As we become more attuned to a global dining table set by all nations and continents, the cuisine of Southeast Asia takes the limelight. From breaking bread with immigrant neighbors down the block to eating local dishes in their place of origin, younger generations lead the way to experience nature’s bounty. They also document and photograph such experiences with joy.
Bryan Koh is one exuberant example. Growing up with Filipino helpers in his Singapore home, he ate various dishes prepared by them with great gusto. He wanted to know not only the various elements of a dish but the cooking process and their origin by history and geography. He noted that the ASEAN members are linked by a long history of foods and cuisines. They are becoming more known, taking their place beside more popular Far East Asian and South Asian gastronomy.
This tome of over 460 pages is also a travelogue of not just places visited but stories of old and new friends with whom Koh cooks and more importantly dines with gusto. Recipes from 15 regions of the Philippines from the national capital region to Zamboanga are showcased and accompanied by narratives of their origins. These can range from pre-Hispanic to Halo-Halo (ongoing mixed cuisines of various cultures such as Malay, Chinese, Southeast Asia, and Hispanic America). This blending and variation is characteristic of several well-known Filipino dishes. Adobo, pansit, pinakbet, and lumpia are differently spiced and cooked in various regions. This is not just due to local tastes but to continuous migration within the Philippines and influences of colonizers, expatriates, and world foodies. Filipinos are known for adaptation and absorption of other cultures, including food. For example, Koh’s observation about Bicol Express is, “Just as its history is unclear, so its current identity is a blur.” (p. 112). Koh concludes that, “What sets Filipino cuisine apart from its Asian counterparts is its happy incorporation of ‘Western’ dishes into its repertoire.” (p.17)
Furthermore, as Koh depicts, Filipinos do not waste food but use almost every part of plants and animals. Diniguan (lovingly called chocolate meat by some), is a prime example made with pork organs including lung, heart, kidney and liver with a sauce of blood. Koh’s narrative and photos exhibit the down-home, provincial, comfort-food perspectives. In describing the ube yam, he says, “Like so many foods in this country, this tastes best when you cook it over coals or burning coconut husks.” (p. 200)
Photographs of various foods range from raw products such as vegetables and fruits displayed in the local market to various regional specialties such as the Bicol Express (pork and chilles in coconut cream) to whole pigs roasted on spits. Unfortunately, the photos of various dishes, as well as places and faces, are not accompanied by labels or narratives. It would be good to know more about the houses built over the river, the local shellfish, and the beautiful Muslim women on p. 446. A map of the various regions is displayed after the bibliography. Perhaps the next version will include it in the introduction.
The title, Milkier Pigs and Violet Gold, is taken from “milk pigs,” the spit-roasted suckling lechon and the highly-prized purple yam, ube. It is an apt title for a gastronomic journey “…around kitchen sessions with local cooks, forages in markets and meals in restaurants, carinderia, cafes, panaderia, and homes.” (p. 14)