Sep 26, 2022 • 39M

meryenda with Bea Crisostomo of Ritual

A kwento session with owner and founder of sustainable general store, Ritual

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A monthly interview in audio + text with Filipino chefs, writers, farmers, educators, creators plus more with insight into their food (or beverage) stories.
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Welcome to meryenda minutes, our monthly audio companion illuminating Filipino chefs, doers, farmers, writers, scholars, artists plus more with insight into their food (and/or beverage) stories. Through this interview series, we aim to better bridge conversations with Filipinos spanning the homeland and the diaspora. We hope this contributes to a flourishing of a much more interconnected community and enrichment of Philippine culture + cuisine.

This month’s interview features Bea Crisostomo (click to listen), owner and founder of sustainable general store Ritual, which has roots in both Manila (Luzon) and Dumaguete, Negros Oriental (central Visayas). Ritual emphasizes biocultural diversity and waste reduction with special attention on Philippine heritage crops and products. We discussed the beginnings of Ritual, the potential of native root crops, and the topic of biodiversity.

I still feel people see native materials or those kind of things as somewhat primitive or even gimmicky. When people discuss whether or not business is possible without those things, we kind of forget that businesses did not use any, let's say plastic or petroleum-based products, until very recent in history.

Where I live, Dumaguete, the traditional diet is made up of diverse root crops. Glutinous corn. Bananas, like as a starch. And they're so cheap, they're so nutritious, but we have to get used to them. We're so used to eating rice for all meals. The more we explore the things that are native or resilient where we live, the more we have a chance of having an interesting everyday life, instead of feeling like we're stuck here eating the same thing over and over again.

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Jess: I was writing a story on sugar, but I realized I wanted to hear more from people who do work with the local communities so that's why I thought of you. So I kind of wanted to just start off broadly and then we can zoom in as we have the conversation. So yeah, how did you find yourself in the space that you're currently at?

Bea: So maybe 12 years ago or no, maybe 14 years ago, I had another job. I was working at a nonprofit. I was responsible for doing groceries for my family, for my dad and brother and myself and also we tried to go to these little organic markets.

There used to be an organic market in Megamall. I mean, no, sorry, in Ortigas. I was that obnoxious person who would take all the packaging off in the grocery, you know, like leave it at the counter. You know what I mean? I didn't like it.

And so, I was part of this Yahoo group—Yahoo group (laughs)—of environmental scientists, although I'm not a scientist. You could do that before, just join a Yahoo group. And so I asked them if there were any like essentially a zero waste store and they said, oh, maybe Body Shop.... you know, Body Shop used to refill.

So I, figured, you know, I wanted to do that. And it's really nothing new because it's how retail used to be, right, like everywhere. So I was working for a network of youth NGOs (non-governmental organization), so young farmers and fishermen from all over the country. It was a great time for me because I went to an all-girls high school. I went to Ateneo. My family has always been interested in like, I guess, culture and we've always had kind of agrarian dreams.

But the first time I met someone who was Islam-Filipino was 14 or 15 years ago. I was exposed to such a narrow subset of Filipinos. So when I worked for a nonprofit, I began to travel more around the country, spend a lot of time around the country and the Philippines has changed so much in that period. But during that time, there was still kind of a lot of diversity in practices, material, culture, everything, even farming.

It changed my life, really. And I'm so thankful to everyone that I met. Most of them are still my friends now, like, farmers from all over. I wanted eventually to put up a shop that would reflect the biodiversity in the Philippines. So my goal was to have a little bit of a lot of things versus a lot of a few things.

So the goal was that farmers, individual farmers or cooperatives did not have to reach kind of volumes to sell and I could change the merchandise quickly if I could. I could add something if I wanted to and I wanted to do it in a manner that was low waste or zero waste— low waste, if I was honest.

And so that's how we started doing it. We started in the Legazpi market and then we put up a store in the collective, which was like an old warehouse. So my shop's been around for 12 years.

Jess: Awesome. Yeah, I'm a big fan of Ritual.

One thing that I particularly like is how you highlight where it comes from and emphasize the uses. I think even for one of the products like cinnamon, you say that we're used to certain type of cinnamon, but this cinnamon is used for—could be applicable to other things.

