‘Bahay Kubo’, a Song of the Philippines
Words by Mark Corbyn; Illustration by Sinjin Li
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Around 2019, there was a moment in food and culture writing when there was widespread uproar about about the various things white people had stolen from the Indian subcontinent (tulsi, coconut oil, turmeric, Dev Patel). More than twice, I was asked to express my concern on these phenomenon, which I wasn't familiar with or bothered by because there were more urgent concerns than parvat-asana being messed with somewhere in the West; back home, the fascists had their knives to our throats.
Of all these contentions, the biggest one was chai — and there were demands for it to be “taken back” and questions about who it “belonged to” were constantly raised. Even if it may be true that chai does not belong to Starbucks, the idea that its ownership must be handed over to India as a whole is far from accurate. If anything, and if this proprietorship must in-fact be determined, chai belongs only to the indigenous communities who have been growing tea for centuries, exploited by British imperial landlords and then by dominant-caste Indian landowners and industrialists— all of whom have profited off their land.
In all post-colonial societies, these things that carry nostalgia - in and out of diaspora - are often buttered with brutality and complex intricacies. Mark Corbyn is aware of this when he writes about the Filipino children’s song, Bahay Kubo. Through the song, which he heard as a child and now sings to his daughter, Mark outlines the history of land acquisition, language and power in the Philippines, and shows us how in societies where land and political rule are as volatile as the other, food is often imbued with violence and displacement; a dish or ingredient always means many things at once. Mark draws scenes filled with both beauty and pain, interwoven with contexts of the colonial and post-colonial Filipino state; and his own life in eating and understanding Filipino food and passing it on to his daughter. It’s food writing of my favourite kind, the type which resists being consumed as easily palatable discourse. SD
‘Bahay Kubo’, a Song of the Philippines, by Mark Corbyn
It was the summer of 2021, and my head was swimming. We had a baby – our little girl Zoë – on the way, and there seemed to be an ever-growing list of things to finish off before she arrived. My wife and I fretted about what we needed to do to make our flat welcoming for a baby. And of course, there were doubts clouding my mind – was I ready to be a father, and would I be a good one?
Thankfully, preparing the nursery provided a soothing escape. With each stroke of the paint roller, I was bringing colour to what had been an austere room, bare of furniture and dressed in white and grey. As my work progressed, my thoughts turned to the stories I might read to our little girl, the songs I would sing to her. A tune started to form in my head, indistinct at first, but soon enough the words popped up and the song was fully formed in my head:
Bahay kubo, kahit munti
Ang halaman doon ay sari-sari.
Singkamas at talong, sigarilyas at mani
Sitaw, bataw, patani.
Kundol, patola, upo’t kalabasa
At saka meron pang labanos, mustasa,
sibuyas, kamatis, bawang at luya
sa paligid-ligid ay puno ng linga.
The song was ‘Bahay Kubo’, a traditional Tagalog folk tune with a short length and simple melody. Its lyrics describe a style of Filipino country house with the same name, whose thatching is often made from nipa palm leaves – lending this style its other name of ‘nipa hut’. The walls of a bahay kubo are made from a mixture of wooden panels and woven material like bamboo, wood or leaves. They are supported and raised up by four stout stilts, meaning a ladder or stairs is required to enter the elevated doorway.
In the song, as in life, the nipa hut is surrounded by a bounteous garden with many vegetables and legumes. There are eighteen in the song altogether: singkamas (jicama); talong (aubergine); sigarilyas (winged beans); mani (peanuts); sitaw (string beans); bataw (hyacinth beans); patani (lima beans); kundol (winter melon); patola (sponge gourd); upo (bottle gourd); kalabasa (squash); labanos (white radish); mustasa (mustard leaves); sibuyas (onion); kamatis (tomatoes); bawang (garlic); and luya (ginger). The song ends gently, on the line sa paligid-ligid ay puno ng linga – ‘and all around, there are sesame seeds’.
