1. Why are you vegetarian?
I’m a vegetarian because I practice yoga and the basic teaching of yoga is respect for life. In this case, animal life. There are different kinds of yoga. I practice what’s called ‘bhakti yoga’. ‘Bhakti’ means love. ‘Yoga’ means union. ‘Bhakti Yoga’ means the individual soul - -which is us, you and me--links up to or is united with the Supreme Soul or the Supreme Father, in love. The relationship is based on love. And love is based on not wanting to displease the one you love.
All living creatures are the Supreme Father’s children. As the loving Father, He loves us all equally. He does not want any of His children to suffer unnecessarily. Animals are as much children of the Supreme Father as we, human beings are, and therefore must not be made to suffer. When we kill animals in order to eat them, that’s causing the animals to suffer unnecessarily. This is not pleasing to the Supreme Father. So I try to refrain from doing that.
2. Is it hard to be a vegetarian Filipino? Why?
No, not at all. The Philippines is a land of bountiful nutritious native vegetables, tropical fruits, rootcrops, legumes, grains... Sobrang sagana sa gulay...plus we have coconuts, coconut alone is already ‘soul food of the tropics’. There is so much food varieties you can do with coconuts. There is no lack of vegetable food at all. It is just a matter of learning how to cook vegetable dishes the meatless way.
3. How were you able to conceptualize vegetarian Filipino dishes?
I was first introduced to vegetarian diet back in 1976 by people who were practicing yoga - -a philosophy from India. Their orientation to vegetarian was of course Indian food. So in the beginning, to sort of ‘belong’ and identify with the group, (you know how it is when you are young) I tried to ‘Indianize’ everything too. I went to the Indian store and bought all kinds of Indian spices (that I wasn’t familiar with at all, except maybe curry powder and the taste of which I didn’t actually like). Then I started putting curry powder, garam masala, cumin powder, asafoetida, turmeric, etc in my sinigang and adobo. And it just came out really weird.
I said, Hey, wait a minute, this is just not gonna work! Hindi talaga puede pilitin gawing Indian yung Filipino eh. And so that’s how I started cooking my own vegetarian Filipino dishes starting off with my favorite main dishes --sinigang, adobo, apritada, pancit bihon, pritong lumpia, lumpiang sariwa, mami, etc.--substituting here and there but the basic Filipino taste and flavor is still there. No more Indian spices!!!
4. What makes the Filipino cuisine unique?
Filipino cuisine, like the Filipino culture is highly influenced by the different cultures who came to inhabit or colonize our country such as the Malay, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish and American. Small groups of Arabs and Indians came in the early centuries too.
So Filipino cuisine is a unique blend of east and west. And yet it has its own distinct character and set of ingredients, very much different from the Asian or Western country that influenced it. Filipino cuisine is characterized by bold flavors, really matapang --salty, sweet, sour, hot--delicious and intense, bursting with exotic aroma but with a taste that’s uniquely its own.
For instance our classic Filipino dish called Kare-kare has something of the delicious taste of European food as can be seen by the generous amount of peanut sauce and the use of achuete coloring which is adapted from safron of Spain. In much the same way, Indonesian food is influenced by the Dutch in the use of peanuts in their savory sauce which the Indonesians combined with coconut milk.
But if you go to anywhere in Europe or Spain or Indonesia, you won’t find our kare kare cooked in the same way that Filipinos do, nor having the same ingredients such as sitaw, puso ng saging, talong. In fact, you won’t find kare-kare anywhere in the world at all, only in the Philippines.
It’s the same way with adobo. Adobo which is originally a pork or chicken dish, is considered the Philippine's national dish. But adobo is not Filipino in origin, it is Mexican, that originated in Spain thousands of years ago. The word 'adobo' comes from the Spanish word 'adobar' which means to marinate, pickle or cure.
If you go to Spain, you will find that adobo is not a pork or chicken dish at all. Spanish adobo is a pickling sauce made by cooking together olive oil, vinegar, garlic, thyme, laurel, oregano, paprika and salt. If you go to Mexico, you will find that Mexican adobo is a reddish paste typically containing red guajillo chillies, spices, herbs and vinegar. It is rubbed on meat, fish or chicken. A dish prepared this way is called 'adobado'.
