Cocido, the cuisine then and now
I have always been a fan - a gourmand for Bicolano cuisine. The spicy laing, pinangat, binakol, kinunot, and Bicol Express, all cooked in creamy coconut milk, are one of a kind. The kinalas, pancit bato, kadingga and other coconut, and pili-based finger foods like the bukayo, biniribid and nilubak are another. But it is the cocido that I rave most about; the simple sinabawang isda cooked Bicol style is so easy to prepare in one setting. Budget-wise, it is also one of the most affordable yet nutritious and tasty soup meals. Just boil water with the aromatics of garlic, onion, ginger, shallots, and tomato, generous drips of kalamansi juice with any fish, and we have the delicious healthy broth with fresh kangkong or sweet potato tops (talbos ng kamote) available anytime. Season with salt or patis (fish sauce) and presto! I can devour a bowl of hot cocido, especially with the tasty fresh harvest salmon or talakikotok fish head (ulo-ulo) and a half cup of brown rice.
Decades ago, it was our Mommy Eliza’s favorite dish for the entire family, along with the sumptuous beef stew cooked in her favorite pressure cooker. But the cocido, the most simple food to prepare, was a standout. I knew then that every Bicolano in every barangay would still afford to relish cocido in the family home, no matter how infrequent. It remains a favorite family dish even at social functions. But today, with rising prices and scarcity of caught fish, cocido has become costly and a luxury dish for most Bicolanos and Filipinos from low-income groups. As a staple, fish now costs 400 to 900 pesos a kilo, and the aromatics of onions, garlic, and ginger would cost five times more a kilo. A hearty bowl of cocido may now cost 300 pesos for a family of six. If things get awry, we may still have cocido on the table - just the sabaw (soup) without the fish!
In Bicol, “cocido” or “kusido” refers to a dish of boiled fish and vegetables in water, rice wash or coconut liquid. It is said to come from the Spanish word “cocido” which means “cooked” about “boiled fish or meat and vegetables”. Food historians claim cocido is the past participle of the Spanish verb cocer (“to boil”), so it means “boiled.” In Portuguese, the word cozido means “cooked,” “boiled,” or “baked,” being the past participle of the verb cozer (“to cook,” “to boil,” or “to bake”).
Most Filipinos believed cocido originated from Spain and Portugal, like other colonial foods that Bicolanos learned. But with research, I found out it did not. According to food historians, the history of Spanish food has 100% to do with its geographical position on the Iberian Peninsula (composed of Spain and Portugal). Firstly, being almost surrounded by water, Spain was accessible to many countries. The maritime nature of the Peninsula opened it up centuries ago to the invasion by the Moors, a group of Arabic colonizers who settled in Africa. The group settled in what is now modern-day Spain for approximately 900 years. With this invasion, they brought their own culture, including food, notably stews like cocido. It then became a favorite wintertime dish for many Spaniards.
There came the Siberian, Indian, Chinese, and Caribbean variants to the stew or cocido, which means they also went to the Iberian Peninsula, Spain, for some time and came to influence the local gastronomy. Other civilizations - Phoenicians, Romans, and Greeks arrived in Spain, leaving their mark on the country’s culinary culture. The Phoenicians inhabited the North African coast and southern Europe, and many products reached Spain from these areas along sea trade routes.
As research shows, much of the current cuisine of Spain is a reminder of the Muslim tradition when the Muslims once conquered Spain from 711 to 1492. The influence on their food was profound. There was the gastronomy called Andalusia, very rich and varied, like cold soups, and because the occupants were Muslims, they only used fish and not pork in cooking. One of the main cooking techniques the Arabs taught the Spaniards was pickling, especially fish in vinegar. I would believe that the Bicolano inun-unan, or fish cooked in vinegar, which is also a trendy dish in Bicol, had the same influence. Since then, until Spain became the new conqueror, Spanish gastronomy has evolved over the centuries. It remains a traditional stew famous in Spain, Portugal, and their colonies, including the Philippines, where they developed different versions. In fact, cocido is Spain’s national dish, not paella!
As time passed, the cocido as a cuisine came to Bicol as it evolved its version uniquely, a healthy, tasty fish and vegetable soup meal that I cherish. The native kalamansi, kangkong, and sweet potato tops or talbos ng kamote became staple ingredients, cooked in the Bicol tradition, boiled in clear broth from fresh coconut water (buko juice) or plain water (I use rice wash), onion, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes sliced into quarters with the chopped fresh fish heads (which I prefer). The “lowly” simple kangkong (called water spinach in English) is a “superfood” because of its rich nutrients like vitamins B6 and B5, high in iron, good for preventing anemia, manganese, copper, and phosphorous.
But with the soaring prices of its ingredients today, the cocido on the table of a low-income family may still be lucky to have only the sabaw or boiled water with powdered lemon to taste and without the fish anymore! A sad plight for the Bicolano’s favorite fish-vegetable soup meal.