Why indigenous cuisine is healthy
By Penelope A. Domogo, MD
Sometime ago, I had a lively discussion with Atty. Alex Bangsoy and his lovely wife about indigenous Igorot cooking. He almost couldn’t believe that, traditionally, we, Igorots just boiled vegetables with a little salt and ate this with boiled rice. “Not even adobo?”, he asked in wonder. I hope the good attorney does not take offense that I share this conversation because it shows how alienated our young people are to our indigenous culture. Alex grew up in Manila but it is good that he brings his family to the “ili” to discover their indigenous roots and that’s how we met again.
Before the advent of machines, all people in the world lived by what nature provided in their surroundings. There was no choice- even if you wanted “inti” (raw sugar) and you lived in New York, then no can do, you settle for coffee without sugar. Likewise, even if my grandfather wanted apple and he lived in Besao, he just would have to settle for banana. That was in 1800 or even in 1900 or even 1960 or 1980. I and my generation had the privilege of witnessing the change that has slowly creeped on us.
Right after medical school, I was appointed as a rural doctor in 1981 in my hometown in Besao, then in Bontoc, both of which are in Mountain Province. Our team went walking to the different the villages bringing western medicines. In one remote village, we were served binatog (boiled whole corn), without any additive. Being the i-poblacion that I was, I requested for sugar. (People in the town center or poblacion are used to factory goods like sugar). And we couldn’t find any in that village! I always share this experience because people nowadays can’t imagine life without sugar. In another village, we asked for salt and there was none. Or if there were, perhaps they were too precious to be shared. My point is that in the 1980s, the Cordillera was still living by what nature provided. In other words, what God, our Creator, provided for us in this region. And what were those- rice and other whole grains, camote and other root vegetables, beans, leafy greens, fruit vegetables, mushrooms, fruits. All varied and in season. So we had mushroom season, alumani season, bean and corn season, etc. All organic. And yes, we had pigs and chickens, all organic surely in the beginning.
We have no salt mountain here in the Cordilleras, although Mainit in Bontoc produced salt from its hot springs. My grandparents and those before them had to walk to Candon and Tagudin to buy salt. It was too precious thus it was used sparingly.
Sugar came in form of “inti” or muscovado or linuklokot (all raw sugar) because our people learned the technology of sugar milling. But sugarcane is seasonal and harvested only once a year and of course, our limited arable land was used for more staple food like rice and camote. Meaning, sugar in the past was also very limited and not a priority food. Oh yes, they could eat all the “inti” they wanted- only during the milling season. In this season, I observed that the children would get angular stomatitis which would spontaneously disappear after the season. In Bontoc and Sadanga, the men (who were the sugar millers) would rather make “basi” than “inti” because basi was a necessity in indigenous rituals and inti was not. See? We can live without sugar! By the way, inti needs more time to cook meaning more precious firewood to spend and longer manhours. You should see how they process sugar in the ili- it is a truly heavy task.
Our indigenous diet then is low salt and very low sugar. Very healthy.
And how did we prepare our food traditionally? Again, we were dictated by nature. We ate some plants raw but generally, we cooked our food just as we cooked our pigs’ food. For us in the pine forest, we had pine twigs for cooking or other twigs. When you are somewhere else like in the riverbanks of the Lias river in Barlig, you have “rono” (sticks) to cook “intum” (cooking without a pot). In our daily cooking, Igorots just boiled their viand- “men ipisok asnan banga”. We boiled rice and corn and camote and gabi and galumaca. Even if there was meat, this was just boiled, whether it was fresh or inasin or etag. Even special occasions like “dawak” or “chono” (wedding celebration) just had boiled pork (the famous “watwat”) and rice. Nd boiled beef. For places in the Cordillera like Apayao where coconuts are indigenous, they have “gata” or coconut milk in their recipes. Take time to read the recently-published book “Heirloom Recipes in the Cordillera” to know more of these traditional recipes. But if you notice sugar and other factory products in the recipe, these are modern versions.
How about frying? None because lard is a factory product- a modern additive. For natural additives, we had ginger and onion leeks and occasional garlic. I remember we would buy tiny garlic from Agawa during the Sunday market in Kin-iway. So no MSG, no artificial flavoring and coloring. Pamienta was bought from the store and so because cash then was rare, people refrained from buying. And I guess, they saw that there was no point in buying some things new- they have been eating these foods since they were born and they were healthy and strong and lived long to tell stories to their grandchildren and great grandchildren.
We have transitioned from boiled rice and beans and camote to fried chicken, adobo and fried rice. What more, we added sugar, MSG, other flavorings, colorings, 3-in-one and bread and other highly processed food and drink. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that our indigenous drink is water. There is sabeng as tonic. Of course, we have tapey and basi but those are not daily fare.
What’s the proof that our plain boiled organic food is healthy? Our people are the proof. I and my generation are privileged to witness the transition of our lifestyle including our diet and the corresponding change in our health situation. When I was new in Bontoc, there was only one diabetic and she retired from Manila so you can understand why she’s diabetic. Now, I could not count how many diabetics there are in Bontoc. And the figures are increasing and the age of onset is decreasing. How about high blood pressure? Then it was not in the top ten leading causes of death in Bontoc. Now it is number 1 all over the world, not only in Bontoc. Now we have 2 dialysis centers in Mountain Province and these cannot even accommodate all the patients from our province.
The good news is that there is no law that prohibits us from rediscovering our indigenous cuisine and reclaiming these. And in the process we will recover our famous Igorot prowess and longevity.**