By Penelope A. Domogo, MD
I have fond memories of canned goods. To be specific, canned meat & fish products – there were Rosebowl sardines in tomato sauce, Hokkaido mackerel, Target corned beef. Corned beef was a prized item and only came out of the cupboard when we had an important visitor at home. But I remember the finger-licking goodness of Rosebowl sardines, especially if mixed with miki, and I loved the Hokkaido just boiled with chopped sayote. I looked forward to the times when my parents had “agag” (day laborers) because our supper would be miki (large noodles) with palpalay ( a legume) or sayote and yes! sardines. These canned foods were so valued then that we would put the just emptied corn beef can over the fire to melt the left-over curdled lard (ugh!) on the side. We would rinse the cans with hot water and include the rinse water in our viand. The cans were then placed, not to the canal or anywhere, but to a special pit dug near our house just for cans. My parents’ generation certainly knew zero waste & proper waste management.
As more and more relatives went overseas, we had Spam and more corned beef. And as the Philippines joined the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and opened local markets to make foreign products affordable, we had fried dace and maling. I wasn’t particularly fond of frankfurters, thank goodness. Nor was pork and beans appealing (uh, uh). No no to local products way back then. In that era of my life, I wasn’t patriotic when it came to food. As I grew wiser and had a family of my own, we turned fans of Youngstown.
Well, those were the days and the corned beef and other canned meat products are now my past loves- you can give me a can of the fanciest corned beef and I won’t be tempted to open it even if I were hungry.
An Igorot lady who worked for a couple in the US recounted her experience with canned food. One time she cooked corned beef for the couple only to be told that that is poison and only eaten in the warzone. It then dawned on me that that must be how canned foods got popularized. There had been a series of world wars and governments must have taken pity on the soldiers out there fighting. And well, industry took over and got the whole world eating canned goods even if there are no wars and there are fresh foods all around. Many of us know of the famous barrio apology to visitors “Anusan yo daytoy manok a ta awan ti sardinas.” (“Please make do with this stewed chicken as we don’t have sardines.”) Awww…
The problem with canned meat is the preservatives mixed with it to make it taste good and look good when you open it even years after it was sealed. Shouldn’t we wonder why corned beef or luncheon meat is that tasty when we know that meat spoils easily. Meat will keep if we “etag” it properly and the pig is organic. But “etag” is heavily salted and smoked and sun dried – all natural ways of preserving, which are not done to the canned corned beef. The original corned beef was just beef preserved in brine – water mixed with “corns” of salt (pellets of coarse salt some of which were the size of corn kernel). Much like our “inasin” but instead of pork, it’s beef. But that was in the past. With mass food production, however, food processors now add more preservatives of questionable safety like sodium nitrate/nitrite, also named prague powder or saltpeter or “salitre”. This chemical preserves the pink color of meat and inhibits the growth of some bacteria to a certain degree. Many food processors even add vetsin or MSG and other chemicals. Canned goods, in general, have the risk of being contaminated with the dangerous bacteria that causes botulism. So I think the term “canned goods” is a misnomer because they are not generally “good”- let us just call these “canned foods”.
Preserving fish is easier – and you see the product as real fish, not some mushy substance that claims to be meat. And there is no pink or red color of the fish to preserve so sodium nitrite is not used. With industry trying to outdo each other in terms of quality, some fish canners do their canning out there in the sea while the tuna is freshly caught. And there are now a lot of healthier choices of canned fish like tuna in brine or tuna in oil. Watch out for the varieties which load on other additives like vetsin/MSG. If you want adobong tuna, I recommend you make your own adobo and do not add vetsin.
Oh yes, I also had a love affair with canned fruit – especially fruit cocktail (canned peaches were out of my budget and I could only taste it during seminars). We mixed this cocktail with cooked macaroni, smothered it with mayonnaise, condensed milk and cream and mixed it with cheese into what we call “salad”. I don’t know of anything further from the real thing. This was really funny because, being in the Philippines, we have fresh pineapple and papaya which actually is what the canned “cocktail” contains. Oh, well, there was a half piece of red cherry and a few green grapes and a few tiny slices of mango, I think.
Times have changed, and so do tastes. There is now a growing worldwide movement for healthy diets – meaning less meat and less sugar, less processed food, more rice or other grains and more vegetables, fresh food. Of course, business is there to supply what the public demands. Although there are still my past loves in the grocery shelves, there are now exciting healthier choices. We now have a diverse array of canned vegetables – mushrooms, peas, bamboo shoots, coconut milk, olives, kidney beans. Canned vegemeat is also very available. Watch out, though, for their high salt content as they are preserved in salt. Some even contain MSG or vetsin so always read the labels before eating. Some vegemeats are also sugared.
There is also the safety question of Bisphenol A (BPA) found in the epoxy resin lining aluminum in tin cans, including infant formula cans. Moms, take note.
Well, it’s not only consumers who are health-conscious. There are enterpreneurs who also care for the world and the Philippines is not wanting in them. Dipolog City in down south Zamboanga Del Norte has a vibrant industry of bottling fish- I love the Montano Spanish-style sardines. You can choose from sardines in olive oil, corn oil, tomato sauce.
Still, these are processed and nothing beats the fresh catch and freshly-picked. So occasional is the word – like when somebody travels south, get her or him to buy you bottled sardines, rather than durian candy. Well… after lockdown.****
“Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears, but fail to hear?” – Mark 8:18**