Bread is surely a Spanish heritage. Wheat does not grow in the Philippines. The Spaniards brought in wheat flour as well as the techniques of bread-making. Wheat was also important to the Spanish settlers who arrived in the Philippine during 16th century not just because they preferred bread to rice as a staple but most importantly due to their religious zeal. The Christian host (hostia) can only be made from the purest, finest wheat flour. Wheat flour was necessary if the Spaniards truly intended to convert and not just conquer.
When the Filipinos began baking their own bread, they came up with the crumbs-sprinkled pan de sal, a pinch of salt that originally gave this simple Filipino bread its distinctive flavor and thus its name.
According to Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria, there were two kinds of pan de sal that once reigned in the Filipino bread basket. The traditional and more respected of the pair was known as the pan de suelo. During the Spanish times, dough was baked on oven floors (suelo) thereby making crusts very crisp and hard which to according to Nick Joaquin “colegialas got their gums toughened on their segundo almuerzo in the morning and, with hot chocolate, their meriendas in the afternoon.”
When the Americans came and governed the Philippines, they introduced the use of metal pans in baking bread which they considered more hygienic than cooking on mopped-up brick.
Today, the pan de sal comes with hard or soft crust as well as in big and small sizes. In fact, the size of the pan de sal is considered a gauge of the national economy. Sta. Maria explains that a good-sized pan de sal indicates good times at hand, while a shrinking pan de sal mean that the peso buying power is declining.
But whether in good times or not so good times, the pan de sal has become an institution of Philippine culture. For Professor Doreen Fernandez, the pan de sal is the bread of our history, at the core of our culture, at the heart of our tastes. It is brown and plain like the Filipino, good by itself or alone, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It is good, basic and strong -just the way we are, and would like the nation to be.
Third of a series on Filipino bread traditions.
Palayok by Doreen Fernandez
Breads, beguiled and blessed by Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria
Almanac for Manileños by Nick Joaquin