In 2017, an internet friend sent me a message: "Would you be interested in a PDF copy of Tikim?" She was referring to Filipino food scholar Doreen Gamboa Fernandez's 1994 book: over 200 pages of essays exploring the culinary culture of the Philippines, from home cooking to street food to restaurants. "I have access to it and I'm going to scan it, then put it on those book sharing sites […] because it's not fair people can't have access to it unless they wanna pay $500. I got mine from the library."
I'd read Tikim, which means "taste" in Tagalog, in college a few years earlier during an independent study on Asian food. My professor, a Filipino food historian, put the book on our syllabus, and we talked about the ways Fernandez's writing helped the country—and the world—take Filipino cuisine seriously. With academic libraries at my disposal, I skimmed the book not realizing that I wouldn't read it again for years.
As I started to write professionally, at times about Filipino food, I encountered exactly the problem this friend took issue with: I couldn't get my hands on a copy, without hundreds of dollars to blow. Yet as much as Fernandez's work eluded me, I saw references to it in stories and podcasts about Filipino food, in a writing workshop I took with the New York Times' Ligaya Mishan in 2018, and in conversation with food writers and people in the diaspora. Tikim was the perfect historical source—but one I couldn't read or cite beyond the few bits online, and I wasn't alone in the search. People with copies of Tikim also have stories about how they struggled to find it.
"I think of her as the most pivotal figure of Philippine gastronomy."
Before the West took vocal interest in the vibrant cuisine of the Philippines, Fernandez was writing articles in the Manila Chronicle and the Philippine Daily Inquirer showing Filipinos that even their daily food deserved reverential, historical treatment. Treating Filipino food as what it was—a cuisine—was a revolutionary act, Mishan wrote in the Times last year in a memorial of the writer, scholar, teacher, and historian who died in 2002. In that piece, the paper's former food editor Raymond Sokolov called Fernandez "the most impressive food writer and historian I ever encountered."
Fernandez wrote a culinary history that, to that point, hadn't been given serious attention. In plain but beautiful language, she identified the indigenous and colonial influence behind the Filipino palate of salty, sour, bitter, and sweet. Food was more than the act of eating, though she certainly enjoyed that; it was a signifier of culture, and she saw writing about food as not only the work of columnists and restaurant critics but of cultural historians, essayists, novelists, and poets especially. "For it is an act of understanding, an extension of experience," Fernandez wrote in Tikim's introduction. "If one can savor the word, then one can swallow the world."
"I think of her as the most pivotal figure of Philippine gastronomy," said Martin Manalansan, a professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota and a co-editor of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader. Like "a culinary archeologist, digging up layers of meaning," Fernandez dissected dishes, flavors, and influences: how cuisine skews the most bitter in the northernmost region of Ilocos, where bile is used for flavoring; how the Tagalog word for alcoholic drinks, "alak," mirrors the Arabic "arak" and the Balkan "raki"; how street food was a necessity for a poor country with a young restaurant tradition. With research and reverence that cast a spotlight on everyday people, she explained the foods Filipinos encountered frequently in simple words, printed in newspapers for anyone. But if Fernandez's writing was intended to be read not just by those with credentials, then why is Tikim so hard to find over two decades later?
To learn about French food, one reads Julia Child; Italian food, Marcella Hazan; Indian food, Madhur Jaffrey. To understand Filipino food, one should read Doreen Fernandez, whose work can enlighten ancestral history for the diaspora and explain the foundations of the cuisine for readers outside it. Despite the reputation that precedes her, finding Fernandez's work internationally is a challenge. Tikim isn't her only book on food—there was Sarap in 1988 and Palayok in 2000—but it is the most well-known. After its first printing in 1994, the Philippines-based Anvil Publishing has reprinted Tikim five times since, most recently in 2019. That reissue, with Mishan's piece now quoted on the back, can be found in bookstores in the Philippines or ordered online by local shoppers for 299 pesos, or about $6.17.
But intermittently out of print and until recently, published and sold only in the Philippines, Tikim is incredibly rare in the American market, despite the size of the Filipino population and the growing interest in Filipino food. Before Anvil's recent reprint, I'd seen online sellers list copies from $300 to $500; listings on Amazon currently range from $130 to $230. Even the reissue is pricey because without large-scale American distribution, sellers who've gotten hold of the book piecemeal price it at a premium: currently between $79 and $99 on various sites that ship to the United States. The WorldCat library catalog lists Tikim's print availability in 48 libraries worldwide.
