FOOD

Resilience makes everything in Negros taste sweet

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Sugar farmers hard at work on a rainy day. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

I often dream of living in the perfect town. Not too idyllic, not too loud. I like the idea of being friends with my neighbors who cook well and have lots of fun gossip to share, surrounded by history, but also feeling like a speck — hanging out in the park with everybody else while eating my favorite snack (carbs) for merienda. In this happy town, I am well-fed with a high daily step count. That’s because I can practically walk everywhere.

For a moment, this dream felt real. But I could only stay in Negros Occidental for a short period of time.

The province of Negros Occidental is found in the Western Visayas region, with Bacolod City as its capital. It’s known as the Sugarbowl of the Philippines because of its long history as our country’s main producer of sugar; more than half of our country’s sugar output is sourced out of this province. Negros has since weathered socioeconomic storms in the 20th century — from the Japanese invasion in World War II (as depicted in Peque Gallaga’s 1982 film “Oro Plata Mata”), the uprising of farm workers against wealthy hacienderos, to the global decline of sugar prices causing an oversupply of sugar in the country. And like the rest of the world, the province also felt the effects of the pandemic, with small businesses bearing the brunt of this economic downturn. Amid the surge of sugar prices in the country (around ₱95 pesos per kilo, as of writing), sugar prices in Negros are relatively more affordable (during our visit, around ₱70 per kilo). It helped that the province has diversified its agricultural planning, making them less reliant on sugar yields exclusively.

Negros Occidental has been through a lot, and its golden days as the sugar capital may seem long gone. But as I learned during my recent visit, a sweetness still lingers on its streets. Sugar, it turns out, isn’t the only thing worth visiting the province for. While its tourism industry only began to grow in the ‘90s, according to the Negros Occidental Tourism Office, it has since become an underrated tourist destination for local and foreign visitors. Negros is known for its well preserved ancestral homes and its abundance of delicious food. And when I say abundance, I don’t mean this lightly. On our first night in Bacolod City, we enjoyed an 11-course tasting menu at the Secret Garden in collaboration with local chefs Nico Millanes and Don Colmenares. I had to be rolled out of that place.

Negrense chefs Don Colmenares and Chef Nico Millanes. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

The Association of Negros Producers giving the media teaser of all the food showcased at the Negros Trade Fair. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Apparently, this is only what is to be expected. Negros Occidental Governor Bong Lacson, who we had the privilege to sit with that dinner, said of our trip, “If you did not gain weight, we did not treat you well.”

I thought I knew how to eat. It turns out, I had just never been to Negros. Negrenses have turned food and entertainment into an art form, one that doesn’t feel insular or difficult to comprehend. Negrense food is nuanced but unfussy, sophisticated but welcoming. I can still hear our lovely hosts from the Association of Negros Producers (ANP) inviting us to partake in all kinds of meals, from big lunches to post-museum piaya treats, speaking around us in melodic Hiligaynon that makes you feel like you right at home among them — even if I don’t know anything in the language besides “namit gid.” (Which really, is the only thing you might need to learn at first. Because everything is, in fact, namit gid.)

Pancit Molo xiaolongbao at the tasting menu by chefs Nico Millanes and Don Colmenares. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Seafood delicacies at the dinner hosted by Bago City at Bantayan Park. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

In my three days in Negros, I kept thinking how much I would love to bring my family and friends with me on my next visit. Beyond the food, the history, and the culture that we got to enjoy in spades, it is the Negrense people’s tenacity that marked me deeply. According to Raymond Alunan who works for the Negros Occidental Tourism office and acted as our tour guide, the women of Negros donated all their jewelry in the 1980s to keep the sugar industry alive. They were also the ones who stood up to a certain former first lady who wanted to make a space for herself in Negros and insisted on making big changes in their cities’ layouts.

Today, that communal spirit comes alive in this year’s Negros Trade Fair. Organized by ANP and now in its 36th edition, it is the longest running trade fair in the Philippines. ANP has brought in a total of 57 booths, and from September 20-25 at the Glorietta Activity Center, the public can sample some of the best that Negros has to offer. Featured wares include food, natural and organic products, crafts made by social enterprises, fashion garments, homeware, and furniture. Local government units in Negros will also be holding their own booths to promote the products of their towns and cities.

Tana Dicong's home is one the most well-preserved ancestal homes found in Talisay City. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

The Negros Showroom features different Negros products. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

What I loved about the Negros Trade Fair is how deeply invested the whole province is, from the provincial government to ANP who seriously championed small businesses and heritage Negrense brands to be part of the trade fair. They were also agile during the pandemic years, quickly setting up an e-commerce platform to keep pushing for Negrense products to reach interested buyers.

One of the producers that we met at the Negros Showroom in Bacolod City — and there were many, and they fed us all of their delicious food — is Shiena, owner of a native nut brand that bears her own name. She told us the story of how she used to sell peanuts on the sidewalk as a child. “Now,” she smiles through her tears, “I’m FDA-approved.”

During the ANP meet and greet merienda, we also heard a few words from a curious voice — Brigadier General Inocencio Pasaporte, 303rd Infantry Brigade Commander. Pasaporte spoke of the importance of pushing for small and local businesses to thrive, even from a military perspective. According to him, providing indigenous and local people more livelihood opportunities was a peaceful and sustainable way to prevent the spread of armed conflict and insurgency.

Negros Occidental is far from being the perfect place: it bears the marks of the tempests it has endured through the years. But Sugarlandia, I realized, is rich in so many ways — chief of which are the people who call it home. Their will to overcome their personal and communal upheavals is what gives life to their cities, a trait that I wish more of our communities could adopt. It has made visiting the Negros Trade Fair feel essential, almost like a homecoming.

I dream of going back to Negros Occidental, perhaps to make a home there someday. For now, this will do.

***

The Negros Trade Fair runs from September 20-25 at the Glorietta Activity Center in Makati City.

Stay tuned for part two of our Negros Occidental series, which will feature recommended tours and experiences.