Rice is the staple food of the Philippines. For Filipinos, a meal is not complete without rice. In fact, the Tagalog verb “eat”(kain) is just one letter away from the word kanin, which is the Tagalog word for rice. Filipinos eat rice and ulam for all three meals. Ulam is a Tagalog word, roughly translated, for “the stuff you eat with rice” (usually it’s some sort of meat or vegetable dish but it can be pretty much anything). Everything is served as a side to rice. Except for noodle dishes like pansit and spaghetti, which are usually served only for special occasions and birthdays. In such cases, no rice is necessary. Because it was quick and easy to prepare, we ate a lot of tuna and corned beef with rice on my mission, usually cooked with potatoes, sayote, onions, garlic, cabbage, or whatever we had on hand. Eggs, fried spam, and hot dogs with rice were also common. We ate a lot of Raman noodles over rice too (sort of the Filipino equivalent to the American poor college student diet).
Filipinos would often ask me things like, “You mean you don’t eat rice in America? What do you eat then? How do you get full?” Lots of Filipinos assume that bread to Americans is like rice to Filipinos, and so some Filipinos try to bring out a loaf of bread during meals when feeding an American visitor.
I once asked my trainer if she had ever gone an entire day without eating rice. She shook her head, frowned and said, “That would be a miserable day!” She grew up on a rice farm and made sure to inform me at mealtimes that even a few grains of rice on my plate equaled a good amount of manual labor. Wasting it was not in good taste.
My Experience with Rice and Fast Food in the Philippines
Chain restaurants like McDonalds and KFC in the Philippines always include rice on their menu. Instead of being asked if I’d like fries with that when ordering food at Mcdonald’s, the cashier would often ask, “Would you like rice with that?” If I ordered a Big-Mac without a side of rice, my Filipino companions would often ask me in surprise, “You’re not getting rice with that? Are you sure?”
In the Filipino version of KFC, they wrap up their rice all nice-looking in a KFC wrapper, so it almost resembles the shape of a biscuit. I remember the first time I went there, I got excited thinking that my fried chicken came with a biscuit, but opened it up to discover that it was a misleading square block of sticky rice. It was kinda funny. For a while after I got home from my mission in the Philippines, I was so used to having rice at every meal that a meal without it seemed a little strange.
(Contributed by Rebecca, Philippines Baguio Mission, 2009-2011)