In the mid-90s, my mom worked as a cook for Ayala Museum's Cafe Museo. It was a small and simple space, which seated 28 at full capacity, whose visitors comprised both museum executives and staff, and writers and painters who relished the peace of quiet afternoons. I was two years old, and my mom was exploring alternative means of cash flow that afforded her time to spend with her children, while allowing her to pursue her passion for food.
Having conducted a writing workshop earlier that day, Doreen Fernandez decided to visit the cafe to check papers. Monday the next week, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published her review of the cafe, under her column In Good Taste. In her review, Fernandez noted my mother's Batangas roots by the way she cooked her adobo, and described the garlic longganisa as "on the derecado side yet with a touch of sweetness." My mom liked to brag about how popular the honey-kalamansi juice was a favorite among patrons, and Fernandez gave the drink special mention.
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The article was titled "Quietest cafe in Makati," but on that Monday, business bustled so much that dishes piled high faster than the staff could clean, as new customers came in asking what Doreen Fernandez had when she came here. My mom still has the article, clipped from the newspaper and glued to a sheet of short bond paper, lovingly stored inside its own folder.
I don't say this just to flex on my mother's behalf (even though I do). The way Fernandez's voice and spirit was in that article, it's the way she wrote in her seminal book Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture, which was just reprinted, around quarter of a century since it was first published. In that humble review, and in her book, Fernandez writes of food with sensitivity, warmth, and attention. She is as generous with detail as she is with her judgment, and knows how to make a piece of writing that, when you sit down to read it, feels like partaking of a carefully, lovingly prepared meal.
First published in 1994, Tikim covers a bevy of topics. Part I, Foods and Flavors, thoughtfully unpacks the cultural aspects that define our experiences with many Filipino dishes and how we experience them. Part 2 is People and Places, which contain reflections on the human hands and storied spaces that frame our dining experiences, from how our mother's define our sense of taste for the rest of our lives, to the design quirks of the Filipino kitchen. Part 3, Books and Other Feasts, is like a free review of related literature for those looking to expand their culinary knowledge, hand-picked by the master herself. And part 4, Food in Philippine History, unpacks the unexpected roots of Filipino cuisine. This is the kind of book that can only be written by someone who has committed their heart and soul to this country's food—all its flavors and textures and sources and conditions.
Just look at the way Doreen describes the significance of shrimp as an ingredient in our cuisine. "The range of our prawn-shrimp repertoire—the fact that we eat crustaceans small and large, fresh and dried, salted and soured, from small and large waters, the ways in which we catch, preserve, and propagate them—speak of the Filipino flexibility and closeness to the environment."
(She) knows how to make a piece of writing that, when you sit down to read it, feels like partaking of a carefully, lovingly prepared meal.
Tikim is a book that has aged extremely well, in that it can contribute in meaningful ways to modern food discourse and all the ways it has shifted, long after Fernandez's passing. The way we speak of Filipino food tends to be Manila-centric, but Fernandez was adventurous, having written not just about the regional cuisines that escape our notice, but even unorthodox ingredients, like butchered snake, or shipworm (tamilok) picked from driftwood and eaten alive. No doubt, on the topic of people eating mice, she would engage it with fascination instead of prejudice.
What about the concept of fusion, or fine dining, or the idea of presenting Filipino food as haute cuisine? In her essay "New Ways with Old Dishes," she lists the ways classic dishes, if properly experimented on, "when applied with understanding and sensitivity, can create a dish anew—without betraying the tradition." Imagine sinangag fried with mushrooms, or balut seasoned with spices and herbs and baked in a ramekin!
It took a long time in coming but worth the wait: the world got to read about Doreen via The New York Times July 2019.
I can't help but wonder how Fernandez, with all her wisdom and experiences, would engage food discourse anew today if she was alive. What would her hot take be on the adobo vs. sinigang debate? What about the rise of veganism and sustainable eating? What about Filipino food getting its due on the global stage, with the Filipino diaspora contributing to the way our cuisine is being perceived now more than ever? God, what if she had a Twitter?
I believe Doreen Fernandez's legacy is continued by the likes of Asian-American food critics Soleil Ho and Ligaya Mishan (who wrote of Fernandez!), writers who champion food joints and cooks often eclipsed by the hegemony of Western haute cuisine and the blinding prestige of Michelin stars. Still, Tikim is a document for the ages. It's an authoritative reference point for the myriad ways Filipino food culture has progressed since her time, and a lovingly crafted reminder of our roots.