In the 29 years he's worked at Kitchen Arts & Letters, the New York City seller of rare and out-of-print culinary books, managing partner Matt Sartwell has fielded requests for Tikim, but he can't recall the store ever having had a copy until this year. It's "unfortunately, just so scarce that whenever somebody has a copy, they've decided that it's their meal ticket," he told me last year. "I can't overemphasize the use of that word." Tikim is just one example of a broader issue facing food enthusiasts in search of deeper knowledge about global gastronomy.
The same scarcity applies to many international books about food, since deep histories of global food cultures written in English are limited and appeal to only a small market in the American book industry. Publishers go where the money is, and translating and distributing specialized, international food books is not likely to make any money, Sartwell said. But bringing international books into the US one at a time, as has largely been the case with Tikim, means that readers are the ones who take the financial hit.
As interest in Filipino food grows internationally, Fernandez's work has re-entered the spotlight. Immigrants and their children find validation through her writing in foods they might have felt ashamed of eating, Mishan noted. Chefs highlighting the cuisine find its essence in Fernandez's words and a generation raised on Anthony Bourdain seeks conversations about food with substance, leading to vocal clamor for Tikim in the past few years, according to Anvil's former general manager Andrea Pasion-Flores. "We knew that there was a responsibility to come out with this [reissue] because of the limelight that has been cast not just on Doreen, but on Philippine food in general," she said last year.
"She writes about food, but she does not fall into the fetishization of it."
As much as Manalansan admires Fernandez, people initially underestimated the value of her work, he said. Food writing—particularly in its most common forms—has a reputation, at times, as a pursuit focused solely on chasing pleasure, but Fernandez's approach was journalistic, anthropological, and ethnographic. She offered a framework of cuisine that paved the way for people like Mananlansan, who wanted to think about food and culture with a critical, contextual eye.
By thinking about how food becomes "Filipino," Fernandez saw cuisine as a negotiated process. "It’s a product of people trying to struggle with what’s available, with their own limitations, the environment, what the government [and] the economic conditions will allow, and how tastes actually are not intrinsic to people living in one location," Manalansan said. "She writes about food, but she does not fall into the fetishization of it—the way a fetish is like this one singular object that you imbue with very specific powers that don’t change." Fernandez's vision of food was dynamic: Though she understood Filipino cuisine's history, she also had an eye towards its future.
I didn't get my copy of Tikim until 2020, when the online store Filipino Food Crawl began selling limited quantities of Anvil's reissue. I winced when I bought it for $69, but now, as one of its admirers, I understand the pull to pass on what I can of Fernandez's work. Though she's inspired many writers, nothing beats the original material, and though there might be denser texts on these topics in the Philippines, if they exist, they're even harder to find.
"When I had the book and I deep dived into it, this sounds so extra, but I think I kind of had what other people feel closer to a spiritual or religious [experience]," said Pamela K. Santos, an artist-scholar and writer based in Portland, Oregon. During gatherings with friends, often at Filipino restaurants, Santos has, at times, brought a copy of Tikim in her bag and started the meal by reading from its intro: "The experience of food is ephemeral. What one puts into the mouth is the end result of a process that starts with the sea, the soil, animal life," she'd read, like a prayer.
Santos came across Fernandez while teaching herself to cook Filipino food a few years ago. After seeing Fernandez's name among the sources in the books she got through libraries, Santos marked her down as required reading. "The history and the [origin of dishes] always came back to Doreen," she said. After picking up library fines for keeping the book too long and setting Google alerts for Tikim, Santos got a copy for $50 from a San Francisco Goodwill. Its original sticker remained: 175 pesos, or $3.62 by today's conversion.
"She wanted—and a lot of us want—regular Filipinos to find the specialness of Filipino food rather than it being purely pedestrian."
When Manila-based baker and food writer Chino Cruz started working at the food magazine Yummy, he decided that in order to take food writing seriously, he needed to read Fernandez. "I was like, I'm a big fan of food writing in general, but all my references are American, so there's John Birdsall and Ruth Reichl, but there was never really a Filipina or Filipino to pull from," Cruz said. Though he attended Ateneo de Manila University, where Fernandez taught, he regrets that he didn't matriculate until after she died.
