There are countless examples, but one memory stands out above all others.
For me, it sums up pasalubong (food gifts) to a tee. It was in Calapan, my mother’s hometown on the island of Mindoro, one of the larger of the 7107 isles that comprise the Philippines and not far from Luzon, the main body of land where Manila, the chaotic capital, resides. It was 2009 and I’d quit my job to take a food sabbatical through the land of my mother. It sounds like the beginning of just about every tale of food adventure-meets-cookbook deal these days and, in a twist of events, that’s exactly how it ended. But it didn’t start out that way.
I had holidayed to the Philippines with my mum, dad and brother every two years since I was born; this was just another trip, albeit as a food writer with hopes to see the far-flung towns and eat all the regional delicacies that I’d been hearing so much about for so long.
During my six-month sojourn, my aunt and uncle’s place became my base as I traversed the country. Like most Filipinos, my Tito Ephraim and Tita Malou are endlessly hospitable. You could call that morning to say you were arriving, then stay indefinitely – no problem. I’d just got in after some time in Pampanga, a province north of Manila with a strong culinary tradition. Many consider it the food capital of the country; at the very least, Kampampangans are fiercely proud of their local specialties and a history of food that can be traced back to the landed colonial Spanish, who settled in the area.
I arrived at my family’s house with packages from my travels to give as pasalubong: pichi-pichi (cassava cake), cashew boat tarts and biscuits. It was my first time at it – the giving of food gifts had previously always been commandeered by my mother. I was nervous. It’s an incongruous emotion to attach to an act of generosity, but pasalubong is the greatest of all Filipino traditions; it encapsulates their goodwill and generosity, their sense of community and love of family above all else. And all in a small edible treat. I wanted to get it right – to show my family, as pasalubong intends, how thankful
I was. In this particular case, for their help and wide-open arms.
Pasalubong has no direct English translation. The word is derived from salubong, meaning ‘to welcome’ or ‘reception’. You could call it a gift from one’s travels, but its meaning is much more nuanced. Pasalubong is also not as big as Western-style presents; usually, it’s something small and given regularly. I like to think of it as a token of affection. Pasalubong can be literally anything, from a souvenir key chain to a lipstick shade that’s popular abroad. Nine times out of 10, however, it’s food. If you know anything about the Philippines, this will come as no surprise. Here, life is woven inexorably through a love of food and Filipino stomachs are as big as their hearts. It is no wonder that the grande dame of the country’s cultural customs is centered on something you can eat.
The day I arrived, my cousins Michell, Marie and Bunny returned home from a short business trip in Cebu City. Like me, they came loaded with pasalubong from afar. The capital of the dense island region of Visayas is another culinary mecca. It’s the oldest city in the Philippines and, after Manila, the country’s second largest. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who discovered the Philippines, sailed into the deep harbour in 1521. Today, the port enjoys a constant flow of seafood from the surrounding seas, which is celebrated in the region’s daily catch. Fresh specimens didn’t make their way back with my cousins, although that wouldn’t be unheard of – bundles of pancit Lucban (pan-fried pork and vegetable egg noodles swaddled in banana leaves from Lucban province) are often transported home as pasalubong, as are a number of other savoury specialties.
By and large, pasalubong is sweet. Sheer practicality dictates that biscuits, sweets and jams travel better over long distances in crowded jeepneys and perish less quickly in the sweltering tropical heat. My cousins’ bounty encompassed all of Cebu’s sweet delectables: crunchy peanut kisses, otap (a flaky-style biscuit) and the sun-kissed, almost-juicy dried mangoes, considered some of the country’s – and world’s – best. My offering of several packages felt miniscule next to the girls’ mega load. If you’ve ever wondered who owns the bulging boxes jetting down the baggage turnstile at international airports, you can wager it’s a Filipino who’s packed them to the brim with pasalubong. There is a word for them, too – balikbayan (repatriate) boxes. They pack maximum bulk without wasting weight restrictions on silly little things like luggage wheels or handles. This is serious business – no return to the Philippines or a visit to friends overseas is complete without bringing a selection of goodies from where you’ve been to and where you’re going. Pasalubong is equal parts care package and armchair travelling, depending on who’s giving and receiving.
My small offering was appreciated, but I’d expected them to tuck straight in. Instead, the items were placed on the main dining room table, where the pile slowly disappeared throughout the week as family members or guests dropping by grabbed a treat on their way past. With time, I learned an immediate reward isn’t a given with pasalubong, as it is with gift-giving in the West. Pasalubong isn’t wrapped, so there is no grand unveil, and the item is not always eaten straight away. The point is not to satisfy your own ego; pasalubong is about brightening your recipient’s day. And a fly on that person’s wall would tell you that food gifts are taken home to be shared with the rest of one’s family and utterly savoured.
