SENATOR Cynthia Villar touched a raw nerve when she expressed her concern over the Filipino’s penchant for patronizing establishments serving unlimited rice.
It was a well-meaning gesture from the Senator, who merely wanted to highlight the supposed unhealthy practice of eating too much sugary white rice by suggesting instead the consumption of more expensive and difficult to procure brown or unhusked rice.
But the Filipino public reacted strongly and without reserve. The more keen of these reactions from social media had the message that politicians may as well dip their hands into public offers, but they should keep their filthy hands off their beloved servings of unlimited rice.
The passionate reactions came from what many Filipinos regarded as an insensitive remark that betrays how politicians are so out-of-touch from reality. To suggest for instance that all Filipinos switch to healthier brown or red rice is just like hearing Maria Antoinette order palace staff to feed hungry peasants at the gate with cake. Apart from the fact that these varieties are not readily available in the market, they are also twice to thrice as much making them outside the reach of the average Filipino family.
Regardless of what we think of politicians, this unli-rice scandal and the passionate reactions it triggered indicate another revealing sociological moment. To follow Durkheim and his ideas on the collective conscience, we would not know as Filipinios how important unlimited rice was to the national psyche until someone attempted to take it away.
The unlimited rice phenomenon is, of course, tied to the marketing genius behind the Mang Inasal chicken barbecue franchise. What is curious about the secret to the success of the brand I would wager, is that it was less about the barbecue or the other food offerings of the restaurant chain by themselves. There are far better tasting and cheaper variants in other restaurants that even the most avid patrons of Mang Inasal would concede. But it is the unique value for money with the unlimited rice package that the food giant offers in their hundreds of branches nationwide that is behind their phenomenal success.
Mang Inasal would not be as ubiquitous as it is if it not for its unlimited rice offerings. Bought by food giant Jollibee 100 percent from Ilonggo entrepreneur Edgar Sia just last year for a total of a whopping 5 billion pesos in a staggered process of acquisition since 2010, the restaurant chain is now practically in every main street corner all over the country serving their unique unlimited rice offering with their chicken barbecue meals. And Filipinos have come in droves to attain their unlimited rice fantasies in these establishments. The basis of the smart marketing ploy was to play into the unlimited rice fantasies of Filipinos.
Filipino cuisine is often very rich and flavorful. The strong savory taste that is the hallmark of our culinary heritage is ideally paired to spoonfuls of hot steamy rice. It has become a strategy of many Filipinos who are in a tight budget, for instance, to prioritize rice over viand as long as the chosen “ulam” is flavorful. In many urban areas in the country catering to workers, a consideration in choosing which eatery to patronize is the amount of rice serving a particular carenderia serves. Imagine if your lowly corner eatery serving beef steak and humba would match this with unlimited rice?
The fantasy for unlimited rice I believe is an indication of our feudal and agricultural past and present. In a country that is largely agricultural yet wanting in terms of what the general population can feed their bellies, the promise of an establishment that offers unlimited rice responds to a number of deep and historical desires. It is a symbolic representation of a future that is yet of reach and can only be enjoyed momentarily when the budget allows.
In every Filipino household, it is also the case that every serving of rice is measured accordingly to the average consumption. Rice servings are carefully allocated according to how much each of the members of the household can consume. Often times, this include the allocation for households pets and cats who also consume rice. Rice therefore is a valuable resource whose consumption in the household is very much measured and regulated. This is also the reason why fluctuations in the price of every kilo of rice reverberates strongly in every household.
In this context, the unli fantasy offered by the food giant becomes a marketable and even becomes an emotional product. This was the raw nerve that the Senator Villar disturbed with her statements.
Published in the SunStar Cagayan de Oro newspaper on June 16, 2017.