A Historical Look at Leche FlanBy Philip Dominguez Mercurio
SAN FRANCISCO – THIS one week, I was watching the movie “Envy” with my girlfriend and her close friend. We went to the Sony Metreon after a wonderful day of shopping and succumbed to the realization that we needed a break from all the walking and escalating we did around Union Square – specifically in the seven-story mammoth of a store, Macy’s.
It was concluded therefore that sitting in the cushion chair for two hours in front of a huge screen would be a perfect solution to relieve our tired, worn-out feet.
“Envy,” a movie starring Ben Stiller and Jack Black, is about two working-class neighbors – one who is a dreamer and the other one who doesn’t believe a word the dreamer says.
Nick Vanderpack, the dreamer played by Jack Black, constantly envisions inventions that have the possibility of changing the world and ends up stepping upon a gold mine by inventing a spray that apparently zaps dog poop and other turds miraculously into thin air.
Tim, played by Ben Stiller, can’t help but feel envious in the midst of his new neighbor’s found wealth and lambaste in contemplation about how his life would have been had he helped invest in his friend’s endeavor from the beginning.
Now, while watching this movie (which if you’d ask me wasn’t as funny as I thought it’d be), I was taken aback by one of the scenes that took place in the exquisite dining room of Nick Vanderpack.
In this scene, Nick tells his whole family to join him at the dining table to eat the dessert that the servants have prepared.
His family, in robotic-like fashion, rush downstairs in happy anticipation, screaming the dessert’s name: flan!
Now as a Filipino, my first instinct was to go, “Hey! Isn’t that a Filipino dish?”
I’m referring to leche flan, a time-honored dish in the Philippines. As I looked upon the glowing screen, I couldn’t help but notice that the flan they were eat was almost akin to our own leche flan.
It instantly brought back memories of my daddy cooking leche flan in the oven and watching him turn over the metal mold revealing the yellow custard with caramel-looking sauce on the top. For a moment, I started to believe that Filipino food was finally being accepted by the American masses. It was indeed, a dream come true!
By the end of the movie, I told my girlfriend that what they were eating was a Filipino dessert, but she didn’t buy it one bit, stating, “Are you sure you didn’t steal it from some other cultures?”
Now, as much as I wanted to defend myself and my cuisine from that statement, she brings up a good point. For example, our lumpia, which may resemble a Chinese egg roll or more likely a Vietnamese imperial roll, was once thought by me to be solely one of our national recipes, unique only to us and no one else.
Say “lumpia” to someone else and instantly you have the epitome of Filipino cuisine. If we wanted, Filipinos could have made it our national flag representing our adherence to our tummies; this may have been the case, if it were not for the fact our flag is already beautiful in and of itself.
Of course, the belief that the lumpia was solely ours was short lived once I met my girlfriend who happens to be Indonesian. She works at an Indonesian restaurant downtown, appropriately named “Indonesia Restaurant” and to my dismay, I found them selling lumpias on their menu.
Now, it’s not as if they were stealing it from the volumes of wonderful recipes from our country. Apparently, our neighbors to the south have been eating and wrapping these rolls for centuries and they’ve always called them lumpias.
Maybe we could have fought for the lumpia label but since for every one Filipino on this planet, there are three Indonesians, I really don’t think we’d have a chance to claim it as our own. But no matter who gets to claim the rights to being the original creator of lumpia, let’s just say that it definitely throws out my idea for a lumpia flag.
Of course, this gets me back to the flan and finding out conclusively, whether or not this is a Filipino dish, which I’ve always believed it was.
Searching on Google for an hour, I found that flan is a custard, which could be found in many countries across the world from Spain and Portugal, all the way to Mexico and Cuba.
Though one could argue that flan is really a “Spanish Custard” since Spain considers it its national dessert, the flan’s roots could be traced way back to the Ancient Roman period. The word, flan, was derived from the Latin word flado, meaning “custard.” Apparently, this egg-enhanced super dessert was believed to have many health benefits, thanks to the egg yolks, from alleviating chest pains to decreasing urinary tract problems. So technically, we could thank the Spanish for importing this dish to our shores.
There is no striking difference between our leche flan and the Spanish flan. Eggs, condensed and evaporated milk and vanilla extract are standard. Some sites suggest that the Filipino version should use duck’s eggs but these are usually hard to come by except in balut form.
I’d say I’d be interested if someone did try making it really from balut eggs though. Because I’m sure it’ll resemble something straight out of Rex Navarrete’s imagination.
At any rate, whether duck or chicken yolk or even balut, I find myself disappointed again with another recipe technically not really being “ours” per se. Maybe our culture, instead of making our own dishes, is better at taking other dishes and improving upon them. Just like the jeepneys have proven – we as Filipinos can’t help but reformat and modify things that would otherwise be plain to begin with.
You could think of, I guess, spaghetti with cut-up hot dogs. In our own special way that will always be uniquely Filipino. – PDM