Luntiang Lunes: Filipino Meatless Mondays

Sunday, November 20, 2011 14 comments

Alugbati at Tokwa (Malabar Spinach & Tofu)

Vegetables and I were not always friends.

As a child, I disliked anything that might remotely be considered produce. Of course, this was decades before the recent pizza-as-vegetable brouhaha, which would have been a game-changer, and the subsequent debate about what constitutes a 'vegetable'. Back then, anything that wasn't a hamburger or made of sugar was a dreaded veg, as far as I was concerned (though I did make exceptions for corn and potatoes).

As a result, the normally dutiful child that I was [ahem] became recalcitrant and rebellious at dinner time. Carrots and peas were hidden under chicken bones or wrapped in the table napkin, while steamed cauliflower induced violent gagging that threatened to ruin everyone's appetite. It was no use making me stay at the table until every bit of vegetable was eaten - my tearful obstinacy often outlasted my mother's pique, or at least until it moved my sympathetic ya-ya to finish off the offending plant matter on my behalf. But muleheaded stubbornness was only partly to blame for my early anti-vegetable stance: genetics may have also played a significant role.

Better than broccoli: Vegetable pizza or pizza as vegetable? 

During a 2005 study¹, researchers observed that a taste receptor gene known as TAS2R38 heightened the sensitivity to bitter flavors in 79% of an ethnically diverse group of subjects - 143 children and their mothers - who carried one or more variations of it. It turns out that what is sometimes attributed to a child's pickiness may actually be a natural reaction. Extrapolating this data, it would mean that 4 out of 5 kids the world over are likely to turn up their noses at broccoli, cabbage and their ilk. See, Mom, everybody does it!

But nutritionally-minded parents need not despair that their offspring are doomed to a lifetime sans an appreciation for the joys of roasted Brussels sprouts. The study further noted that the mothers who shared this genetic trait with their children did not also share their food aversion and could re-direct these tendencies toward some acceptance of vegetables. It would seem that over time, nurture trumps nature. Our tastes change with exposure to new foods that expand our scope of sensations and perceptions, absorbing cultural as well as personal influences that affect our food preferences². Like schoolyard perceptions of the opposite sex, many of us eventually outgrow our poor opinion of bitter  (i.e. veggie) flavors as our palates become more sophisticated.

This has certainly been the case with yours truly as I've learned to enjoy the taste and textures of various produce, from delicate leaves down to hearty roots. Now, I'm just as likely to have broccoli with my beef or forgo animal protein altogether in favor of a refreshing summer salad. But to paraphrase a famous frog, it's not easy eating green, especially in a meat-loving country like the Philippines.

Alugbati (Malabar Spinach)

Tastes Just Like Pork...?

Filipino cuisine has more than its fair share of gulay (vegetable) dishes, from the tender-crisp fronds of pako (fiddlehead fern) salad to the ultimate umami-ness of pinakbet, a stew of okra, eggplant, bitter melon, squash and other vegs flavored with bagoong (shrimp paste). Vegetables are abundant here and considered an integral part of the Filipino meal, along with meat or fish and, of course, rice.

The national love of pork is unquestionable, while chicken and seafood are not far behind, but if one man has his way, Filipinos will be eating more vegetables as an alternative to meat instead of just an accompaniment. This past July, molecular biologist Custer Deocaris launched Luntiang Lunes (Green Monday), the Philippines' version of the Meatless Monday international campaign that encourages less meat consumption for better nutritional and environmental health³.

Dr. Deocaris takes the initiative one step further with an 'eat it to save it' approach. He encourages Filipinos not only to eat vegetables, but specifically native specimens that have long been part of the cultural foodscape yet are now being overshadowed by non-indigenous and imported produce. Among the 10 indigenous vegetables identified by Dr. Deocaris are familiar names, such as ampalaya (bitter melon), malunggay (moringa) and the aforementioned pako, while others required some online research to identify and may be more readily found at farmers' markets rather than supermarkets. With this information and my newfound appreciation of vegetables, I decided to take up Dr. Deocaris' Luntiang Lunes challenge and prepare a Filipino Meatless Monday dish.

