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Ifugao Rice Is an Endangered Heritage Food That Could Disappear Soon

If you’ve ever tasted Ifugao rice, consider yourself lucky. 
IMAGE JOHN SHERWIN FELIX
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If you’ve ever tasted Ifugao rice, consider yourself lucky. Not a lot of Filipinos get to have the same experience—it is produced in small quantities, and is not available to a lot of places in the country. 

This heritage food is produced by the hands of the Ifugao tribes. Unlike the white rice produced in the lowlands of Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, and Pangasinan, this highland rice is entirely hand-cultivated and fed not by fertilizers, but by the natural richness of the minerals in the mountain’s soil.

Compared to commercial rice, Ifugao rice has a deeper, earthy aroma. Some varieties even smell like roasted chocolate. Its imperfect grains tell you about the old hands and traditional tools that unhusked them. 

Varieties of Ifugao Rice (from Center): Inawi, Minaangan, Ominio, and Imbuucan

Photo by John Sherwin Felix.

Home cook and heritage food enthusiast Sherwin Felix is determined to shine a light on endangered heritage ingredients of the Philippines. Ifugao rice is one of them. 

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“These varieties are indigenous grains passed down from countless generations. There are hundreds of unique indigenous rice varieties in the highlands,” says Felix. 

One variety he found so interesting is the balatinaw

“Balatinaw is a glutinous rice. It’s really unique because it has a chocolaty taste and aroma. You can smell it even when it’s uncooked. I use this for champorado and sticky rice,” says Felix.

Balatinaw

Photo by John Sherwin Felix.

According to Felix, all Ifugao rice is planted by hand in the rice terraces of the Cordilleras. “The rice terraces of the Cordilleras is a UNESCO World Heritage site. These areas are a living cultural landscape. If Ifugao farmers would stop planting, the heritage site will die. That’s why we need to support our own heritage rice to ensure the livelihood of our farmers and to preserve this heritage treasure.”

Mina-angan or Red Ulikan

Photo by John Sherwin Felix.
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Several varieties of Cordillera rice and Ifugao rice are listed in Ark of Taste’s catalog of endangered heritage ingredients. These include Ingudpur Rice, Imbuucan rice, Jeykot sticky rice, Kalinga Ulikan red rice, and Ominio rice. 

Why Food Becomes Endangered

Felix shares how some food, such as Ifugao rice, become endangered. 

“There are laws that kill our traditional food items. For example, the Asin Law of 1995 nearly killed traditional salt such as budbud, asin tibuok, tultu, etc. Now, almost 80 percent of salt in the Philippines is imported,” says Felix.

It is the same reason why local rice varieties are dying. They simply cannot compete with imported rice that is cheaper and floods the market. 

Balitanaw Turned Into Biko Yema

Photo by John Sherwin Felix.
Photo by John Sherwin Felix.
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Photo by John Sherwin Felix.
Photo by John Sherwin Felix.

Public preference for instant and mass produced products is also a culprit. “For example, Kamias (and other natural souring agent) is threatened by synthetic and instant mixes. Kamias has no widespread cultivation and can usually be found in the wild or in the backyard of homes.” 

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Felix also cites land grabbing, illegal conversion of agricultural lands, pollution, and human rights abuses against indigenous communities as reasons why heritage food ingredients are disappearing. 

The lack of funds for scientists and the introduction of non-native invasive species also affect the survival of heritage ingredients in the Philippines.

How to Support and Buy Endangered Ifugao Rice

“The best way to help these heritage grains (and other heritage food items) is by purchasing them,” Felix tells Esquire Philippines.

“The online market is penetrated by our small producers and merchants, unlike in supermarkets that are dominated by big brands. Also, it's a big help if we share these food items in our social media accounts. 

Feix admits that many Filipinos are unaware of the existence of their heritage food. “A simple like and share on social media goes a long way. Consuming our heritage grains promotes food biodiversity, sustainability, and it protects the cultural significance and World Heritage Site designation of the Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras.”

Ifugao and Cordillera rice are available at Apothecary Mixes Philippines, the Rice Terraces Farmers Cooperative, and Terraces Bounty

A Breakfast of Dried Fish and Fried Ifugao Rice

Photo by John Sherwin Felix.
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Mario Alvaro Limos
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