Walang Sibuyas? No Onions?
Amidst the Philippines’ allium pandemonium, some turn to a local variety: Lasona
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For starters, I drafted this issue back in September 2022 but never quite got around to finishing my thoughts. I thought the onion debacle would long be gone but it is January 2023 and here we are.
Walang Sibuyas? No Onions?
Words and photos by Jessica Hernandez
Last year sometime in September, I ate my tita’s potato salad for dinner. She apologized that it was missing some onions because she couldn’t find any at her neighborhood grocery store. She eventually procured some a few days later at the palengke, although she admitted to reluctantly paying an inflated price and having to stealthily place them in her bag before any onlookers noticed her stash.
There was a time, too, in August, when all I could find was red onions. I didn’t think much of it, thinking it was some sort of seasonal transition in the tropics. Back home (in Long Beach), onions are abundant throughout the year so you would hardly notice the turn of seasons, much less supply issues. Because my tita and I both had encountered white onion sourcing difficulties, I was curious to know if we were just some odd outliers so I walked to the talipapa down the street to expand this sample size of two.
“Red lang, ma’am. Tagal na kaming walang puting sibuyas.” We only have red onions. We haven’t had white onions in a while.
It turns out there was a nationwide white onion shortage. Headlines from August and September last year echoed the same problem:
“PHL to suffer white onion, garlic shortage”
“Vendors rue white onion shortage”
“Lives destroyed as armyworms invade Philippine 'onion capital’”
“Walang guisado?: Garlic, onion shortage makes Filipinos cry”
While the last headline made me chuckle, it also surfaced a few questions. Yes, garlic and onion are the foundation in a lot of everyday Filipino dishes: adobo, bistek, mechado. Couldn’t Filipinos be adaptable to the times and instead make dishes without onions? But to be honest, shouldn’t Filipinos have the right to a sufficient and accessible supply of basic agricultural produce? I say yes to the first but absolutely to the latter.
The onion shortage made me think more about the fragility of our food supply chain. I disagree that importing is the answer to the country’s agricultural insufficiencies and I’m in disbelief at artificial shortages for profit gain. As a Filipino-American, I’ve benefited from the buying power of the United States in the global market. I’m privileged enough to say that food supply disruption was something I never thought about until Covid hit in 2019. Food flew from the shelves. Port delays lasted for months and I recall seeing fleets of cargo ships at a standstill piled around the port of Long Beach (the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, both in Southern California, make up 40 per cent of the country’s entire cargo shipping imports!). I didn’t realize until much later that local farms and producers were filling in supply gaps where institutional food systems could not, largely due to the rigidity of our food system. It changed the way I would approach food.
Fast forward almost two years later and I find myself in a weird déjà vu here in Manila. It is January 2023 and prices for onions have soared to 600 pesos per kilo. That’s equivalent to almost $5-6 US dollars per pound.
Circulating headlines seem to be satire pulled straight from The Onion:
“Onions are so expensive in the Philippines they’re being smuggled into the country” —CNN
“Onions now cost more than meat in the Philippines” —NPR
“Let’s just display onions instead of round fruits this year” —my tito during New Year’s Eve
Okay, enough of me using humor as a coping mechanism.
I recently returned from a trip to Ilocos with Cassandra and her family. When we arrived at her lola’s house in Badoc, Ilocos Norte, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of onions. They were drying casually on their farm lot, likely to be mistaken as a mirage from passing Manila urban dwellers.
It wasn’t until I did a quick search online after returning to Manila that I realized the onions served with almost every meal were actually a local cultivar called: Lasona. It is generously piled in a popular Ilokano condiment-like dish called KBL— kamatis or tomato, bagoong or fermented fish sauce, and Lasona or onion/shallot. I have also heard it referred to as native sibuyas, sibuyas na Tagalog, and Ilocos sibuyas. Other common names include: shallot, potato onion, baker’s garlic, garden shallot. In some parts of the Visayas, bawang is called “lasona” and in parts of Southeast Asia, the term for lasona is bawang (garlic in Tagalog) which adds to a lot of confusion. I won’t attempt to unravel that in this issue.
I do have a confession. I was so zoned in on unfamiliar Ilokano ingredients such as kardis, labanos and royal bibingka that I glanced over the significance of abundantly available Lasona in this region. John Sherwin Felix of visual archive Lokalpedia recently posted a short blurb on local allium cultivars on his story:
“This is the reason why we need to support other cultivars. Imagine if the farmers stopped planting them, saan na tayo kukuha ng alternative sa onions (where would we get an alternative to onions?)” I remember a video of a crying farmer because nobody [wanted] to buy her Lasona. Now, Lasona (also known as sibuyas Tagalog) is a popular alternative to onion. Also, people are now using sakurab in lieu of onions.”
While buying native onions is in no way a panacea for the country’s agricultural issues or government mismanagement, augmenting awareness about the diversity in our food can perhaps shift more support for native vegetables. Imported, often cheaper counterparts can discourage farmers from growing local cultivars, driving the price for what is locally produced. It is a cycle that benefits only the upper echelon.
Chef Jam Melchor, founder of the Philippine Culinary Heritage Movement and head of Slow Food Youth Philippines, voices his support for Lasona:
“I have been using Lasona (shallots) for almost two weeks now because the price of red onion is just too much. It has sweeter but sharper taste than the red ones. Mahirap balatan pero (it is hard to peel but) the flavor is super intense that you don’t need a lot.”
At the end of the day, choosing imported onions over native onions doesn’t label anyone as a “bad” consumer. We’re not to blame. The current food system makes it confusing and outright difficult to make the “right” decision. How did the problems of a global infrastructure boil down to weigh heavily on individual choice anyway? Never mind that questioning current systemic practices and supporting local often means being in a more privileged position. Let’s be real: sticker price trumps all for most of us. Puerto Rico-based food writer Alicia Kennedy straddles this balance in her “On Consumption” essay:
“It shouldn’t be your choice whether to buy responsibly sourced items made by workers paid a fair wage; they should simply be ethically produced…”
On a final note, the cookbook beside me is called Negrenese Heritage Cooking, a project helmed by the Slow Food Negros Community. I flip through the first ten recipes, and all but two don’t require garlic or onions. There’s pusô ensalada (banana blossom salad), pangat (stewed taro leaves in coconut milk), monggo kag langkâ sa gata (mung beans with jackfruit in coconut milk) and ukoy (cassava and kalkag fritters). What else can community dialogue and regional food infrastructures contribute to the global food story?
For an absurdly too many, onions are now a luxury. Like gold, some say. But food isn’t alchemy and the world doesn’t need any more guarded assets. If you have onions in your kitchen, raise your fists for the ones who don’t.
Projects and events from our community
Nasirig's Great Adventure is an Ilokano-English children's book about a young girl, a lost tablet, and friendship by author Chachie Abara, illustrator Cassandra Balbas, and translator Mario Doropan. This all-or-nothing project is 60% funded with just 7 days to go! Back their Kickstarter, share their project, or visit the page to find out more.
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