The vegetables mentioned in ‘Bahay Kubo’ are seen as representative of the produce of the Philippines. In 2016, Jordy Navarra, chef at the acclaimed Toyo Eatery in Manila, aimed to create a signature dish based on the song, incorporating all eighteen vegetables into a single dish. He told CNN Philippines that the dish is ‘fun, it’s playful, everyone understands it. All Filipinos know it. Ingredient-wise, it’s very, very local kasi (because) all of the vegetables in the song are local’.
The appearance of ‘Bahay Kubo’ in my mind surprised me, but it was quite timely: my wife and I had started talking about how we would teach Zoë about her Filipino heritage. And what better way than by starting with the song? Just about every Filipino knows it by heart, having learned the lyrics as a child, either at home or in school. I learnt it from our domestic helper in Hong Kong, yaya Rachel, who would often sing it to me whilst feeding me fried fish and rice by hand, kamayan-style.
As I sing ‘Bahay Kubo’ to Zoë, bringing to life the small nipa hut and the vegetable-rich patch of land it sits on, I can’t help but think – who owns it all? The song presents an image of a rural idyll of plenty, but when set against the realities of a deeply unequal Filipino society, this presentation becomes far more questionable, masking the country’s contentions of land, language and power that have deep roots, reaching far back into colonial times.
‘Bahay Kubo’ was first documented by the academics and musicians Emilia S Cavan and Francisco Santiago in 1924 when, along with other folk songs from all over the country, it was recorded as part of a movement to preserve cultural heritage. But, with such a variety of songs in the Philippines – a nation with up to 187 different languages – how did a simple Tagalog song come to be so popular?
The answer is in the way that many Filipinos learn it – at school, as part of Filipino language classes. When ‘Filipino’ was instituted as the national language in 1937, it used as its basis Tagalog, the language of Manila and southern Luzon. Yet this method, of using Tagalog songs like ‘Bahay Kubo’ to make young children learn the new national language, is referred to by Cambridge-based scholar and writer Jill Damatac as a level of ‘erasure’. Damatac remembers learning the song, and an accompanying dance, for her school’s end-of-year recital. As she was educated in Filipino, and was encouraged to read, write and speak it in formal spaces, she eventually forgot large parts of the Ilocano she grew up speaking with her father at home. As for many others, learning Filipino has given Damatac the means to partake in a common culture. But it is a culture largely defined by Tagalog Manila, which means that her own regional and familial linguistic identity has been relegated or even lost; in attempting to forge a new national identity, the capital’s language has usurped the various others of the Philippines (my wife, for example, speaks Cebuano). Like Damatac, many Filipinos lament what they call ‘imperial Manila’: the idea that the capital has long dominated and subjugated other areas of the country for its own gain.
Manila’s prominence rose when the Spanish made it their colonial capital in 1574; for nearly 250 years after this, silver from the Americas was shipped in on the Manila-Acapulco galleons and traded for Chinese and other Asian goods. This made Manila a place where economic, cultural and political power was concentrated, and the rest of the Philippines a pool of resources to be exploited by the colonial elite. Powerful upper-class families dominated as landlords, often exploiting their tenants and sometimes forcing them into debt bondage. Spanish rule also instituted the Catholic Church as a powerful force in the colony. ‘The best tracts of land in some provinces… are in the hands of the religious corporations’, the nationalist writer José Rizal highlighted in his polemic essay ‘Sobre la indolencia de los Filipinos’ (1890).
But perhaps the most extreme example of exploitative landlordism can be seen in the sugarcane plantation economy in the Visayas region. Although sugarcane had been grown in the region for centuries, benefitting from the rich volcanic soils, the industry was turbocharged in the 1850s when the British consul in Iloilo provided investment, enabling the local landowning elite to carve out vast plantations, or haciendas, of sugarcane from the rice paddies and virgin forests on neighbouring Negros island (which has now been quaintly reimagined as Sugarlandia).
