An officemate brought ube and offered me some. It was smooth and purple with just the right texture: not too 'grainy' and not too sticky. The flavor was good too with just the right amount of sweetness. The taste of sweet ube filled my mouth first, then the taste of fresh milk, then the taste of... pine needles?
"Is this from Baguio?," I asked.
"Ahh.. that explains the pine tree taste." My officemate didnt know what I was talking about, but it was there. Just a hint of pine tree but quite distinct. The milk in the ube probably came from cows raised in Baguio. I remember the Bureau of Animal Industry keeps dairy cows there and they sell milk in plastic bags. We bought milk from them once and they had the distinct taste of pine needles. Not unpleasant but strange. The cows probably ate pine needles on the ground while grazing and flavored the milk.
This got me thinking. Are we what we eat? In the neighborhood I grew up in in Caloocan, we used to have an Indian who came to our street a few times a week. He was selling blankets, umbrellas, and other items and he sold them on installment of a few pesos a day (or was it a week?) He was a friendly fella who spoke good Tagalog and always had a ready smile for us kids. He rode on a scooter and he had a turban on and he had a very distinctive scent. It was the typical 'amoy bumbay' scent. No one else we knew smelled like that. Being kids, we ribbed him about his smell but he never got mad. He still kept his smile.
Fast forward to years later. I was in a supermarket looking for stuff to spice up the evening's dinner of galunggong that I going to cook. I went to town in the spices section, buying cayenne pepper, paprika, cardamon, cumin, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, coriander... the works. I later used these spices on the galunggong, sauteeing some onions and tomatoes first, adding patis, then dumping in the cardamom and cumin and cloves and whatever else I could get my hands on, then cooking the galunggong in this melange of spices. The smell in the kitchen was exotic. My mother comes up and goes, "Ano yang niluluto mo? Amoy bumbay!" Eh? I took a whiff and yes it did smell like the friendly neighborhood bumbay. Red onions in the foreground, and the spice mixture in the background. That's exactly what he smelled like. And I remembered Indians use these spices extensively in their cooking. The bumbay smelled of what he ate.
Years later, a colleague told us a story of when he was in Indonesia and he was in an elevator with another Pinoy and in came an Indonesian and he smelled... different. My colleague commented on the fella's smell in Tagalog and wouldnt you know it? The fella understood. He took offense of course and angrily informed the Pinoys that they, too, had a smell of their own.
Do we? Im inclined to think that we do. We're just so used to it that we dont notice it anymore. The brain is a wonderful thing. The first time you visit a garbage dump, your brain will warn you that the environment is probably toxic. It does it by registering the scent molecules youre getting as putrid, triggering chemical reactions in your body, such as acid in your stomach that makes you puke-y, to make you stay away from that vile place. But if you stick around, the brain will acquiesce to your wishes. It will override these reactions and will shut down the nerves that register the scent and you won't notice it anymore. Maybe that's what happened to us. We can't ditch our own distinct Pinoy smell so our brains shuts down the nerves that recognize these scents as something to be aware of.
Our smell probably consists of garlic, tomatoes, onions, and patis. Add to that the Metro Manila air composed of jeep and bus exhausts, mildews and molds endemic to our part of the world (it's humid here most of the time, if not downright wet), and other 'distinctives' like trace elements in our water supply, and vapors from our untreated sewers. All these add to our distinct Pinoy scent, with sources from within and without. We've been living in this vapor stew for so long that's it's already a part of us as a people. Proud to smell Pinoy. Mabuhay!