Cruz had difficulty finding Tikim and Palayok in Manila—without the books in stores at the time, people didn't want to give their copies up—but luck took his side one day when his writer uncle passed Tikim down from his large, varied collection. Fernandez became an anchor for Cruz: taking things that seemed obvious to him as a Filipino living in the Philippines, and presenting them in a way that was interesting, thoroughly researched, and written with love. "She wanted—and a lot of us want—regular Filipinos to find the specialness of Filipino food rather than it being purely pedestrian."
Tikim's influences go beyond the food world. "I think that the word 'revelation' is one that comes to mind when I came across Tikim in the Philippines," said Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California Berkeley. In a branch of National Book Store, while spending a few months between 1994 and 1995 in the Philippines doing research on Filipino nurse migration to the US, she was struck by Joanne de León's cover art of a woman savoring the smells and tastes from a spoon she held before her.
"It's about the people who prepare the food with love and care, and not just the food that's prepared at a highbrow restaurant."
Ceniza Choy knew food was essential to understanding Filipino culture and history: one she barely saw reflected in her American education. Fernandez's research cemented histories missing from the American canon, and her view of food through its cultural, historical, familial, and social contexts resonated with Ceniza Choy. The book renewed her appreciation for the experiences and relationships she had as a second-generation Filipino American, born and raised around the immigrant community of New York City.
"It's about honoring where the food comes from; who makes the food, whether it's farmers who are growing the fruits and vegetables, or the fishermen who are getting the bounty from the sea. It's about the people who prepare the food with love and care, and not just the food that's prepared at a highbrow restaurant," Ceniza Choy said. "It is that, but it's also about the mother at home making meals. It's about people on the street, who are sometimes preparing food, sometimes carrying it to sell it."
Through the glossy banner of food writing, Fernandez could be subversive. As Mishan wrote, Fernandez was known as an ally to leaders of the National Democratic Front who opposed the Marcos dictatorship; rebels took shelter in her home, and she dressed their wounds. When she wrote for the magazine Mr. & Ms., its lifestyle format snuck in an anti-Marcos message. "I saw a lot of her food writing as ways to try to poke holes into a technocratic regime during Ferdinand Marcos," said Adrian De Leon, an assistant professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
"I couldn't believe that this book wasn't everywhere."
While her contemporaries were tracing "bourgeois restaurant culture" to highlight modernization, Fernandez suggested that "especially if you're working class, marginalized, poor, rural, and indigenous in the Philippines, you're at the heart of the world-making that becomes appropriated as Philippine cuisine," De Leon said. His work today explores Filipino history from the point of view of the indigenous people of Northern Luzon, the country's largest island—in doing so, he centers those whom history has often excluded from the national image of the Philippines.
As De Leon learned from studying her archives in Manila, Fernandez taught writing to the elite students at Ateneo, then sent them into the streets for interviews and ethnographies of street vendors and the urban poor. "I found that to be her political mission as well: to turn to culture, to turn to the working class, to turn to the vernacular in order to complicate [the] upper class, elitist idea of the Philippine global modernity," he said. Though he prefers Sarap—which he sees as "more explicitly and also locally attuned to the Philippines itself" since Fernandez wrote it before gaining global attention—De Leon said last year he would "teach the hell out of" Tikim if it were more available.
Between 1995 and 2018, Ceniza Choy didn't think consciously about Fernandez's work though she admired it as she worked on her book, Empire of Care, published in 2003. That changed in 2018 when, as a professor at Berkeley, Ceniza Choy invited educator, activist, and cook Aileen Suzara to give a talk about food to students in her Asian American history course.
"I talked to her class and included some quotes from Tikim because it talks about: How do you retrace your food roots?" Suzara said. As a natural chef, former farmer, and member of the Filipino diaspora, Suzara has always felt a longing to be more connected to land and to recover cultural foodways. When she found a copy of Tikim on a visit to the Philippines around 2009, it weaved together threads she'd drawn out around understanding ancestral spirit and connecting resistance and food. "I couldn't believe that this book wasn't everywhere," she said. Holding that documentation in her hands was a reminder of legacy: "I think that [for] all of us doing any of our work, whether we're completely aware of it or not, someone has made the path forward."