How was the journey in connecting with sort of these smaller communities and how did you decide who you would work with?

Bea: Honestly, like there was no process. I've been interested in history and cultures since I was little. When I would go to places, like, let's say, if I go to Ilocos or Mindoro, I already had a lot of accumulating information about the plants there, the food there.

So I would just look for things or I would spend time in places and say, oh, this is kind of cool. I want to do this. And I mean, a lot of them are people that I know, but now recently I've been meeting a lot of people through like, Shopee. You can kind of tell who is actually a producer and it's not necessarily things that I sell in my shop.

Like let's say fermented fish or dried fish. You can tell which ones are actually producing. I buy samples or stuff for my home or even for the shop. And then I strike up conversations and these are things that were not possible, like even 10 years ago.

So 10 years ago if I wanted to find new suppliers, I would, you know, I would ask, let's say, I would ask my friends from Laguna. Do you know anyone supplying this and this? Or I would sometimes look at like DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) portions of the newspaper. Perhaps the whole shop is a byproduct of just a lot of hoarding information, I think.

Jess: And curiosity, I feel like, and you followed through with where it would lead you.

Bea: Yeah. And like my NGO contacts, some of them were on national network, so it's a mix of things that they were already selling or I would sometimes send a message to ten of my farmer friends asking, do you have so and so plant and then maybe one of them would have it.

Jess: Right. Um, I kind of wanted to rewind a little bit, but you said one of your focuses with Ritual was the low waste.

I feel like the issue of sustainability now is just such a hot topic, like every business has some sort of stance or needs to have some sort of stance on sustainability.

For you, I guess, are there any ways living here in the Philippines that you think that these conversations are lacking in? Or is there any sort of void or disconnect that you see in conversations of sustainability?

Bea: I still feel like people see native materials or those kind of things as somewhat primitive or like even gimmicky. I feel when people discuss whether or not business is possible without those things, like we kind of forget that businesses did not use any, let's say plastic or petroleum-based products until very recent, like in history, right?

Of course, so many things have changed. The urban makeup of the cities, supply chains have changed. Even the government programs, they all, by default, teach small suppliers to use packaging made of plastic or, you know, those kind of things.

And I feel like it's still seen as something that's another category altogether, like native, you know what I mean? But perhaps even 50 or no, not 50, maybe 60 or 70 years ago, rice and sugar, everything came in buri bags from the buri palm. When people say it's not possible, I feel that there are some things we can tweak to make those kinds of supply chains fully possible. You know what I mean?

I do feel that the underlying factors behind a lot of our sustainability issues is our land use, land use conversion, like how people flow through the city. Because as a small business, it's possible to have a very local clientele and it's more possible in that setting to have a low waste set up.

But the way it happens is that especially in Manila, most people are kind of funneled into places owned by big landlords. There's no walking traffic, people live in one city and work in the other. The people who can afford strategic places in terms of like traffic are the ones that have the advantage and those people are usually historically advantaged or privileged already.

I feel like those things are not really discussed so much, like the effect of those kinds of factors on business, connecting producers with consumers. It becomes harder when you have those kinds of situations. The producers become mediated by a few big people.

Jess: That's an interesting point, what you mentioned about the native packaging. I just read somewhere online, there's this whole book that's dedicated to packagings from like what you mentioned 50, 60, 70 years ago and everything was really made from the palm. Even one of the sugars that I had come across was the pakaskas or...

Bea: Pakaskas. (Thank you for correcting my pronunciation!)

Jess: … kalamay sa buri. The containers are all from the dried palm leaves. Even the vegetables that I would see at the markets, some of them would be wrapped in leaves. That was fascinating to see, because I don't see that back, back home. Now I'm thinking, what are the challenges of... why don't we do more of that?

Bea: Like large leaves were always valuable to people, but you know, it it's really something that I feel like is confluence of factors. Petroleum based materials are very inexpensive and people will respond to the cost of things. Or let's say if you're in Manila where there are no semi-wild sources of these kind of material, then, you know, like there's no access.

