo, both popular traditional Vietnamese noodles are made of rice, so are ban coun pictured below and xoi which are my staple breakfast. They’re the country’s version of a fast food because indeed they can be bought “to-go” and can be eaten conveniently while walking.

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But as somebody who grew up in the Philippines and became accustomed with dishes having both western and oriental flair, Vietnamese cuisine’s novelty is not enough make me forget about adobo, sweet-and-sour spaghetti, palabok, and other sweets. We seldom consume sweet delicacies in my place, so my sweet tooth has been half-starved all this time.

This afternoon, after my class, my craving for pasta brought me to Kim Ma Street, several meters from Daewoo hotel. I ordered carbonara and a concoction of local beer and soda which tasted not bad. I reasoned it’s the Vietnamese version of shandy. The pasta was well-done and the sauce just right. The restaurant, simply named Pepperoni, is a good value for my money, although I think that a small plate of pasta and beer for 75,000 dong is rather ludicrous for locals (and a student like me).

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A friend of mine who is the managing director of a multinational company in Singapore made a declaration that the best food in Southeast Asia can be found in Vietnam. I’m yet to confirm that, though. For food, as all other commodities are political in nature. This apparent superiority of taste is not dependent on the country of origin of the cuisine but on the class of people who consume the food. Take for example a Pho ga (chicken rice noodle) served along the side walks of Tran hung Dao which could cost between 15,000 to 25,000 dongs will taste different once it is sold inside the air-conditioned halls of Hanoi Metropole or in the Intercon with an ambiance of luxury. These taste ratings which are usually adjudged by tourists are not a reflection of the unique quality of a nation’s cuisine. In fact it mirrors the quality of a country’s tourism bureaus that aim to attract as many tourists as possible.

So the Philippine cuisine not making any mark in the international scene does not say anything about the culinary tradition of the country but the ineptitude of the Tourism Department to allow these tourists have a taste of Filipino food.

I will not make a comparison here because I’ll just turn out being biased for food in the Philippines. In fact I cannot anymore wait to eat in Jollibee and have a helping of my favorite Jolli-Spaghetti and Chicken Joy, or a bowl of La Paz batchoy in the market of Iloilo. Filipino cuisine is after all the best in the world.

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Iloilo ang banwa ko

I first heard my mother singing this song to my little sister as a lullaby. For me then, it sounded so sad, so melancholic. She sang it as if she’s been far away from home for so long a time that only being physically present in the place could her longing be quenched. And indeed she was.

Iloilo ang Banwa ko ginahingadlan
Matam-is nga pulong ang akon gin mat-an
Dili ko ikaw bulagan banwa kong nahamut-an
Ikaw ang gintuna-an sang kalipayan

Chorus:
Ilonggo ako nga tunay nga nagapuyo sa higad sang baybay
Manami magkiay-kiay sa tagipusuon bug-os nga kalipay

The other person I heard singing this song was a Japanese student from Tokyo University. She was taking up Philippine Studies with concentration on Hiligaynon and the culture of Iloilo. I was surprised because she could memorize the lyrics and sang it with almost perfect accent. Even though my parents were both in Iloilo, and I spent four years as a student and a year as an instructor in the University of the Philippines Visayas in Miagao, my accent when I speak the local language is still heavily Cebuano. In some times, some Ilonggo even mistook me as Tagalog.

I must say Iloilo charmed me. I learned to love its hot and humid atmosphere and even basked under its unforgiving sun. I love its rocky shores and how the breeze blowing from its seas burned me and bestowed on me my brown skin.

Belfry of Jaro Cathedral

Man is wired by evolution to seek for the place where he was born. It’s like an instinct such that of green sea turtles: they always go back to the exact spot where they were hatched and in that same spot lay their eggs that will continue the whole cycle. The same is true for me or for anyone who traces his root in that small patch of land in the heart of the Philippines. Iloilo has this charm that only the experience of being in the place can explain. It has this warmth that a bowl of hot La Paz batchoy can give meaning to. It has this grandeur that the churches of Molo, Miagao, San Jose, or Jaro Cathedral can expound on. It has this life and love that only an Ilonggo can let you feel.

Jeepneys along Calle Real

A walk along Calle Real will bring you back to the late Spanish era when sugar barons built impressive houses matched with intricate facades and imposing columns. These proud structures are remnants of once ruling borguoisie and the booming sugar industry that ended as soon as the second world war was concluded.

Skyline of Iloilo City

Museo Iloilo that houses artifacts and contemporary arts by Ilonggo artists

Iloilo City is not a big city in terms of land area, roughly 70 square kilometers, but it’s an urban jungle of its own that will give a newcomer a harrowing experience of its circuitous and narrow roads. Friends of mine who have been to Iloilo City told me that the city has come to a dead-end as far as growth is concerned because it simply cannot expand. And I concede. Iloilo City is one of those few Philippine cities that have maintained its unique charm. Not that is has economically stagnated, it has remained loyal to its identity. It’s a hybrid city of urban growth, cultural dynamism, and rather conservative atmosphere. This narrow strip of land boasts seven big universities that rival other good universities in the country. Its people are one of the most literate and educated in the nation.

Iloilo shaped me as individual. It was in one of its sleepy towns, in Miagao, where a big chunk of my intellectual growth took place. It has made me aware that a big world out there is awaiting for a young man like me; nevertheless, it also made me realize that the bigger challenge to conquer is how to allow dreamers like me, young students, make their own yearnings possible.

And, true to its epithet as the “City of Love” (which I used to think as very funny if not downright pathetic), it’s also where I found the love of my life.

Language has its limitation. And it has reached its limit when it attempted to describe with words this city. As for me, a man who dreams to be a citizen of the world, I may have reached countries that once I was only able to picture out in my mind, and cities I thought I could only visit in my imagination, I still would want go back to that small city in one of the islands in the Pacific and hear a Latin mass in one of its churches, eat a bowl of batchoy in Tienda Lapaz, buy 12 pieces of the most delicious bibingka in the world for 20 pesos (0.50 USD) in Tanza, or just watch a Jaro-CPU-Ungka jeep pass by.

I have not anymore heard my mother sing that song for quite a long time. After all her children, five of us, left for Iloilo to get our college degrees, and our youngest sister whom we plan to have her high school also in Iloilo, she stopped singing the song. But like any Ilonggo, I know that she also one would want to go back to that beautiful city one day.

And maybe by that time Iloilo and banwa ko will not anymore be as melancholic as I remember her singing it.

Photos courtesy of Bernardo Arellano III, a former schoolmate in UP Visayas.