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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Research That’s Good Enough to Eat

Alex Orquiza

Alexander Orquiza glides through his Hampden kitchen with the easy confidence that comes from spending thousands of hours behind a stove.

He removes the lid from a rich brown oxtail and peanut stew bubbling in a yellow cast iron pot and gives a stir to the gingery porridge of chicken, scallions, and rice in a nearby frying pan on the stove. Next, he moves to the refrigerator and slides out a glass bowl filled with a salad of perfectly julienned mango strips. From there, he turns his attention to the cutting board on the counter, quickly slicing a bunch of scallions.

Orquiza isn't just cooking dinner. He's working on his dissertation.

A third-year PhD candidate in the Department of History, the professionally trained chef is using food as a way to understand history. "Food is the most tangible form of cultural history to me," Orquiza says. "I just wanted to know why we eat what we eat."

Orquiza is pursuing research on the transfer of foods and cuisines between the United States and Southeast Asia as a result of the Spanish-American War. Orquiza's focus is the food of the Philippines--the food that he grew up with (his parents emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines and met during their medical residencies at Hopkins in 1973).

"American food companies spent a lot of time, money, and advertising effort on converting Filipinos into eating American food," says Orquiza. But there was no such overt effort to bring Filipino culture to America, he says.

He hopes to discover why this transfer of cultures has been so one-sided despite the long historical, political, and economic relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines. For evidence of the kind of cultural transfer he's studying, one need look no further than the selection of foods Orquiza has prepared on this particular afternoon, an array of once-traditional Filipino dishes influenced by ingredients of other cultures.

The rice dish, arroz caldo, is "a Filipino take on Chinese congee and Spanish paella," he says. The shrimp paste in the mango salad is Malaysian. And the stew, called Kare-Kare, is traditionally made with a sauce containing peanuts and toasted rice that is ground with a mortar and pestle. He substituted an American staple instead: peanut butter. "How did American businesses start to develop markets in the Philippines?" he asks. "One of the easiest ways to do it is to start using American products in old Filipino cuisine so it's not that much of a shock. Many recipes for Kare-Kare today just call for peanut butter."

Orquiza's interest in cooking goes back to his days at the University of Scotland, where he earned his master's in history and classics. It was hard finding the Asian dishes he craved, so he decided to learn how to make them himself. From there, the 29-year-old San Francisco native went on to the California Culinary Academy and worked as a caterer for 18 months before coming to Hopkins.

Ronald Walters, professor of history and Orquiza's advisor, says the fact that Orquiza is a chef adds to his understanding of what food has meant to people throughout history. "Alex has a sensitivity to ingredients and to their combinations," he says. "I suspect he is like a musician who can look at a score and hear the music. I think Alex can look at a recipe and taste it."

Since February, Orquiza has been in Manila on a Fulbright Scholarship doing research in the National Archives on American business interactions with the Philippines. Until the end of the year he'll be looking through correspondence, business documents, and yes, even menus and cookbooks as a way of understanding whether the reforms in nutrition taking place in big American cities are happening in Southeast Asia.

He won't be cooking much while he's overseas, although he did pack a chef's bag filled with his knives and favorite kitchen tools just in case. "I'll definitely Xerox every recipe I get there and test it when I get back," says Orquiza. "It's a good way of engaging in research."




photos: Will Kirk/HIPS