2006.11.16: November 16, 2006: Headlines: COS - Philippines: Food: Blogs - Philippines: Personal Web Site: Peace Corps Volunteer Ravensir writes: Food in the Philippines

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Philippines: Peace Corps Philippines: The Peace Corps in the Philippines: 2006.11.16: November 16, 2006: Headlines: COS - Philippines: Food: Blogs - Philippines: Personal Web Site: Peace Corps Volunteer Ravensir writes: Food in the Philippines

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Peace Corps Volunteer Ravensir writes: Food in the Philippines

Peace Corps Volunteer Ravensir writes:  Food in the Philippines

"In America we take 3 meals a day, sometimes fewer if we lack the time or if we’re not hungry. We also have the inclination to snack throughout the day, take coffee and the like. Sometimes late at night too. Really, whenever we’re hungry. In the Philippines it’s very much alike. There are 3 major meals in the day, just as in America. But the snacks are more formalized. They are gifted with the name “marienda”, which occurs twice daily; once between breakfast and lunch, and once between lunch and dinner. It doesn’t sound all that different, but the fact that they happen every day at a vaguely designated time effects the way everything works. For one thing, missing marienda is just like missing lunch – it’s a big thing, and sometimes people worry that you’re not eating."

Peace Corps Volunteer Ravensir writes: Food in the Philippines

Thursday, November 16th, 2006
4:25 am
On Food
One of the more enlightening aspects of my Peace Corps experience has been discovering for myself some of the ways in which culture shapes a society, and almost more importantly the ways in which it does not. Foremost on the lists of things you will find in every society is the peculiar widespread habit of consuming food on a daily basis. Sometimes, if possible, on multiple occasions throughout the day. Surprising, no?

In America we take 3 meals a day, sometimes fewer if we lack the time or if we’re not hungry. We also have the inclination to snack throughout the day, take coffee and the like. Sometimes late at night too. Really, whenever we’re hungry. In the Philippines it’s very much alike. There are 3 major meals in the day, just as in America. But the snacks are more formalized. They are gifted with the name “marienda”, which occurs twice daily; once between breakfast and lunch, and once between lunch and dinner. It doesn’t sound all that different, but the fact that they happen every day at a vaguely designated time effects the way everything works. For one thing, missing marienda is just like missing lunch – it’s a big thing, and sometimes people worry that you’re not eating.

It also makes for some budget concerns that might be unanticipated by an American attempting to do business here. With 5 meals a day, if you hold a meeting of any length you are bound to run into one of them. Woe unto the person who attempts to hold a meeting during a mealtime without offering the participants food. It would be more than a little rude, and you would have some rather disgruntled people on your hands. Of course, compared to the basic costs involved in holding a meeting without food, a meeting where you must serve a small meal to everyone present involves significantly more money. It’s just one of those things to consider.

By and large, though, marienda is just a formalized snack – not too different from the American eating habit. However, there is one aspect which differs dramatically between the two countries: rice. Rice is what separates the major meals from mariendas. Every person in this country who isn’t diabetic eats rice with breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day of their lives and there is very little exception to this rule.

The flip side of this, is that rice also defines the difference between whether you are eating marienda or a meal. I recently attended a birthday party of my neighbor’s child, Sam (she was turning 2, and she’s adorable). There was a very sizable food table with 6 or 7 courses, and a large dessert tray with two kinds of cake and two alternate sweets. The food was good, and I proceeded to stuff myself silly (as did everyone there) and I thought to myself “what a great dinner that was”. It hadn’t occurred to me as I had been loading food onto my plate that there was no rice present. It was late in the afternoon, past 5, but later than night I was talking to my landlord and his wife. They asked me what I had eaten for dinner, and when I told them that that I had already eaten plenty at the party, they both had a good laugh. Every other person there had gone home and eaten another full meal an hour later.

During training, there were roughly as many Filipinos and Americans being served by the cafeteria staff, and so the food was served buffet style and the food that was served was usually a compromise of both styles. I had the experience on a few occasions of seeing the way a Filipino reacts when he cannot find the rice – it comes in phases. The first phase is puzzlement. After his gaze travels over the trays and he doesn’t initially see a mountain of white, he immediately looks again. You can almost see the words “that’s weird, I don’t see the rice” on his lips. After his second visual scan comes back negative the face contorts a small amount, and he starts on a third futile scan, eyes widened in shock. In this stage he may be making small gestures of befuddlement with his hands. Where is the rice? There has to be rice. What’s going on?