Cause these things used to be in common areas, you know, like the commons or whatever. Like these are the things that slowly erode. Those kinds of resources, like bamboo, banana leaves, banana trunk, coconut leaves, palm leaves. Like if you have a lot of common or open or semi-wild space, they're practically free. But of course, when that changes, they become way more expensive than plastic. So, yeah.

Jess: So do you think it's more so an awareness issue or an accessibility issue when it comes to knowing that these range of more sustainable options exist?

Bea: I think that it's definitely an undocumented or unwritten thing that makes it such that people lose it without even knowing it. There is no conscious effort to protect those kinds of resources.

For example, let's say if like a barangay knows that those spaces are important to the micro-entrepreneurs in their area, or even to the residents in their area, then, you know, there would actually be some measure of valuing it or there would be a substitution, oh, we're losing this so let's make something else. You know what I mean?

It's actually something that is in our culture. It's almost like, you know, let's say the souring agents that we use that are kind of semi-wild. Before you know, it, there's only one tree in one city or something. You just don't think about it so much.

People don't really notice that they're losing those things. Of course, if you make a decision for your lot, let's say you have one piece of property and you decide which trees to keep, maybe you'll keep like a coconut tree or something. But all the other minor flavorings, medicinal plants are, you know, subject to removal.

I guess it's like many things in the Philippines or maybe around the world. It's something we don't even know is happening. We're losing all these semi wild spaces or these places that are important to communities. An example is like in the place I grew up in, in Parañaque, maybe 50 or 60 years ago, the tricycle drivers, a lot of them used to be salt makers. Now they're squatters cuz the landowners just one day decided that this land is valuable enough to sell, but there was a place there called Kawayanan , which is a place where everyone got their bamboo.

So it was kind of like a public bamboo stand, I guess, or a bunch of stands. These are the things that make people's lives comfortable, even if they're not earning money. So slowly and slowly, those places contract.

The creek near our house became very polluted so they couldn't catch crabs there anymore. And then the places, the fields where they used to catch birds, like, all of these things that were part of everyday people's lives are now kind of gone and suddenly there's this concept of poverty, which they didn't really have before.

So I don't know. It’s— did that get too complicated?

Jess: No, no, no. It's great that you're bringing these up because again, um, these issues aren't... sometimes like what you said, it's a very local thing and deep into what's happening at the local level, but they're not brought into our consciousness because we don't really have, uh, have a way to access that.

So these are the things that actually I am interested in, and I'm glad that you are bringing up because hopefully that maybe can help me or other people connect the dots a little bit better and focus on other issues that we don't necessarily think about.

Bea: Yeah. I don't know if Filipino-Americans realize also that there's also a really strong, kind of colonial hold over here in the Philippines. Let's say, myself, I'm educated. My parents were educated. My grandparents were educated, but somewhere down the line it's because we had some kind of advantage because I guess they were white.

People here in the Philippines are not ready to have that conversation. Everyone believes that their grandparents were benevolent land owners. They still believe that they're benevolent land owners and they believe that you shouldn't even ask where your ancestors got that land, because that was so long ago. And it actually, like, it dawned on me when the Black Lives Matter thing, like kind of came to a head. I was like, well, they're talking about it.

It's actually something that came even much earlier than when my ancestors came here. Like my ancestors only came here in the late 1800s so why can't we talk about it? I'm not saying that we should like bring it at every instance, but I think that it's really an important thing to talk about.

I mean, just 10 years ago, or maybe 15 years ago, the local cookbooks were really romanticizing plantations, haciendas and all that. Cause that's where a lot of the kind of elaborate cuisines we have came from, but I think now, it's different. If we would write a cookbook, we wouldn't be like, "The sugar plantations of so and so..." because we know what happened there and we know the pain that it caused and we know the unfair advantage that it gave those people and their descendants, but not everyone is ready for that conversation.

Jess: That's something that I've realized, it's that we've sort of kind of just accepted things as how they are.