This transformed a subsistence agricultural society into one dominated by cash crops for export. Both the locals, who were evicted from their land, and the migrants, who came in search of work, were barred from owning land and planting their own crops, and became dependent on Negrense sugar barons in order to survive. Situations like this continued into the early twentieth century, after the Americans annexed the Philippines in 1902; even after promising redistribution of land, the same legacy of colonial acquisition continued when the United States bought the support of the Filipino elite by transferring to them primary ownership of land in the new Filipino state.
Since then, the Philippines has been a country where hundreds, if not thousands, died of famine in Negros when the sugar industry crashed in the 1980s; where, in 2020, an estimated seven out of every ten farmers were considered landless; where deadly land disputes plague ethnic minority populations in resource-rich Mindanao and the Cordilleras; and where the longest-running communist insurgency in the world continues to be fuelled by rural inequalities.
These are the conditions that drive millions to migrate to cities each year. When they do, a large proportion of these migrants become squatters, occupying marginal land along waterways, roadsides, hillsides, industrial brown-sites – anywhere they can carve out a little space for themselves. Where they can, they grow their own vegetables, recreating a little slice of the rural life they came from – perhaps out of nostalgia, but mostly from necessity. Even for those lucky enough to have land, ownership seems remarkably fragile. I think of my mother’s own childhood: when her family were left impoverished after her father’s death, they were evicted from their home.
It’s in this atmosphere of loss that ‘Bahay Kubo’ becomes more poignant, as both an image of nostalgia for the land and life we once had, and of aspiration to the land and life we could have. As both seem to constantly lie just out of reach, ‘Bahay Kubo’ flourishes in the imagination. In the song, in memory, the nipa hut surrounded by rural idyll remains.
One day, I read the lyrics of ‘Bahay Kubo’ again, and thought about all of the vegetables listed: what Jordy Navarra called ‘the terroir of the Philippines’. I took pause, thinking: will Zoë really be able to experience all of that from my cooking, in a country with a different culinary tradition, culture, economy and climate? Growing up, it was my mother’s food that was perhaps the most tangible manifestation of Filipino-ness in my life. I want something similar for my daughter, too; one of the things I am really looking forward to is cooking Filipino food for Zoë. I want her to come to love the sour flavours of adobo and sinigang, the umami funk of patis and bagoong, the perfumed meatiness of lechon and inasal. Through food, I want to bring not just a taste, but also a sense of the Philippines into her life.
When I told the London-based writer Carla Montemayor about these concerns, she recounted some of her own experiences from having moved to the UK. She has northern heritage from Ilocos, a region famed for its vegetable dishes such as pinakbet. Despite loving pinakbet, it is a dish she has not been able to replicate successfully here in London – ‘I’ve just skipped various dishes from my repertoire because of the absence of the right vegetables.’ She points out that they’re simply not the same: the bitter melon she usually finds here is from India, which is different in size, shape, texture and flavour; bamboo shoots brined in the can cannot compete with the freshly harvested stuff her father used to buy from roadside vendors; and frozen jute leaves have a muddier taste.
For many like Montemayor, because of the lack of the right vegetables, their diet has adapted to what is readily and cheaply available, which is often meat. This change has led to the stereotyping charge that Filipino food is meaty, oily, and high in cholesterol, which I feel is a little unfair. But there is a kernel of truth to it: go to most Filipino restaurants here in the UK, and the most popular dishes on the menu – lechon, adobo, dinuguan, kare kare, kaldereta, crispy pata – are the ones laden with meat and fats, a far cry from the vegetable-rich foods that many in the Philippines grew up with.
And it’s not just the diaspora that has encountered a change in diet. Meat-eating has steadily increased in the Philippines, especially in the cities, where rising incomes and the widespread availability of cheaper meats has resulted in consumption per capita almost doubling between 1986 and 2016. Lechon – the whole roasted pig that my wife’s hometown, Cebu, is famed for – is no longer the preserve of fiestas, but is available every day of the year from the numerous chains in the city specialising in the dish.‘Bahay Kubo’ of course contains no mention of meat or fish whatsoever, not even the ubiquitous native chickens you see roaming backyards and streets across the Philippines. The song speaks to a different image of Filipino cuisine to the one I grew up with, and one which I think many Filipinos, especially in a diaspora, may no longer relate to.
