Mehol K. Sadain

One’s culture is the totality of one’s life experience, and the culture of a people is that same totality developing over time. It is a co-mingling of history, tradition, arts, social institutions, communal and individual achievements, and yes, culinary heritage.

The foods you eat, the flame and the flair that go into cooking these foods, and naming them, are like roots that delve deep into a people’s psyche and leafy tendrils that attach to their lives. These delicacies are sights and tastes to be treasured because they are part of a people’s culture.

Thus, when someone takes even just one recipe, names it differently to the deliberate exclusion of its place and people of origin, arrogates it unto himself or his group, and worse, submits it to a competition with all its accoutrement of lies and misrepresentations, you know there is something very wrong with the matter. But this is exactly what happened in a competition sponsored by Mama Sita, a local manufacturer of ready-to-use sauces and condiments. A contestant from Zamboanga City submitted an entry on the satti dish, naming it Satti de Zamboanga with nary a mention of its real source as Sulu and the Tausug of that island province. It won a prize in the Mga Kuwentong Pagkain contest of Mama Sita, chosen by five culinary expert judges who should know better, but apparently did not. The matter came to my attention more than a month after it was publicized by Mama Sita as its Mindanao category awardee. So I had to correct it, and others followed suit.

Before going any further, let me be clear: I, and for that matter, the Tausugs have no qualms about sharing their native delicacies with others, for after all, food is the universal language of the stomach. Neither do we prevent others from cooking it, or even selling it, for food may likewise be anyone’s source of livelihood. We are not stingy about sharing our foods; but we are extremely proud and protective of them. This is natural for everybody: The Ilocanos with their pinakbet, the Kapampangan with their sisig, the Bicolanos with their laing, the Ilonggos with their chicken inasal, and so on. These foods are identified with them. This is because food is part of our culture as a people or an ethnic group.

Misrepresenting a people’s cultural truth is like divesting that people of their culture; and deliberately doing it is akin to cultural robbery. It is a form of dishonesty that to me is worse than plagiarism. In plagiarism, you rob just one person of his words which makes you intellectually dishonest; in cultural robbery, you rob an entire people of their culture, and that makes you not just dishonest, but bigoted as well. The cultural misappropriation of the satti should be more condemnable than the academic misrepresentation of plagiarism, especially if the culprit knows the truth.

Reading about it from the Mama Sita facebook page, I could not believe that this contestant came from my high school alma mater — an institution that emphasizes the pursuit of the truth pro Deo et patria. In my days there, we were taught to uphold the truth, even at our own expense. As such, we owned up to our juvenile mischiefs and misdemeanors, individually and collectively, even if it meant marching around or standing at the school quadrangle for hours, or lifting our chairs overhead while standing at the back of the classroom.

Nobody ever apologized for the offense (on the part of the perpetrator) or the gaff (on the part of Mama Sita). Last time, I checked, Mama Sita has taken down the vexatious post. Apologies hardly matter for now; we are more concerned that our uproar over social media has effectively relayed our message and warning: “You mess with our culture; you mess with us”. (MKS)

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