By Millie Dizon

When we launched the My City, My SM campaign in late 2009, we were given the rare opportunity to discover the beauty, history, culture, traditions, and great people in our host cities around the Philippines.

While tourism oriented, the campaign made us realize that there were three things that defined us as Filipinos – Faith, Food, and Family. Our faith, which comes from our Spanish colonizers, can be seen in the numerous heritage churches in the countryside; and with it comes close family ties.  Wonderful culinary specialties welcomed us everywhere, as did the warm hospitality Filipinos are famous for.

We also realized how Faith, Food, and Family were invariably linked very much in the Eat, Pray, Love tradition. Families – and friends – gather around a table filled with food lovingly prepared from their kitchens to exchange ideas, celebrate, and sometimes even argue. Of course, today many of the gatherings these days take place in restaurants.

Faith comes in with the simple practice of prayers before meals, as well as the grand fiesta fare prepared during the many festivals honoring each city’s Patron Saint.  On a lighter note, cooking for our family and friends is a great leap of faith for anyone.

Moreover, Faith, Food, and Family converge at SM, a family-oriented mall and dining destination that was among the first to hold Sunday Masses and build chapels for its shoppers.  It is a place where one can Eat, Love, Pray.

With that, we thought of giving the My City, My SM campaign a new dimension by celebrating the flavors of Philippine Regional Cuisine.  And the idea to launch My City, My SM, My Cuisine was born.

In the same way we highlighted our host cities through prominent personalities in the original My City, My SM campaign, My City, My SM, My Cuisine would take our shoppers and Philippine Star readers on a culinary tour around the Philippines.  We would make a stop in each city just in time for their festival, and share this celebration with everyone.

We sought management’s approval for the project, and when it was thankfully granted, it was time to organize and build our team.

Things jelled when we were on our way to Baguio with Metropolitan Museum Trustee Cora Alvina for a joint event we had with the museum. Food was the topic almost throughout the trip, and when we reached the City of Pines, I thought of asking her if she could join us in the project.

Ms. Cora had years earlier worked with my aunt Gilda Cordero Fernando on two groundbreaking books – The Culinary History of the Philippines and Food and Life – and had done much research on Filipino cuisine. As a child, it was Auntie Gilda who taught me how to write, love culture and the arts, but most of all, be down to earth and take a lighthearted approach to life.  Working with Ms. Cora who had been on her team gave us the confidence to embark on this culinary campaign.

We learned a lot of food facts from Ms. Cora, who helped us select recipes for the cookfest.  At the same time, our regional team started their research, touching base with families and foodies in their cities.  What we unearthed was a treasure trove of recipes and culinary gems.

The idea for My City, My SM, and My Cuisine to have a special focus on heirloom recipes came about with the realization that we no longer could savor some of the family specialties we enjoyed as children. Many of these recipes were not written, and with our grandparents and family cooks gone, these somehow were not passed on to a generation that spent little time or had little interest in the kitchen.

We approached prominent families from each city – the Lijaucos and Tiongcos of Santa Rosa, the Pastors and the Montenegros of Batangas, the Lazatins of Pampanga, the Aquinos and Yaps of Tarlac, the Escuderos of San Pablo, the Gordons of Olongapo, the Remullas of Cavite, the Gastons and Puentevellas of Bacolod, the Aboitizes of Cebu – and were amazed how they opened their homes to us, sharing their prized recipes as well as heartwarming stories in the process.

Some of these families had heroes as ancestors, and we were fortunate as their descendants shared with us the favorite recipes of General Emilio Aguinaldo, Dr. Jose Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, and Mariano Ponce.  In Bulacan, the family of historian Mila Enriquez gave us the rare opportunity to sample the food of heroes, as well as the convent chefs and the women of Malolos.

The campaign came at a time when chefs had become celebrities, and we were honored to have no less than Claude Tayag and his family sharing their heirloom recipes with us, as did Chef Rosebud Benitez and Tibong Jardaleza.

Restaurants that had become foodie destinations– Pampanga’s Everybody’s Café, Pangasinan’s Matutina, Davao’s Binggoy’s Gourmet, Rizal’s Balaw-Balaw, and Lucena’s Dealo Coffee Klatch – also took part, as did Naga’s Avenue Hotel and Baguio Country Club through its GM Anthony de Leon.

We were privileged to get a taste of community cuisine from the Cordilleras, the Aetas of Olongapo, the Manobo and Maranao of Davao, the T’boli of GenSan, as well as from Barangay Iponan of Cagayan de Oro.

Also in the community spirit was the cook fest, where participants vied for the best signature recipes – one entrée and one dessert – from each city. This drew a wide range of contestants – students, family cooks, homemakers, even chefs from leading hotels and restaurants.  Our board of judges was equally impressive – foodies like Mickey Fenix, former Tourism Secretary Mina Gabor, cheese maker Olive Puentespina, Marco Polo Davao Executive Chef  Ed Tuazon, and filmmaker Brillante Mendoza.

Now, after two years, more than twenty stops, hundreds of recipes, and memorable foodie experiences, we have compiled this celebration of the best of Philippine regional cuisine in a book.  The table is set.  Enjoy this moveable feast!