Filipino adobo is either chicken or pork cooked in a pickling mixture of vinegar, garlic, bay leaf peppercorn and soy sauce which was introduced by the Chinese traders. Nowhere in the world will you find our adobo cooked the way Filipinos do.
Our pansit canton is the Filipino version of ‘chow mein’ (fried noodles with vegetables). Pansit canton is definitely Chinese influence. In ancient history, Canton (now Guangzhon) is the capital city of Guangdong Province in Southern China. But if you go to Canton city now, there are no wanton noodles there that are in any way like our dry pansit canton with vegetables. The noodle dishes there are mostly soup noodles like our mami or pansit molo but not pansit canton. Nowhere in the whole of China or the world will you find our pansit canton the way Filipinos cook it sprinkled with calamansi juice on top.
5. Do you think that vegetarian Filipino food is an oxymoron? Why?
First, let us define the word ‘oxymoron’ for the sake of those who may not be familiar with it. Actually, I myself had to look up the meaning of the word in order to answer the question! So, oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two contradictory terms in a compound term. Examples of oxymoron are words like bittersweet, deafening silence, love-hate, etc.
So, yes, the term ‘Filipino vegetarian food’ is an oxymoron because traditional Filipino food, although made up largely of gulay and talbos, rootcrops, grains and beans is not purely vegetarian. The Philippines is a sea-bound group of islands. More than thirty per cent of the people’s diet is made up of fish and other marine forms. The Malays have inhabited our country since thousands of years ago. Our ancient Malay ancestors taught us how to feed on chicken, ducks, eggs and occasionally pork meat from the animals kept in the yard. The Chinese introduced both vegetarian (influenced by their Buddhist religion) and meat food.
When the Spaniards came in the 15th century, they brought with them their meat food heritage. Spain has a long tradition of cattle-breeding, hunting, sheep ranching, and hog, fowl and goat raising. So when the Spaniards came, they brought along their favorite meat and egg dishes made from beef, pork, ox, porklings, lamb, veal, chicken, duck and goat meat - - all kinds of meat pies, meat stews and meat sausages, blood sausages, and blood puddings.
That is why up to this day during Christmas we traditionally have jamon (cured ham) - - nothing is more Spanish than jamon! In Spain it is a national treasure. We also have meat food like morcilla, lechon, adobo, leche flan, chorizo, cocido, and longaniza. Among the wealthy Spanish descendants today there is still cochinillo al fuego, salchichon de pazo, rabo de toro, and many, many more.
Filipino food is not like the food of India which is traditionally purely vegetarian since the dawn of history. India is the cradle of ancient civilization and is the origin of all vegetarian food. So, the term ‘Filipino vegetarian food’ is used just to distinguish a kind of vegetarian food adapted to Filipino taste and method of cooking.
6. How were you able to deliver the same authentic taste of Filipino food with the meat?
It’s not me. I didn’t deliver the same authentic taste of Filipino food with the meat. All I did was, I just cooked the dishes the meatless way, arranged the recipes in order and made them into a cookbook. The authentic taste is done by nature.
Sometimes we don’t appreciate what wonderful things nature has provided us. Actually, the variety of nutrition, taste, aroma and appeal comes from the vegetable kingdom provided by nature, not from meat. If you cook sinigang na baboy, for example, without sampaloc, gabi, kangkong, sitaw, labanos, kamatis, okra, talong, sili, then what do you have? Just boiled baboy with salt. So where is the authentic taste of sinigang there? None. On the other hand, you can cook all the sinigang vegetable ingredients together even without the baboy, and you’ll come up with such a delicious, flavorful authentic sinigang dish that your whole family can enjoy. I know. I have cooked meatless sinigang (and its varieties such as sinigang sa miso, sinigang sa bayabas, sinigang sa kamias, sinigang sa santol, etc) for the past 35 years and everybody in my family --my husband and children-- just love it.
The same is true for all the rest of your favorite Filipino dishes. Name it --caldereta, menudo, palabok--whatever, you will find that there is basically at least 2 or 3 vegetable ingredients there or some vegetable substitute that actually carry the authentic flavor. It is not dependent on the meat flavor at all. So you can set aside the meat, fish, chicken or egg anytime and just focus on the vegetables and that’s it! You can have the authentic Filipino flavor of whatever meat dish you want.