And yet the appeal of the song endures. In the book Bahay Kubo: A Filipino Children’s Song, the anthropologist Stephen Acabado argues that the vegetables mentioned are evocative because they tell Filipinos about ourselves, that like those vegetables we ‘are results of [a] long history of living interactions, resulting [in] a sari-sari, a layered and diverse cultural group of people who continue to evolve, enrich, and emancipate.’ This is because, as Acabado notes, the vast majority of the vegetables in the song originate outside of the Philippines, with several being introduced from the Americas, carried over by Hispanic traders and settlers on the Manila-Acapulco galleons. And yet, these non-native plants have been indigenised in our consciousness, and are now emblematic of the ideal Filipino home garden and palate.
Reflecting on this makes me think of my own varied, sari-sari family: of my dad departing England many decades ago to travel and work around the world; of my mum leaving the Philippines along with many of her family members, who are now scattered across several continents; of my brother, moving to start a family in Japan; of my wife, coming to the UK for new opportunities. And, of course, a product of these living interactions: our little Zoë.
I’ve sung ‘Bahay Kubo’ for Zoë a few times now. I think she is starting to become familiar with the tune and its gentle and melodic lilt, but of course she doesn’t understand the lyrics just yet: the little nipa hut that she has not seen, the many vegetables she has not eaten, the land she has not witnessed. For her, home is a Victorian mid-terrace flat with a small grassy lawn in South East London; the pear tree we planted soon after her birth will likely be her first experience of homegrown food. And when we visit the Philippines, it will be to see family in the highly urban landscapes of Metro Manila and Metro Cebu. So, for now, the idea of a nipa hut and its little vegetable garden is likely to live solely in her imagination.
My wife and I do recognise that Zoë’s experiences of Filipino-ness will be immensely different to both of ours. She was born in the UK and will grow up immersed in a multicultural and English environment. Her understanding of what it may be to be Filipino is unknowable to us. But ‘Bahay Kubo’ and its numerous vegetables still appeal to me as a way of sharing and passing on culture. I think this is because food was my gateway back into exploring my own Filipino identity. It was perhaps the one constant Filipino thing in my life, anchoring me to my heritage even as I traversed different cultural milieux in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK. And I guess it’s only natural that I want to share that experience, that love of food, with my daughter.
Maybe by singing ‘Bahay Kubo’ to her and invoking a land of plenty and of delicious vegetables – what my friend Dianne calls ‘the simple life in the province’ – I can make that happen. I picture her puckering her lips and grinning at her first taste of my adobo, I imagine her greedily gorging on the sweetest Cebu mangoes with my wife, sticky juice covering her face and hands – tasting the Philippines and knowing that it can belong to her too.
Mark Corbyn is an English-Filipino husband and father based in London, who also runs a Filipino catering business called The Adobros, doing supper clubs, pop-ups, event catering and private dining. Aside from all of that, he finds a bit of time here and there to write about what he loves - Filipino cuisine and culture - and has been featured in various food publications.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.
Conversations with: Jo Edna Corbyn, Zyrah Corbyn, Jill Damatac, Dianne Marcos, Carla Montemayor
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Santos, R. P., ‘The UP Conservatory of Music: Nesting Ideologies of Nationalism in a Filipino Music’, TUNUGAN: Four Essays on Filipino Music (2005)
Ventura, T, ‘From Small Farms to Progressive Plantations: The Trajectory of Land Reform in the American Colonial Philippines, 1900-1916’, Agricultural History Vol. 90, No. 4 (2016)
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Caña, P.J., ‘Sugar Wars: Looking back at the Negros Famine of the 1980s’, Esquire Philippines (2021)
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Salazar, T.R., ‘PH among world’s fastest growing meat consumers, say experts’, Philippine Daily Inquirer (2016)
Hernandez, J., 'Sugar Economics', Meryenda (2022)