And maybe it is the whole upbringing, Filipino culture of just, you know, you don't really question what your elders say to you. But that also kind of, it goes back to I guess what's happening with the diaspora in relation to food. There's this desire to connect back home. Like a specific example is ube. Ube has become so popular, but when you ask people about it, they're not— they don't really know where it comes from. So the relationship to connect back home, but to ignore the people who are growing that land, there's that disconnect still. Personally, I don't think it's inseparable, but I do understand that it will alienate some people.

So I'm kind of curious... because I think it's something that Ritual does well, but sort of low key. But how do you have that conversation or how do you start building that conversation? That disconnect of our food and where it comes from.

Bea: Initially, like, I don't know if you know this, we don't have a lot of pictures of people. We were really hesitant about putting farmers' pictures in places because we didn't want to kind of use them to sell things. Although I know that that's kind of a hard stance and it really, really has its disadvantages.

But I didn't want to be like a pity purchase. You know what I mean? I felt that I wanted people to experience the products and I wanted them to be interested in how they were made. We initially got a lot of chefs and a lot of like nerdy people, I guess, like, but older people, migrants too.

Kind of with my dad and his then girlfriend, like we set up a story in a palengke selling the same kinds of products, but basically targeting the local people, kind of urban... class D E, I guess. And actually we realized then that there's a lot of knowledge about regional products. But when they move to Manila, they don't have access to their local products anymore.

I guess they primarily feel like they don't have access, but you can see there's a really strong desire for those products by, by urban migrants. You can see if you go to any YouTube channel and you search for any product, like let's say, how to make sukang tuba.

You'll see in the comments, it's all people that are like, oh, I missed this. I used to make this in the province. My mom used to make this like, you know, ang sarap mabuhay sa probinsya. It’s nice to live in the province.

My best case scenario is that these people who have a kind of experience of quality that can tell you what a good vinegar is, what a good rice is.

I hope that eventually they could be the people that can share their knowledge. Most Filipinos have, especially if they grew up outside of Manila, they have a lot of knowledge about agricultural products.

What makes a good product? How does it smell? How does it taste? How does it feel? Um, I do feel like this knowledge is one of the first things that goes when people migrate out, like, there's kind of a broken chain and then eventually, people would just use any sticky rice, you know what I mean? But it's something that's so orally transmitted, so tactile. But I do feel like a lot of people in Manila have that knowledge in the back of their memory.

And that's what we experienced in the wet market. When we put up a store there, it's like, you know, some people would come with a shot glass and take a shot of sukang iloco every day because that's what they used to do. Or some people would buy one tablea a day or something, cuz that's what they could afford.

And you know, they, they can tell you what they're looking for in a product. So I feel like I can explain what i s good about the products we have but I feel like that is way more important information for people to know. Otherwise, let's say the government gives a training program that how to make this vinegar and they will use scientific food tech categories.

Like, “The vinegar must be clear and free of any so and so…” And so you have those things that are replacing criteria that's developed over so long that has been lost. Some people still know it like the unang patak ng patis (first press of patis) which is what we get from Isi. That is something that older people still know, like they will pay more for the unang patak or katas, but in the space of maybe 30 years, that knowledge has disappeared. People our age really have no idea how to tell if this is good or not.

Jess: This idea of preservation informs a lot of your work. So besides preserving our traditions, how else do you think that's important going forward?

Bea: Especially now that we are approaching a time of crop failures. I mean, we are already in that time. Climate. Crop failures, everything. A diverse and culturally rooted or rooted-in-your- space diet and cultural practice can maintain our quality of life no matter what kind of crop situation. We have some energy disruptions, which we're already experiencing.

Where I live, Dumaguete, the traditional diet is made up of diverse root crops. Glutinous corn. Bananas, like as a starch. And they're so cheap, they're so nutritious, but we have to get used to them. You know what I mean? Like, we're so used to eating rice for all meals. The more, we explore the things that are native or, you know, resilient where we live, the more we have a chance of having an interesting everyday life, instead of feeling like we're stuck here eating the same thing over and over again, you know what I mean?

I'll share with you later. I have a Pinterest account. I post different recipes from pan-tropical countries. The different crops that we have, like sayote, gabi or, you know, some wild leaves.