7. What is your favorite vegetarian Filipino dish? Why?
I think I already mentioned earlier in this interview my favorite vegetarian Filipino dishes, quite a few of them, not just one --sinigang, adobo, apritada, pansit bihon, pritong lumpia, lumpiang sariwa, mami.
These were the everyday home dishes I grew up eating (the meat version, that is) These were the dishes served to us when we were children, what I ate when I got home after school. These were the dishes I learned how to cook at the age of 8 or 9. So naturally, these were the dishes and flavors I have grown to love.
I was the family cook since the age of maybe 9 or 10. When I turned vegetarian at the age of 22, I formally announced to my parents, one brother and four sisters that I was not going to cook meat for them anymore. I got married shortly after that and I never ate meat or cooked meat for anyone since then. I still cook my childhood favorite dishes until now (this time vegetarian version), in fact they formed the basis for my writing a cookbook series.
8. Could you tell us a little bit about your cookbooks?
I’ve written so far 3 books in the GULAY series -- each one with over 120 recipes of mostly traditional Filipino soups, main dishes, salad and appetizers, snacks and desserts, prepared the vegetarian way. My books are also replete with historical accounts of people and food of the ancient past. Food cannot be separated from history. Every single traditional dish, every single piece of fruit or vegetable or bean or grain has a fascinating story behind it. And for me, this is what gives life and color to cooking and dining. By definition. I’m a short story writer before I became a cookbook author. That is why I’m naturally interested with food stories that have drama in it.
Many people want to eat healthy but don’t know how to cook vegetarian food. It takes time to learn. So this is my small way of helping them --by sharing usable, easy recipes that I’ve used myself. Originally, I compiled my recipes for the Filipina housewives and high school students who were attending my cooking classes Then I thought of writing a cookbook for the Filipino people in our country. I never even thought Filipinos abroad would also be interested. I wasn’t thinking in that large scope at all. Then facebook and now ebook came along and now GULAY books are all over the world having international readership! I feel nervous but I just pray everyday and I’m just trying to do my best.
Many of us know the importance of having a ‘healthy lifestyle’. But not many people are aware that lifestyle includes, first and foremost, the daily diet - - in other words, what you eat everyday. And in fact you can reverse ALL diseases simply by a vegetarian diet. I know people are busy but the only way to eat healthy is if you cook vegetarian food yourself. The precious few hours squeezed into your busy schedules to cook in the kitchen must be all worth it. I hope my books can help you serve this purpose.
9. What do you think about the vegetarian scene in the Philippines? Is there one?
Today in the Philippines there is far more information and support for vegetarian diet than two or three decades ago. In those days, vegetarians were a very small minority. There was much less social acceptance. In those days I was considered ‘weird’ for seriously taking up the diet. Thirty five years later, my GULAY book series was consistently in the bestseller list of National Bookstore and Powerbooks and sold thousands of copies. People write to me expressing their appreciation and their desire to be a vegetarian like me.
In the beginning, my father who is a full bloodied Batangueno meat-eater was very scornful about my new found ‘meatless diet.’ It was unheard of for Batanguenos to not eat pork and beef. Twenty years later, he and my sister came to our house for dinner and I was surprised that he requested me to wrap the left-over fried tofu in foil paper so he can take them home. He said, “I really like fried tofu. I eat a lot of tofu now instead of pork adobo. and you know I read in Time magazine that vegetarian diet is really healthy.” I said, ‘Tay, twenty years ko na sinasabi yan sayo! So of course, he will believe Time magazine but not me.
Generally, among the elderly, there is now more ready acceptance of cutting down on meat and going back to the healthful vegetable diet. Among the young there are now many vegetarian groups and clubs. There are more vegetarian restaurants. You can now order vegetarian pizzas and pastas at the malls. And then lately, there is the now this popular movement in the Philippines called ‘Luntiang Lunes’ (literally meaning Green Monday) The movement is all about encouraging Filipino people to eat more gulay instead of meat, starting off with at least one day of the week, preferable Monday.