My cousins’ extravagance compared to my own wasn’t for mere show. In the Philippines, there are just a lot more mouths to feed. To start with, families are big, thanks in large part to Catholicism, which also arrived with the Spanish conquistadors. My mother, for example, is the eldest of eight children. Then there are the cousins, aunties, uncles, grandparents, great grandparents, second cousins, second aunts and uncles, godparents, honorary godparents, sponsors, drivers, cooks and nannies. And that’s before you’ve included co-workers or a poor soul on the street who needs your aid. The Filipino notion of family comprises more than one’s immediate unit. To a foreigner, these numbers – and the responsibility that comes with it, monetary or otherwise – can be overwhelming. To Filipinos, it offers a sense of belonging. There is a term for this too: bayanihan. Whatever happens, for good or for bad, we’re in it together.
That evening, I joined my cousins as they did the rounds in their big van to drop off all the pasalubong. We’d arrive at a friend’s place, toot the horn and out they’d come. “Thank you, you shouldn’t have!” they’d say. It was both mock and genuine; there’s an expectation of pasalubong, but equal heartfelt surprise upon receiving it. At relatives’ homes, we’d go in and pay our respects. They would offer snacks of noodles, even full-blown meals. Having just eaten, we’d kindly refuse – only to finally crumble. There’s no winning that argument with a Filipino, no matter how hard you try. By the end of the night, the bounty had been scattered across town. In the city of Calapan on the island of Mindoro, friends and family were enjoying a taste of Cebu, a city hundreds of kilometres away. The trip was taken by just a few, but enjoyed by a whole brood. It was touching to see.
While pasalubong can be as simple as an extra dish ordered at a restaurant for someone who wasn’t able to make it, or a novel treat picked up for a loved one on the way home, keepsakes from the road are particular favourites. As I continued travelling, I took note of each town’s pasalubong. I was enamoured with the tradition. Tracking down specialties was easy; locals were proud ambassadors and a simple request would reveal where to find stores specialising in famous ham or the sweetest, freshest mangoes. Surprisingly, buying en masse takes some getting used to; I stockpiled as much as I could.
Along the way, I discovered pasalubong best exemplifies the regionality of Filipino food. Generally speaking, the country’s cuisine, heavily influenced by the Chinese, Spanish and Americans, is light on local dishes. Instead, classics are given regional twists all across the country. Pasalubong, by contrast, highlights unique specialties.
Often, local ingredients take centre stage. On Negros island, home of former sugar barons, saccharine treats reign. The exotic island was among the country’s grand sugar plantation estates in existence during the 18th century; the illustrious hacenderos (landowners) have faded from their sweet stature, but the region’s reputation (and industry) for sugar and patisserie continues to this day. Muscovado, unrefined brown sugar with a rich molasses flavour, is the country’s sugar of choice and piaya, a crisp flatbread oozing with caramelised dark gold granules, is the region’s muscovado star.
A special nut steals hearts in Bicol and further afield. Native to the Philippines, pili grows abundantly in the lush surrounds of southern Luzon. Harvesting the nut from the fruit is at great cost – the fragile kernel can only be extracted from its hard shell by skilled hands – but the prize is worth the toil; pili’s buttery flavour and puff pastry-like finish is truly one of a kind. The long and flat, tapered nut is typically caramelised or ground into meal to be used in baked goods, such as pili nut marzipan. One of the region’s top producers of pili pasalubong is credited for the original recipes: the owner’s great, great grandfather, a Spaniard, settled in the region and, besotted by the nut, used it in heirloom recipes from his motherland, substituting pili for almonds.
A new culinary tradition was born.
The island of Camiguin in the northern seas off Mindanao is home to another sweet rarity: pastel. The soft brioche filled with yema (condensed milk custard) claims no special local ingredient or cooking technique – just an enterprising home baker whose dream and creation turned this into a multi-store business. Pastel is one of the country’s best-kept pasalubong secrets; seemingly, only guests to this small but impressive Jurassic Park-esque isle know of the addictive, melt-in-your-mouth bun. Not surprising, since it’s only sold in Camiguin and across the water in mainland Cagayan De Oro.
Other pasalubong are not unique to one region, so it’s often the skill of a local artisan who pulls in the crowds. In Baguio, in the cool mountain ranges of northern Luzon, out-of-towners amass bottles of ube halaya (purple yam jam). This is a popular topping for Filipino favourite halo-halo (a shaved ice dessert) and is also eaten straight off a spoon. The jam is divine in more ways than one – it’s made by dedicated nuns at the Good Shepherd Convent, where sales of it, plus peanut brittle and other specialties, have been subsidising the convent and its charities for more than 50 years. Neither pity nor support explains the products’ popularity – they stand on their own as some of the country’s finest tasting examples.
After the experience of my cousins’ pasalubong from Cebu, I travelled to the city myself. The pasalubong they’d given had a desired effect – it whet my appetite for more. I searched out dried mangoes, collected otap and piled up packets of peanut kisses. En route, I chanced upon another of Cebu’s sweet pasalubong treasures – budbud kabog (millet cooked in coconut milk, steamed in banana leaves, then drizzled with a rich chocolate sauce). This soft and creamy, cigar-shaped dessert falls into the category of kakanin (native treats) called suman (steamed rice cakes), a particular Filipino favourite. I packed a bundle into my suitcase, along with everything else to share with loved ones I had waiting for me back home.
Photography Sean Fennessy