If you interview some people that come from the province and move to Manila, they're like, oh, I wanted to move out cuz I got tired of eating the same thing every day. It's a big deal for people.

And like the feeling of kamote, associating that with poverty, etc. Like even myself being here now and sharing our Luzon recipes with people here that they're unfamiliar with using certain flavorings... I feel like it has already added some quality of life to the people around me, like variation. Like diversity basically.

Jess: I never really thought about it that way, where it's, you know, there's importance in emphasizing or highlighting root crops and what recipes can be or dishes done with the root crops. Now that I think about it, whenever I would want to make something it's like, okay, where can I get sugar from here or meat from there, but it's not really thinking about what's local to an area.

It's just trying to get the best but that is really not the best way going forward. So there really does have to be that emphasis on, um, what is available in the area so that's really interesting. Really curious to see that Pinterest board.

Bea: It's really, I made that Pinterest board to prepare myself for supply chain disruptions and also, everything is getting so expensive so I try to zero in on the cheap or free things. Especially now.

When I went to Bali, like this journalist was asking me Filipino food, it's like Indonesia food, like we have a marketing problem. Why doesn't food media pick up on us or something. And I was like, you know what, should we even be talking about these things, still? I mean, we are always kind of looking for validation and I'm not saying that the people who do that are silly, I'm just saying that at this moment, there are so many folding situations that require our attention. And it's not anymore about like, showing people look at this cool thing I found.

It's about diversifying our diet so that we can maintain nutrition and quality of life in the coming years. It's not a virtuous thing anymore. If you are looking at our warming climate and looking at the crop losses, like I think this year we had a, so far I've read, there's a 20% reduction in corn harvests. We can expect the coming storms to affect rice harvest.

If you are seeing the writing on the wall in any way, you will begin to explore these very resilient, indigenous things as a way to move forward in life and you will actually maybe save a bunch of money doing so. And it's amazing cuz I know people I've met people from online, like from Puerto Rico, from Malaysia, Indonesia, and there are so many plants that we share. And we've been sharing information, you know, like, how do you cook this, how we cook this. If there has been any benefit from this being connected to people, it's that: that we can learn from what they're doing and they can learn from what we are doing.

For example, sayote. In Southern India, they make it into a curry. Burma, too. The Caribbean places, they stuff it with shrimp. It's just so interesting.

There are times when, let's say after Odette, when all the vegetables are super expensive, except for saba and sayote. Once people begin to use their creativity on local ingredients, they'll be buying less industrial meat. A lot of the keys to that are found in our history too, but a lot of it are also found in our pan-tropical brothers and sisters of former colonial states. I feel that this is where we should be focusing or learning from: our brothers in latitude, our brothers and sisters.

Jess: That's such food for thought for me. I totally agree with what you said, it makes complete sense, but on the ground scale, how is it, um, working with farmers. I mean, are they in agreement to what you had mentioned?

Like with the story of sugar that I read. There's land that's available, that they could convert to other things besides sugar cane, but sugar cane would be the only thing that they know.

How is it like there in terms of— is it the same mentality? How can that change, you think?

Bea: I live in Dumaguete, like Negros Oriental. So a good part of it is still former plantation land. And I can confirm that a lot of the farmers here don't grow things for themselves anymore. According to my farmer friends, it's the same also where they live, like people barely grow things for their family consumption anymore.

I do think the shift is naturally gonna happen as input costs rise and as they're earning less money from their cash crops, they're gonna start growing more of what they do consume. But the difference is massive. A lot of people who are in plantation areas do not grow a diverse backyard anymore. And that's something that some friends of mine are really trying to change is that farmers should eat the best produce that they produce. They should focus on being self-sufficient and providing nutrition and food to their family.

It's a smallish movement, but I think that with the stress from farm inputs— I heard one bag of fertilizer is now at 3000. So a lot of people who even barely would give time to organic vegetables are now considering organic farming.

Like backyard farms usually depended a lot on community exchanged seeds, things like that. Because these threads have somehow been broken slowly, like, you know, that fabric has somewhat unraveled, but I have no doubt that we will return to that. It's something that is part of all human history.