Of course there always was rice, the rice pan just had to be taken back to the kitchen regularly for refilling, and the look of calm that appears over his face when the rice is carried over is not subtle.

In another instance, a friend and fellow volunteer is dating a Filipina who went out with several of us one night in the city for pizza. On a side note, having stayed this long in country, you should see American volunteers eat when they gain access to American style food. It’s messy. When we were through, everyone was making comments such “man I’m stuffed” and “you’re going to need to roll me out of here”, but later that night that my friend’s girlfriend was quite shocked to discover that my friend would not be eating dinner.

I’ve spoken to many different Filipinos about this phenomenon. Comparing differences and similarities between cultures is one of the basic forms of small talk you encounter as a Peace Corps volunteer, and so I’ve had many opportunities. What I’ve been told time and again by Filipinos of every class, educational level, and background is that they simply don’t feel satiated unless they eat rice. One Filipino Peace Corps staff told me he went to America for a week for a staff training during which they did not regularly serve rice, and he went to bed hungry every night.

I hope this isn’t coming off as culturally insensitive, even if I am vaguely poking fun. It’s just very amusing to me. I have also found it’s just as amusing to Filipinos that us Americans don’t eat rice. It’s one of the first and most common questions to be thrown our way when we arrive in country. “Is it true that you don’t eat rice?” It always caught me off my guard, because of course I eat rice, but usually not more than twice a week. But twice a week is a far cry from the standard 21 meals a Filipino eats it with, and so the word will spread throughout the neighborhood “yes it’s true, the American doesn’t eat rice”.

Once I arrived, of course, I began eating rice with every meal. It wasn’t even an adjustment I thought about; it was served with every meal so I ate it with every meal. For the record, fried eggs over rice is awesome. When the yoke breaks, and you mix it all up… yum. But I digest.

After being there a week or two, my host family began proudly proclaiming to different people that they taught you how to eat rice – a claim that I never knew quite how to react to. Arguing never seemed to work out. You could say “But. I knew how to eat rice. I told you I used to eat rice sometimes in America.” But such statements do you no good. Inevitably they nod vigorously and say “Yes, and now I taught you how to eat rice.”

Now that I’m living by myself, one of the first questions I get asked is “do you eat rice”? The unspoken part, “with every meal” is so obvious they would think me dumb for clarifying. When I tell them I don’t (I haven’t made rice yet, although I usually end up eating it for lunch at work) they naturally jump to the conclusion that I must eat bread with every meal. For them, they need to find an equivalent for something that really doesn’t exist in American culture, and they have trouble understanding it. Yes, I usually eat a wheat-based carbohydrate of some sort with every meal. Crackers, bread, spaghetti, but I don’t really think about it.

This phenomenon brings to mind the fact that McDonalds, which is present at multiple points in several cities, recently introduced the McRice burger to the Philippines. This is a burger sandwiched between two buns made of compressed rice. I haven't tried one, nor do I plan to, but it must be a genius marketing strategy. Now that they have incorporated rice, they can serve what Filipinos will perceive to be a full meal, whereas before they were just serving expensive snacks.

On a closing, food related note, I should also mention that I had a unique food experience yesterday. Someone brought in a bag of small green fruits called “Eba” to work. They were the most sour thing I have ever bitten into. However, I enjoy sour things immensely and I wanted to impress my colleagues, so I ate 3. Every bite involuntarily scrunched up my face. Afterwards, I discovered something new about my body. Everyone knows that when you stare at a certain color long enough, your eyes are overloaded and when you look away, so that the colors you see are not the colors actually present. That's what an afterimage is, after all. Well evidently, this works with your tongue too. Even 15 minutes after I'd eaten this sour fruit, my water tasted sweet. Not a little sweet either, but as if someone had dumped several spoons of sugar into it. I honestly would have bet money that someone had, if I didn't know better. I hadn't taken it directly from one of those big water tanks.

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