One of my most vivid memories of growing up in the massive Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village apartment complex in Manhattan was the sight, smell, and taste of Filipino food. My family members cooked sotanghon and sinigang in our tiny apartment kitchen. For special occasions, they purchased trays loaded with pancit palabok and kutsinta made by entrepreneurial Filipino immigrant women who lived in the same building. Despite these associations with home, comfort, and festivity, some of my American childhood food memories are unpleasant. Neighborhood children used food to taunt and other me through demeaning comments like “your food is smelly and weird.”
Reading Doreen G. Fernandez’s Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture for the first time was a revelation. Her recollections of her favorite meals and food-infused traditions in various islands and towns of the Philippines highlighted the wonder, complexity, and joy of Philippine food and culture. Her attention to the social and historical contexts of Philippine food enabled me to see well beyond stereotypes, to appreciate the nuances of my Philippine heritage, and to cultivate a deep sense of pride in being Filipino.
Tikim is the Tagalog word that translates into English as taste. Tumikim is its active verb. It means to taste, to sample food. I first encountered Fernandez’s Tikim in early 1995. Published in 1994, it was on a book display shelf of a National Book Store in Manila. At that time, I was conducting archival research and fieldwork on the history of Filipino nurse migration, and I would visit National Book Store to peruse the latest Philippine scholarly and popular publications.
Tikim quickly caught my eye. Joanne de León’s striking cover art and design feature a Filipino woman, hair pulled back into a bun, wearing a lavender pañuelo. She holds a wooden spoon to her lips, her head slightly bent, about to taste the bounty of Philippine food. That bounty is illustrated in the array of fresh fish, eggs, fruits, and vegetables on the table before her. It is also rendered in the words and illustrations of Philippine pantry staples that border this arresting image: paminta, asin, suka, sili, bawang, luya, sibuyas, patis. My mouth watered at the sight of these cover images.
As I delved into the book, Fernandez’s singular vivid writing style enthralled, educated, and comforted me. Doreen Gamboa Fernandez was a professor, historian, writer and critic. She obtained her A.B. in English and History in 1954 from St. Scholastica’s College, Manila, and completed her M.A. in English Literature in 1956 and Ph.D. in Literature in 1976 from Ateneo de Manila University. She taught for almost 30 years at Ateneo where she also chaired the departments of Communication, English and Interdisciplinary Studies. A role model for interdisciplinary and public-facing scholarship, she was a columnist for popular Philippine print media in English such as Mr. & Ms. and Philippine Daily Inquirer. In 1999, the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the Philippine Centennial Commission recognized Fernandez as one of 100 Filipinos who helped shape the arts in the Philippines in the last century (1898–1998). She passed away in June 2002.
As a consequence of reading Fernandez’s writing, I asked educator, writer, and natural chef Aileen Suzara to give a guest lecture on food in my Introduction to Asian American History class at UC Berkeley in 2018. An alumna of UC Berkeley’s Master’s program in Public Health Nutrition and UC Santa Cruz’s Farm and Garden Agroecology Apprenticeship program, Suzara emphasizes the role of cultural foodways in chronic disease prevention and healthy ecological relationships. One of her projects is Sariwa (Tagalog for fresh), a local food enterprise grounded in community stories, decolonization, and sustainability, that she started while at UC Berkeley. Her blog, Kitchen Kwento (Tagalog for stories), documents and shares stories on the relationship between food, people, and the land. In 2016, Suzara was awarded the Foundations for Change Thomas I. Yamashita Prize, which is given annually to an outstanding young social change activist in California whose work serves as a bridge between the academy and the community.
When Suzara began her lecture, I was not surprised to see that one of her first PowerPoint slides featured a luminous quote by Fernandez: “What is Filipino food? Indigenous food from land and sea, field and forest.”
What was surprising was when Suzara noted that several of Fernandez’s books, including Tikim, were out of print. I was overcome with anxiety and grief. How could this be? What would it mean for current and future generations of Filipinos, for food lovers everywhere, for all students of history and culture? I felt a deep sense of loss.
Soon afterwards, I contacted Brill acquisitions editor Jason Prevost and my fellow Gendering the Trans-Pacific World (GTPW) book series editor Judy Tzu-Chun Wu. Given Fernandez’s writing about gender in essays in Tikim such as “Mother Cuisine” and “Men in the Kitchen,” and her attention to histories of trans-Pacific colonialism in essays such as “The Flavors of Mexico in Philippine Food Culture” and “Colonizing the Cuisine: The Politics of Philippine Foodways,” the re-printing of Tikim in our GTPW book series made perfect sense.
I am grateful for Jason’s and Judy’s unequivocal support of this project. Brill assistant editors Gerda Danielsson Coe and Debbie De Wit, and production editor Ester Lels were also instrumental in facilitating its publication. Amy Besa, Oscar Campomanes, Vince Rafael, and Maria Karina A. Bolasco provided key introductions and encouragement. Greg Choy’s feedback on drafts of this preface clarified and strengthened its most salient points. Joanne de León graciously gave permission to use her beautiful cover art and design. Cathy Hannabach created a thoughtful and insightful index.
My deep thanks to Maya Besa, Doreen Fernandez’s niece and the custodian of her library and work, and to Andrea Pasion-Flores, General Manager of Anvil Publishing. The re-printing of Tikim is made possible by their endorsement. Finally, this project would not have existed without Aileen Suzara’s teaching and her homage to Fernandez’s writing and example.
I dedicate this volume to the memory and legacy of Doreen G. Fernandez. Long live Philippine food and culture!
Catherine Ceniza Choy