Jess: I guess last question I have is that, um, after all that you've said, in what ways can people connect more with these issues?

Bea: For the people in the Philippines, I think that when people realize that every place has a history and every place has like a culture and that culture and history can be one of the biggest assets of any place. I feel that people should go to the markets, should see what is being sold, should ask questions. Recently when we were doing the bean drive, cuz our shop and our customers donated money for Odette and we were donating like beans, like monggos and all that stuff.

We realized that a lot of the monggos here comes from Myanmar. I mean those are the things that would vary from place to place, but a lot of the food journalism in this country is not even like aware of— and I keep telling, journalists, this too.

You need to follow the food. I mean, chefs are always complaining that we only grow one kind of tomato or one kind of carrot. If you follow the food, you will understand why, like, you know, the middle— and I'm not saying that middle men are all bad because a lot of times, they're the only ones that go to any place to buy product— but they are connected. They have preferences, which the seed companies are tapped into. And so there's like this homogenization that happens. You can see it in the local markets. Like you can see that everywhere you go in the Philippines, they're selling the same things.

The same vegetables, the same, except maybe in Ilocos or something where there's so much local vegetables, but everywhere else you see like cabbage, carrots. Those things travel well, like they're bred to travel well. So, anyone can go to their market and ask questions and see the "food system."

I mean, what is the food system? Right? Every place has a different makeup, of whatever food system they have. Like you have the sari-sari stores. You have the street vendors. You just have to go out and ask questions. Even the way that food enters Metro Manila, like there are some places in Divisoria.

There are some places around Divisoria where jeepneys and trucks just come in all day with all sorts of stuff and not so many people know about these things and it's very interesting. So I feel like for any locality to see itself, it needs to see that. I think that markets are so important.

I feel that I would funnel people more to the wet market than to shops like myself, because a wet market is already there. It's got so much potential. Parallel institutions are great, but a market, people already go there. You know, everyone knows where it is.

It's like the stomach of a city.

So I would be focused around history, maybe like identifying local waterways and what happened to them? Like why they died or like identifying local trees, things that people used to make in an area and even the migrants coming into an area. I would call those resources, right?

Instead of seeing it as a bunch of problems, I would identify what resources are available to your area and then try to find something to do there. But for people abroad, I remember there were maybe like five or no, maybe eight years ago there were so many Fil-Ams. We, we used to call them Flams. There were so many of them like coming to discover their heritage and all that stuff—

Jess: ...which is me though (laughs)

Bea: We are also rediscovering our heritage. There's always like some kind of conflict between like Chilipinos and Fil-Ams, like, you know, gate keeping, etc.

But because we are so disconnected from our environment, I believe that we are also kind of appropriating regional cultures. I would really suggest to Filipino Americans to begin to interview their elders... [Bea’s daughter enters the room]

What's that? Wow. Can I show my friend? She's stick fighting. She's showing you her skills.

So fast. Wow.

Bea: I would suggest that would be really cool. Cause you know, the Philippines is full of broken chains, right? But it's not like everything has to be forgotten. Even asking your Lolas or your parents about Christmas, you know, asking them about specific things like fruits or like fiestas.

And I may be biased towards documentation because it's just my thing, you know, but I feel like that would be something that we could all learn from. Even people from here because a lot of our titos and titas and, my lola herself is in the US. My mom lived there until a few years ago.

Interviewing, documenting our histories is for me, so important. Crops, plants, like the dishes they used to make. It's something everyone can do anywhere, whether they're here or there because those are the stories that we lost.

The stories that we lose from migration are supposed to be part of who we are. If you can share those stories, like if your grandparents or parents believe that you're interested in them, you know, interested in what it was like for them back then, whether the memories are painful or not, I think it's important.

And you don't even have to create anything new. You just have to listen and document it. I feel like from there, people will find what they can do.

Jess: I am a big proponent of that. Of, you know, just listening and ask questions because we really don't do either of those two enough. We just talk a lot.

Bea: Yeah, yeah! Sometimes I call my lola and she'll talk about her mom, the war and then I tell my kids those stories because I guess it feels important to me that they know those things.

I enjoyed this conversation.