A hint of ethnicity and fiesta politics ~ spotlight on little Manila

Awake now, scrolling through the miasma of reality that includes surging statistics on everything devastating, including the diminishing sunspot activity of our very own star. Scanning too the algorithmically curated factoids of the day and then, the morning takes on a decidedly Zen turn to meld into the present and the now. It’s a lazy Sunday morning; ideally, it is possible to have a nice late breakfast at home but we prefer our Plan b, so off we drive to Little Manila, Jersey City.

Our excursion on impulse to Newark Avenue and here we are at the site of Filipino commerce in a city where 7 percent of the population is reportedly Filipino. Various business establishments roll along; niche freighters, pastry shops, bakeries and grocery stores. This ethnic enclave is home to immigrant, expatriate and descendant populations of people from the Philippines. For some other day, I made the mental note to visit Fil Stop, the largest Filipino grocery store on the East Coast of the United States. In the meanwhile, breakfast summons and we make our way to a family owned bakery, the Philippine Bread House, that produces a large amount of fresh breads and baked goods daily. Everything is tempting, what with all these vibrant colours and foreign names like Taisan, Puto, Sapin Sapin, Hopia Baboy etc, although I had to squint a little to read the fine print of the constituents of each delectable looking offering. My palate was growing very impatient until of course my eyes alighted upon Bibingka.

Suman Malagkit; desserts on display like I made them myself 😉 Photo Credit ~ Davina

Well, nostalgia has this unique propensity to waft onto you especially in food engendered synchronicities. The aromas were contained of course in shiny polystyrene, but the visual spectacle has its charms. I had an inordinate urge to go and talk to my mother and then scenes from childhood flitted past, like the chapel on the mount and the ubiquitous coconut trees; tall, inaccessible , laden with fruit. A jolt back into the present and I realise, this isn’t Goa but Little Manila!

Neatly displayed for dessert, Bibingka from the Philippines Bread House NJ Photo credit~Davina

I want to hold this serving of Filipino Bibingka, escort it lovingly back home and then perhaps call my mother to needle her for her secret recipe of the Goan Bebinca …… a namesake only. As we know, the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish and Goa by the Portuguese, so perhaps the Portuguese carried the name back to their lusitanized bit of the world and the only commingling of ethnic cross cultural flavour into these otherwise dissimilar confections is that of the coconut milk. The processes of their preparation differ too. In the references below is a lovely blog post by the late Hilda Mascarenhas [1] that does justice to the Goan Bebinca and another one by Lalaine [2] for the Filipino Bebingka that I believe is also a labour of expatriate love for the homeland.

I am always struck by how cuisines transfer and assimilate into the local scene alongside migrants, emigres or colonizers. The palate undergoes its own colonization or in contrast perhaps assimilates the exotic of a different flavour. The Filipinos have their own taste of home in the United States just as they had a taste of US imports back in the Philippines when the country underwent a phase of what the Historian Paul Kramer terms as Fiesta politics, a brief period from 1900 to 1916. [3]

After the Spanish American war, Spain ceded political control of the Philippine Islands to the United States in 1898, although the armed resistance by Filipinos did not officially end until 1902. The U.S then began conducting a study of the Islands in 1900 to determine whether they were ready for democratic self-rule and eventually determined that they were not. [3] During this time, less noted Americans engaged in fiesta politics, which was tied to seeking a middle way between complete Filipino independence and colonial subjugation and food was an intrinsic part of it. Included in the parties and public gatherings that the colonizers and the colonized attended together, they indulged in rituals meant to efface the uninvited character of the U.S. presence in the Philippines. Variously mentioned are the novelty of canned foods, the nostalgia of Americans stationed there, for cow milk as opposed to the milk of the water buffalo, and the various culinary implements like pastry forks that made their way into these exchanges of cultural significance between socially high status ruling elites and the local elites.

In an American expatriate documented incident of a rather amusing anecdote by Edith Moses [3], two women of Apalit, a town in the north of Manila, presented three ears of boiled green corn to a local American resident doctor’s wife and her American guests. Although the Spanish had introduced corn , it was used for feeding livestock and it seemed implausible to the local women that humans could eat such a thing and since they were advised by the doctor’s wife, that Americans ate corn, they brought it as a tribute and an experiment to see what the american senoras would do. They actually intently watched them while they gnawed at the hard kernels, since it was part of the same politics not to give offence to the local population.

It is a wondrous thing now, food has gone global and recent times show that with cross cultural hybridization of food preferences, ingredients and styles as well as the passage of time, the historicity gets obscured. As Lenore Newman, Canadian author on the subject of contemporary Indigenous food, in her discussion about the true origin of the Indian taco for example, offers, there’s no such thing as an authentic cuisine, because they’re living. Like a language, they evolve. The taco is definitely a post-colonial food, as well as a very well-established piece of Indigenous culture now. [4]

That’s what I find interesting, this commingling of tastes and influences. Many supermarket aisles showcase Coconut milk from Asia. Major culinary blogs and websites contrive to use it in various confections, Americans going so far as to drink it as a substitute for dairy. For those of whom Bibingka hits home, there is always American condensed milk, African Cassava and Asian coconut milk to recreate sweet perfection and reminisce of places distantly removed in space and time.

Viva la Filipinas !!!


[1] Mascarenhas Hilda. (2015). Goan Bebinca/Bibinka/Bibik. Retrieved from-https://www.hildastouchofspice.com/2015/09/goanbebincabibinka-bibik.html

[2] Lalaine. (2020). Bibingka. Retrieved from-https://www.kawalingpinoy.com/bibingka/

[3] Megan J. Elias. (2014).The Palate of Power: Americans, Food and the Philippines after
the Spanish-American War, CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Retrieved from-https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=bm_pubs

[4] Alvarez Linda. (n.d.). Colonization, Food, and the practice of eating. Retrieved from-https://foodispower.org/our-food-choices/colonization-food-and-the-practice-of eating/#:~:text=Food%20Is%20Power,are%20conveyed%2C%20and%20also%20violated.

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