The gain from a grain: Rice in Filipino culture

"We cannot survive without rice.” “Rice is the reason why we work.” “I can have a meal with just rice.” “Rice is life.” “When there is rice, there is no hunger.”

These are some of the quotes I gathered when I interviewed my colleagues at Community Economic Ventures, Inc. (CEVI), a Kiva Field Partner, about what rice means to them. Rice plays a big role in the Filipino culture as well as for most other Asian countries. My dad would be the first one to agree that without rice, he is not full.

Beautiful rice fields around Bohol Island

Harvested rice grains being dried by the road. You will see this everywhere in the rural areas of the Philippines.

Unlike western cultures, where a cobb salad is often considered a full meal, Filipinos view salads as something that only the wealthy can afford. Let’s be real, if you live in a major city in the United States, a good salad is not cheap. For example, in San Francisco, a salad can cost between $11 to $13, and if you add proteins or extra toppings the price could go up to $16 or even $20. If you go to a small eatery, or "carinderia," in the Philippines, a meal with rice and some meat and veggies costs only 50 pesos or $1. 

Twenty-one percent of the Philippines’ population lives under the national poverty line of 47 pesos per day (less than $1), and for those involved in hard physical labor jobs, eating salad is not the most sustainable way for their bodies to function. Rice, on the other hand, is a more efficient source of energy and it keeps people full for a longer period of time. 

I remember the first time I went to the supermarket in Tagbilaran City. I saw how each aisle was full of small individually-packaged items, including instant coffee, shampoo and toothpaste. I was thinking to myself: “Why are these products sold this way? That’s a lot of plastic and packaging waste! Why don’t people just buy one large bottle of shampoo or a large tube of toothpaste?” 

Coming from the eco-friendly city of San Francisco, this was something that was bothering me. I decided to ask my colleagues for the reason behind this and everything made much more sense. Not all Filipinos have a job in which a good paycheck is guaranteed twice a month. Those who live with a small budget or with what they earn day by day can’t afford to buy a bottle of shampoo for 160 pesos ($3.2), so instead they buy small individually-packaged products that cost 5 pesos (2.5 cents) and will last them about 5 days. 

An example of individually packaged products

However, Filipinos are willing to spend their extra money on rice.

Instead of small packages of rice, they will buy at least 3 to 5 kilos at a time. One time, the staff at the supermarket looked at me weirdly when I asked for 500g of rice (I was moving to a new city in couple of days so I didn’t need that much). He told me that I needed to buy at least 1 kilo. I was holding up a line of 10 other people who were all puzzled by my request as well. I eventually convinced the man that I had done this before, so he gave me the rice. 

Filipinos makes good use of their rice and there are a wide variety of foods that they often pair with it. Besides eating it as part of their breakfast, lunch and dinner, they make snacks, desserts and other rice-related meal products. To give you an idea, please see the pictures below for a few examples: 

Rice with pancit, which is stir fried rice noodles.)

Puso: rice wrapped and boiled in a triangular casing made of woven coconut leaves that give a unique leafy flavor. It is also called hanging rice. This is usually served with BBQ meat or grilled items

Arroz Caldo: Filipino rice porridge with chicken slices. It's usually served with hard boiled eggs, chopped scallions and roasted garlic. This can be eaten at anytime of the day.

Rice cake made from sticky rice (locally known as malagkit), coconut milk and brown sugar.

"Bud Bud": sticky rice cakes mixed in coconut milk and salt and wrapped in banana leaves. They are usually eaten during breakfast or as a snack. 

Binignit: a Visayan dessert soup from the central Philippines. It usually has plantains, tapioca pearls, coconut milk and glutinous rice balls. They are usually eaten as a "merienda" or snack.

I think you get the idea. Filipinos LOVE their rice. When you come to visit the Philippines, be prepared to try all of these rice-related foods and treats. Also, bring your sweet tooth because Filipinos love their sweets, too!

A co-worker once told me that when someone is able to bring rice back to the dining table, it means that the head of the family has made money that day and all of their children will have a warm meal that night. So, next time you are thinking about throwing away that extra rice, think twice. Consider saving it for the next day and use it to make delicious snacks or deserts!

Thank you for reading. If you have any questions about any of the food or snacks I mentioned here, feel free to reach out!

About the author

Yaris Ng Pang

Yaris comes from a background of work in the travel and hospitality industry, focused mainly in hotel management, events, and service operations. She is a Chinese descendant who was born and raised in Venezuela. She lived in Guangzhou, China and New York City before moving to San Francisco. Yaris worked for Starwood Hotels and Resorts and before switching to a more social impact focused career. In her most recent job, in the field of economic and community development, she implemented neighborhood revitalization strategies in emerging neighborhoods in San Francisco. As a Project Manager, Yaris planned and executed outreach projects and development initiatives with major community organizations. Yaris holds a B.S. in Hotel Administration from Cornell University. She is super excited for this amazing opportunity at Kiva and looks forward to working with all of the partners in the Philippines, East Timor, and Kenya!