A Closer Look into the Pampango Foodscape through Burung Asan

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Considered by most as the Culinary Capital of the Philippines, Pampanga is the birthplace of Filipino food classics such as sisig (chopped pig’s face), bringhe (a stickier version of paella), and tamales (savory sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf; not to be confused with the Mexican version). Perhaps this reputation can be attributed to the Spanish colonial era, when Kapampangans were able to adopt the colonizers’ cooking techniques and create dishes that catered to their Spanish tastes.

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Reminiscent of simpler times in the Pampango household, the burong isda — or, in Kapampangan, the burung asan — is considered to be a quintessential delicacy. Traditionally, it is made with high-class rice, bulig (or mudfish), and salt, which is then left to ferment for seven days. The result is a pleasantly salty, sour paste that is paired with mustasa leaves and freshwater fish. But while the burung asan might seem like a relatively simple dish, it tells more about Kapampangan culture and society than it leads on.

While it doesn’t get the unanimous love as most Kapampangan dishes do, it still arguably holds its place in the compendium of Kapampangan cuisine.

A Food Tradition Born Out of Geographical Landscape

How we experience food is often shaped by our landscape, or the environment we perceive and find ourselves in. And that’s understandable, to a certain extent. Those who live near bodies of water are more likely to have fish and seafood in their diet, while mountain dwellers often have a hefty amount of vegetables on their plates.

This is most probably why, of all the places in Pampanga, the town of Candaba is known as the biggest buru producer in the region. Built on the remnants of a prehistoric lake, Candaba often catches floodwaters from the Pampanga River during the rainy season, which then becomes a swamp, attracting fish into the area. These floods usually last for half a year, so residents have had to find ways to preserve their food until the waters subsided. During dryer periods, the municipality produces rice. Buru is thus a response to the recurring changes in the landscape.

Rice and fish have earned their place as two of the area’s biggest agricultural offerings given its geography and culture. Moreover, with a surplus of these staples, creating a time-saving dish that utilized both seemed like the practical thing to do.

Before becoming the delightfully sour paste that is it’s current form, however, buru went through different iterations. In her talk titled “Archaeology of Taste: Digging Deeper into the Pampango Foodscape for a State of its Palate,” University of Georgia PhD candidate Melanie Narciso noted that buru was initially made for household use until World War II. Because of the devastation the war wrought in the area, residents were pressed to find other ways of making a living. Buru then moved from being a household creation to a commercial product.

Additional ingredients had to be added to the mix to prevent spoilage and make buru viable for widespread production and delivery. Along with the introduction of modern rice varieties in the 1970s, the fermentation process was also changed from a one-step method to a two-step method that could last for months.

In the one-step method, cleaned fish, rice, and salt were mixed together and layered in a container, then left to ferment for a week. The two-step process follows the same process, except the initial mixture has more salt in it. This mixture is fermented for around one month to a year. A new, softer variety of rice is then added to the mixture, which is left to ferment for three more days.

The new fermentation process also eliminated the smelly fishy odor that came with the traditional process, making it more palatable for buru makers.

The Burung Asan Today

The buru that we know today is profoundly different from the original. For one, the preference for a less fishy odor and a lighter color is a large leap from the darker buru that consisted mostly of swamp fish. As a Kapampangan myself, I grew up with the white, pasty variety of the burung asan that most people know it as.

This, in turn, has changed how the dish is created. The preference goes back to the sensual associations we make whenever we consume or experience the dish. In Food and the Senses, Dr. David Sutton notes how — according to Claude Levi-Strauss, who’s known as the father of modern anthropology — our senses are “codes that transmit messages.” This means that whenever we sense something, be it heat, texture, or scent, we tend to connect it to something else. Our desire for less smelly buru has to do with our association of it with “dirtiness.”

The same goes for lighter-colored buru. Narciso noted how the older grain and rice variety used in traditional buru brought up negative memories of low-quality NFA rice the Kapampangans used to have back in the day. Because of this, lighter-colored buru came to be seen as the cleaner, higher-quality variety.

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to this change in taste preferences. The addition of other ingredients to buru, such as tomatoes and bouillon cubes, can be considered as hallmarks of the changes in economic stature within the region.

Moreover, buru makers in the region have dwindled considerably because of the time and effort needed to create the dish. And while the creation of odorless and light-colored buru is seen as ideal for food safety, the addition of sodium-laden ingredients to an already salt-heavy dish to begin with puts into the question how “safe” these modified iterations are.

Protecting Culinary Heritage

In today’s world, things appear and disappear quickly. Paradoxically, we’re also given a lot of options to choose from, and this includes food. With such a surplus of choices — in food or otherwise — we run the risk of not having the time to savor what’s presented to us and form strong associations with it. Without these bonds, certain dishes or culinary practices are in danger of falling into eventual obscurity.

While food is there for us to enjoy and savor, it’s also important that we’re aware of what we consider tasty, and what factors might have contributed to this. Without this awareness, we might find vital pieces of our culinary culture slip away from us. Or mistake other dishes as “healthy,” despite its actual ingredients stating otherwise.

This is why, more than ever, it’s crucial to protect the burung asan, an integral part of the Kapampangan foodscape and our culinary heritage, at all costs. While it may not employ complex cooking techniques, its ingredients and the involved processes tell the story of the region in a more intimate manner. When you eat buru with mustasa or freshwater fish, you also ingest the ingenuity of a people who have survived floodwaters and famine. And this is a story only buru could tell.

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That said, it’s important that we recognize and hold on to cultural food traditions. And, of course, that we look deeper into the food we eat. Because in an ever-changing world, we’ll never know how long we’ll have them further.

This article was written by our proudly Kapampangan contributor, Pam Musni. Majority of the information from this piece came from University of the Philippines’ online edition of Binalot Talks, specifically in their talk titled “Digging Deeper into the Pampango Foodscape for a State of its Palate”.

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