Behind Rice Culture In The Philippines

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rice fields

A simple dish, as the name suggests, garlic rice or sinangag is a version of rice that has won my heart as the best accompaniment to delicious seafood and vegetable dishes. The humble fried garlic that is usually then fried together with plain white rice can be eaten with stir fried vegetables, curry dishes or chicken adobo (a popular dish in the Philippines made with soy sauce). What makes it so simple also makes it so addictive, and your nose will easily betray your yet undiscovered need to get this into your belly as soon as possible.

Rice Culture In The Philippines

Rice is a staple of the Philippines, as it is in many Asian countries. It is the mainstay of every meal, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Garlic rice specifically became the go-to option in the island country for the flavor and smells it brought to the table. If I happened to forget to order it, smells of it wafting from nearby diners would make me soon regret the mistake. Usually made from leftover and cold rice, it is a small reminder that every bit of our resources can’t go to waste because day old rice can taste just as delicious — or even better.

Riding through the countryside of the Philippines, you will find the scenic rice fields famous in Southeast Asia, and you might start wishing that life was always that beautiful. Families advertise their rice and gasoline on signs along the road, and workers in the field wear the recognizable straw hats to keep the sun away. Breezing by on a motorbike is hardly a glimpse into their lives, but the views give a sense for the land and the relationship the people have with it. It makes you think about whether you have what it takes to step into their shoes.

I visited shortly after the super typhoon Haiyan that hit in November 2013, and one of the main items that waited to be shipped internally were large bags of rice for relief efforts. Westerners like myself have become accustomed to not knowing where our food comes from, and the rice we buy is usually purchased from a company selling large heavy bags of rice grown in an unknown corner of the globe; however, in the Philippines people grow their own rice or buy it directly from their neighbor. They are affected by the seasons and the climate, tending the fields every day to ensure the wellbeing of their crop. In essence, they know their plants like Americans know their smartphone apps.

Customs And Traditions Around Rice

Rice growing is such a strong part of tradition and culture that they have many customs and superstitions tied to their main crop. One such custom is sowing seed in the upland only during high tide. If the farmer can’t tell the tide because they are too far inland, they will tell the tide by looking in the eyes of a cat. The thinking is when the tide is high, the cat’s eyes expand, and when low, they contract.

prime rib garlic fried rice

The Garlic Rice Experience

This was my first time seeing a source of this life-giving crop, and I was humbled to be just another tourist passing through.

Although I’ve been eating rice all my life, I never thought of combining garlic with rice. I was blown away the first time I ate it at how much it made sense, which is probably why it has become a regular dish in the Philippines. Some might even say a Filipino party isn’t a party without garlic rice. As I spent more and more time in the Philippines, I soon learned to consider my opinion of a restaurant by its garlic rice. I tasted more garlicky and less garlicky rice, as well as super dry and oily varieties. Each cook has their own way to prepare the dish, adding a personal signature on a typically understated staple.

chicken adobo

Chicken adobo. Photo courtesy of Roberto Verzo.

Making It On Your Own

If you’d like to try making this dish yourself, the best type of rice is a mid or long grain, leftover from the day before. The rice will fry better when it is a bit drier, so waiting a day will help that process. Cook some sliced or diced garlic in oil first until it is crispy, and then add the cold or room temperature rice. You can use garlic and oil to your liking, but the essence is that the rice is lightly fried with a wonderful garlicky smell and flavor to it. Traditional Filipino dishes like chicken adobo, or fish sinigang or a simple vegetable stir-fry go perfectly with garlic rice just as well as they go with white rice. Classic dishes like chicken adobo and fish sinigang or a simple vegetable stir-fry are easy companions.

Whether it’s a plate of fried rice or a taste of someone’s hard work, garlic rice is something to be enjoyed and celebrated. I’m grateful to have experienced this part of Filipino local culture, and taken away a sense of appreciation for where this rice came from.

Top photo credit: Rice fields in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of kudumomo.

e fields in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of kudumomo.

Jessica Festa
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.
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