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In defense of lugaw

By Annicca Albano Published Mar 18, 2022 8:08 am

Nearly 15 years ago, Beverly Aquino used the only money she had to start a business. With P1,100 and a recipe she concocted with her mom, she set up a small kiosk in Laguna and offered plain lugaw or porridge for P10 a bowl. The demand grew until she was already selling more than she could churn and her husband quit his service crew job to lend a hand. Who would’ve thought that the couple who worried about paying bills was behind the Lugaw Queen empire?

Beverly’s story epitomizes tubong lugaw, a colloquial term for “small capital, large return” that also resonated with my mom. Born into a poor family as well, Mama instilled in me a love for cheap Filipino dishes—danggit silog, sardinas with misua, pansit con tira-tira, lugaw and its many forms, you name it. 

When the pandemic’s end became more uncertain, my dad began looking into franchising an essential business for sure income. My mom, with great enthusiasm, volunteered to manage Lugaw Queen upon hearing its beginnings and the signature dish that was dear to her. Back then, we didn’t think the local delicacy would be such a hard sell and a hot topic.

Customers would ask me and our staff, “Kay Leni ba ito?” Ever since Vice President Leni Robredo served lugaw in her feeding stories and campaign fundraisers, critics have given the lawyer-turned-politician the monicker “Lugaw Queen,” insinuating that, like the watery rice potage, she was of little substance. Some would go as far as commenting online how triggered they were by our ads and advise others to stop patronizing lugaw altogether.

I worried first for my parents, then for our fragmented society. Who could forget last year’s nationwide debacle involving a delivery rider and a barangay official who uttered the iconic line, “Hindi essential si lugaw?” 

I grew up appreciating lugaw as comfort food during the rainy weather; an antidote when one is under the weather. It is an easy-to-digest source of energy from the rice, fluid from its high-water content, and nutrients from the toppings mothers or grandmothers thoughtfully chose for us. One sip, they swear, will make us feel better. “Kayâ sinasabing ang lugaw ay iniluto sa pagmamahal,” read the caption of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’s post at the peak of the controversy.

I grew up appreciating lugaw as comfort food during the rainy weather; an antidote when one is under the weather.

Before evolving into a political symbol, lugaw had been celebrated as one of the earliest documented foods of our ancestors, according to the National Quincentennial Committee. In the 1613 dictionary by Spanish priest Pedro de San Buenaventura, it was defined as “rice mixed with milk or water or of broth.” Chinese migrants are said to have introduced congee to Filipinos prior to Spanish colonization. Being both agricultural countries, however, the Philippines and China may have also discovered making porridge from rice independently. Whatever the case may be, we’ve made lugaw unmistakably our own through the use of homegrown accouterments.

A good choice for a filling breakfast or mid-day snack, the lugaw of today is prepared with malagkit; inoculated with boiled egg, native chicken, tokwa’t baboy, or manila clams; and accentuated with garlic, kalamansi, sili, and any condiment, usually patis. With the addition of tripe and ginger, lugaw morphs into goto. A pinch of kasubha, a cheap alternative to Spanish saffron, lends its signature bright yellow color. The traditional gruel exudes no dominant flavor, but layers and nuances against the bland background of rice. An exception at Lugaw Queen would be our “arroz palabok”—spiked with tinapa flakes, atsuete, crushed chicharon, spring onion—and there is nothing more Filipino than it.

I didn’t always care this much about lugaw. As the years passed, I embraced cuisines that my peers and my travels exposed me to over lutong bahay. Once, though, I bought a huge bag of glutinous rice and ate champorado, which is essentially choco lugaw, for days. As I drizzled it with sweetened condensed milk the way mama taught me and my sister to do, childhood memories flashed through my mind. No other meal reminds me of who I am when I’m far from home.

Given lugaw’s rich history and roles in our lives, how could anyone consider it non-essential? Too often, we fall into the trap of taking for granted things that others can only wish for. For some Filipinos, lugaw might be the only option. With a few ingredients, they could stretch what little they have and live another day, hopefully, a better one. Having the privilege of not knowing what that feels like doesn’t give anyone the right to take sustenance and dignity away from those who do.

I remembered our customers, and how both of us might have felt moments before I assured them VP Leni isn’t “Lugaw Queen.” Having Ilocano and Davao roots, I know full well why they are rather wary of being associated with an outsider candidate—judged and alienated. But if I learned anything from the opposition leader and presidential bet, it’s to turn an intended insult into an imperative call to feed the hungry, work together as a community, and learn to love radically. In our anger, we might have forgotten the labels didn’t come from VP Leni; even so, she has proven that being a Lugaw Queen is something to be proud of.

For someone whose sole duty is to understudy the president, VP Leni has been constantly belittled and derided for no other reason than she is a woman. Despite the OVP’s close-to-nothing budget, she rose to the occasion with her pandemic response programs and priceless leadership presence that gave our countrymen strength in these difficult times. If being lugaw means showing up, then she is one.

Lugaw isn’t to everyone’s taste but we should all respect the food staple that has been unifying the country for decades. Like many lugawans that preceded us, we open our doors to anyone longing for something to fuel their bodies or to recreate nostalgic memories of home. In the end, we belong to the same nation. To cook lugaw is to protect our cultural heritage for generations to come. To eat it is to savor the joy of being Filipino.

Nothing means anything until we give it meaning. For me, lugaw represents simpler times and brighter days, solid values like resilience and compassion, and mother-love and woman-power. The Lugaw Queen to us is, of course, Beverly. But why I serve lugaw with revitalized pride? The reasons are plenty.