Dr. Custer Deocaris' List of 10 Indigenous Filipino Vegetables⁴


1. Menella, Julie and Yanino Pepino, Daniell Reed. "Genetic and Environmental Determinants of Bitter Perception and Sweet Preferences.Pediatrics. v115, no2. Feb 1, 2005. (via
2. Ibid.
3. Salaverria, Leila. "Meatless Monday Drive Launched.Philippine Daily Inquirer. 31 July 2011.
4. Ibid.

Alugbati at Tokwa (Malabar Spinach and Tofu)

Looking more like a houseplant than an edible vegetable, alugbati (Basella alba) is actually chock-full of healthy stuff. As its English name suggests, it may be prepared like spinach although its okra-like mucilaginous quality also lends itself as a thickener in saucy dishes.

I opted for a simple dish of alugbati and lightly fried tofu, stir-fried with tomatoes, red onions and soy sauce, then garnished with fresh edible flowers. That's it.

What are some heirloom vegetables that you would enjoy for a Meatless Monday meal?


  • Jenni said...

    As always, I learn things from you, TN. Didn't realize that Filipinos are so carnivorous. Or know about all those cool, local veggies. I'm glad to see that I wasn't the only one crying over my veggies at the table when I was a kid (and maybe even more recently than that)! :)

  • Daily Spud said...

    Well first of all, I'm glad to hear that even your junior self made an exception for potatoes :) I had a few veggie dislike issues myself as a kid - boiled carrots and mashed carrots & parsnips were only ever eaten under protest, and dare I say, I wasn't always too thrilled about the ever-present boiled spuds! I got past my veg issues, though, and my tastes are quite the opposite these days... And very interesting to hear about your meatless Mondays and especially the drive to eat native vegetables - proper order too.

  • chef_d said...

    Hurray for Luntiang Lunes! I haven't cooked alugbati in a while and your recipe looks delicious! All the indigenous vegetables you mentioned are familiar except Talinum :)

  • SKIP TO MALOU said...

    shhh i still don't eat much gulay up to now. maybe i should join your luntian lunes so i am forced to ..maybe?
    i know the Philippines don't celebrated thanksgiving (although my hubs' family always did) but Tracey, I'm grateful for your friendship (albeit virtually!)

  • Midge said...

    I've never been one for all veggie meals (or for vegetarianism in general), but ampalaya with eggs is a regular dinner side over at my house and bamboo shoots cooked in coconut milk with a bit of bagoong is a real treat.

  • zerrin said...

    Oh my parents were so lucky! As a child, I used to eat anything mom cooked and my favorites were veetables. I would even ask for more. They were like my friends, I would chat with the vegetables on my plate before eating:)But I know the 'war' between moms and kids around dinner table from my friends and their kids.
    You made me curious about alugbati, must search for it. Your dish looks adorable with the flowers garnish. Looks like a feast!

  • Anonymous said...

    I loved alugbati as a child and my parents had a garden with it and we usually just picked the young leaves before cooking.

  • Hornsfan said...

    Beautiful photo of your 'Green Monday' dish, it's stunning! I'm more than dismayed that pizza is a vegetable (or that the US Conress is that stupid) and frankly refuse to accept that one! I think we could all use a few more 'Green Mondays' - Great post Tangled Noodle :)

  • lisa is cooking said...

    I hated vegetable as a kid too. Eating peas killed me! Now, I don't think there's a vegetable I don't like. I really like Malabar spinach. I've growing it, and it didn't work so well in the area where I planted it. But, I was able to buy it as the farmers' market this summer. Looks delicious with the tofu!

  • Betty Ann @Mango_Queen said...

    Tracey, this is an awesome post about vegetables in our dishes. Your own memories brought back my own childhood "veggie tales" when I was "not allowed" to get up from the table till I finished my vegetables. This is such a well-written piece, you're fantastic. I must share this with Amy B. soon.


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