Between Suzara's reference to Fernandez and the conversations in class, Ceniza Choy was elated—until Suzara mentioned that many of Fernandez's books, Tikim included, were out of print. "When she mentioned that, I felt deflated. I was just stunned. How could this be possible? Because that work is so seminal," Ceniza Choy said. Since 2017, Ceniza Choy had co-edited Brill Publishing's Gendering the Trans-Pacific World series with Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, and she thought: "I can utilize this role to bring the book back into print."
In March 2018, Ceniza Choy brought the idea to Brill, and the international academic publisher was supportive. As a Filipino American and as a historian in the diaspora, she had an emotional investment in making the work accessible to Filipinos worldwide. Still, she doesn't see its appeal limited to Filipinos or even food scholars: To her, Tikim is instructive for anyone interested in culture at all. After Brill licensed the title from Anvil, it released Tikim in hardcover and e-book form in October 2019, with a forward by Suzara and an editor's preface by Ceniza Choy. Both versions are now available for $198, though the electronic edition is more affordable with institutional affiliation. Thanks to this reprint, Ceniza Choy will use Tikim for the first time this year in the Filipino American history course she's taught since 2004.
De Leon still takes issue with Tikim's current availability though. Hardcover and with small print, Brill's edition seems to him like a text for libraries and academic instutions, as opposed to the paperback version that could be read by anyone, anywhere. "I think the actual material history and the material politics of where [Tikim and Sarap] have gone is precisely the problem," he said. His ideal would be to see the books at $15 to $20 each, so a broad American audience could have access to them, too. And, as Santos said, finding Fernandez's books through libraries requires a knowledge of interlibrary loan systems that can prevent "the average tita and lola" from just asking for them.
"Publishers can't make direct comparisons and are thus reluctant to take a risk."
Tikim's historical yet accessible approach to Filipino food remains unmatched by options in the American market. Though new cookbooks—like Miguel Trinidad and Nicole Ponseca's I Am Filipino, published in 2018—incorporate historical information, specialized culinary histories remain rare. "Part of it is that people have to buy them," Sartwell of Kitchen Arts & Letters told me last year. "I think, to be quite frank about it, it's the kind of thing where a lot of people feel like, oh my god, of course, this is so wonderful, what a great idea, it should exist—but they don't support it with their money."
The bookstore finally got Tikim this month, with the help of a local entrepreneur looking to raise awareness of Filipino food in the US. Sales have been "modest out of the gate," Sartwell said, because the book is priced at $80. On this point, the shop's listing is apologetic: "There is no denying that the price, reflecting not only a small print run but the costs of importing the book from more than 13,000 kilometers away, is higher than we would like. […] However, we felt we simply had to offer this book."
The American food landscape is broadening its horizons, but the long held baseline of Eurocentric culture and familiarity is still the axis on which it all turns. Nuanced and specialized stories about global food are easily written off as "too niche" as food media positions itself as always introducing new cultures to this particular, myopic perspective. Though interest in these deep dives is fervent in certain circles, it's still a small market, lowering the value proposition for publishers who have overhead costs to offset. The stories the publishing system deems valuable, as a result, are the ones with financial value.
But it's a circular problem: "It's often the case that specialized books don't have obvious predecessors in the way that a book on, say, Instant-Pots or soup might," Sartwell said this year. "So publishers can't make direct comparisons and are thus reluctant to take a risk. Which means that they don't ever have obvious predecessors for comparison, and don't ever take the risks."
"For those who have not read something like Doreen in their lives, what will [reading it] plant in them, or what are the questions it will spark?"
Despite the challenges, it's true that Tikim is more accessible today than it has been in a long time. Having benefited from Fernandez's commitment to Filipino food and culture, several of the scholars I talked to saw passing on her work as a responsibility: If it meant so much to them, then what could it mean for others in the diaspora, and how could it enrich the understanding of people outside the culture?
Just as Fernandez saw cuisine shifting in response to social and historical contexts, the way readers can experience her work now—and what it can inspire—are also dynamic. "To continue her work means to think, to critically interpret what her work was in the first place," said De Leon. Through Tikim, Fernandez shaped a new understanding of culture, and the work she started isn't over—it continues as long as people continue to find the path she helped establish.
"For those who have not read something like Doreen in their lives, what will [reading it] plant in them, or what are the questions it will spark?" Suzara said. "I really want to see ways that people are going to reconnect to that writing and that viewpoint, find ways to make it real for themselves, and to look a totally different way."
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