Luntiang Lunes is a positive response to a wordwide trend towards making a healthier decision on what to eat at the start of the week. This movement follows the principles set by Meatless Monday.
In the Philippines, Luntiang Lunes was founded by neuroscientist Dr. Custer Deocaris in July 2011. It is quickly gaining support from the government officials throughout the country. In August 2012, the Lower House deliberated the Luntiang Lunes Bill, a piece of legislation that will soon make Meatless Monday a staple in elementary and high schools throughout the Philippines. Meatless meals will be served in the school cafeterias on Mondays and nutrition education in the classroom will encourage students to eat more gulay instead of meat (at least in one day of the week)
According to studies made in 2008 by the Food and Nutrition Institute, the Philippines has a severe double disease burden: children malnutrition and adult obesity. In a report supporting the proposed legislation, it is said:
“A quarter of adult Filipinos are already hypertensive and 7 million are diagnosed with diabetes, making the Philippines one of the world’s top ten epicenters of the disease. Each year, 200,000 Filipinos die of heart disease which is the leading cause of death.”
Heart disease is directly connected to high meat consumption therefore those campaigning for Luntiang Lunes are implementing substituting meat protein equivalent intake by gulay based foods. They believe targeting children and adolescents for dietary change will have a life-long impact on dietary habits and cardiovascular health than when interventions are done on adults.
And the reason they chose Monday is because Monday is typically the beginning of the study week. Monday is planning and anticipation day. It is the day when students settle back into their weekly routine. Unhealthy habits that prevailed over the week-end can be forgotten and replaced by positive choices.
In the Philippines, Tarlac State University became the first Meatless Monday-advocating university and together with Sophia School (in Meycauayan, Bulacan) have been implementing Meatless Mondays for the past several months. The results have been encouraging with students and families benefiting from the program. Now more schools are poised to spread the movement all across the country. The Luntiang Lunes group is hoping that each of the 25 million students of all Philippines schools will practice and be benefitted just the same.
I think this is the best move our Philippine educational system has ever done, as far as healthy dietary habits are concerned. I believe that it really would help a lot when the campaign is integrated in the schools themselves.
10. What would you say to those who couldn’t give up their lechon and crispy pata?
Let me quote to you the ‘conclusion’ part of my cookbooks because this will precisely answer this question:
In my long years of teaching people how to cook delicious vegetarian food, there is one thing that I always encourage them to do. I always tell them, “If you can have the chance please take up the process of meditation. It will be very helpful to you. I practice it myself and I teach it free to anyone interested”.
Meditation is a very simple and enjoyable relaxation method for achieving inner happiness and self realization.
Meditation is an ancient process that has been practiced for thousands of years by sages and meditation teachers. It goes hand in hand with the vegetarian diet.
The first effect of meditation is it makes you relaxed. Another effect is you begin to experience a higher happiness within, so you can gradually be able to lessen and eventually give up eating meat, fish and eggs. It becomes very easy to achieve. Automatically, you would want to learn how to cook and eat vegetable food instead.
In other words, the desire to eat meat will begin to drop off. The desire to eat meat is very strong but you will gradually loose the taste for meat. You have to experience a higher happiness in order to break away from the habit of meat eating. The desire will still be there but not so strong anymore that it cannot be overcome.
Through meditation, you can come to a point where you will have inner strength to actually feel and say, “I don’t really need meat, fish, and eggs for proper nutrition. I can give them up. I will give them up.”
The process of meditation begins by hearing - - simply listening to meditation songs or relaxation songs, sometimes called yoga sound. Anyone can practice meditation individually in the privacy of their own homes or together with other people.
Through meditation, your mind and heart becomes gradually cleansed or purified. And then intuitively from within yourself, you will know that meat food is not good for your health and your consciousness. Meditation helps you come to this state.
Through meditation, you can also overcome stress and even deeper problems such as anxiety or emptiness. You can actually begin to experience inner happiness and peace. But most of all, you will begin to understand who you really are.
According to the ancient scriptures and great teachers of meditation, the most important reason for practicing meditation is self-realization. Nothing is more important than knowing who you are and what the purpose of life is.
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