Beans, Chilis, and the Manila Galleon Trade

How the Manila Galleon Trade spiced up the World’s Kitchens Part 1 of 2

bowl of fabada, a stew made of beans, Spanish chorizo and pork hocks
Beans, roasted chilis in the paprika, and the Manila Galleon Trade in a bowl. We enjoyed my latest habichuelas with slices of toasted pan de sal.

When I told my sister I had used Chinese chorizo in the Spanish stew we call bichewelas, she didn’t go “que horror.” But she did say gently that Kwong Bee chorizo is the secret to her special pancit. Bichuelas is our contraction of habichuelas, which is Spanish for beans. My family has been cooking this dish for more than a hundred years. My sisters and I learned it from our mother who, in turn, learned it from her grandmother. Beans are locally grown now. But once upon a time, beans and chilis were among the commodities that were imported to the Philippines through the Manila Galleon Trade.

bookcover of 1493
1493. On the cover is a Casta painting that says De Español y Negra, Mulato, meaning, the union of Spaniard and African bears a Mulato. The image exemplifies the human aspect of the Columbian Exchange. Goods, people, and diseases of the Old World of Eurasia and Africa exchanged with those in the New World of the Americas.

Traveling through Time

Spain and Mexico remain on my bucket list of places to visit. However, the book 1493, Uncovering the World Columbus Created allowed me to “travel through time” during the Manila Galleon Trade and visit these countries.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Manila and Mexico linked Spain with China through the Galleon Trade. In the network of ports, merchants traded or smuggled crops that looked unfamiliar to them.

The crops that originated from Mexico were particularly interesting. They had never been seen before in the Philippines or in the Old World of Eurasia and Africa.

A slew of Mexican ingredients found its way into Spanish, Filipino, and Chinese kitchens. Africans, Asians, and other Europeans who arrived in Mexico added their cultures into the mix. Thus, what came to us in the Philippines as Spanish food or culture, may have been Mexican, Chinese, or something else altogether. 

Old World and New World Beans

faba beans being soaked in water
Faba beans, soaked and peeled. For a thicker soup, a portion of the boiled beans can be mashed into a paste and added to the stew.

Take for example, our habichuelas stew, which is actually called fabada in Spanish restaurants. The name is derived from faba, the Latin word for bean.

The Middle East cultivated the faba or broad bean as early as 10 thousand years ago. It was brought by Columbus to the Americas for planting. But the bean, along with the chickpeas, did not thrive in the Caribbean. They quickly grew in a matter of days but “then all at once wilted and died,” according to a chronicler of Columbus.

The faba is expensive today because it is not as commonly grown as other beans. The faba bean that I recently purchased was P785.00, that’s many times more expensive than the kidney beans I’ve been eating on our family table.

Who added sugar into the bean soup?
Sugar was absent from the Americas and was brought in by Columbus after 1492. Who first mixed sugar and beans? Was it the Africans, Turks, or the French? The origin of the Dominican Republic’s Habichuelas con dulce is unclear.

My brother-in-law who likes to cook fabada uses cannellini beans. The cannellini or the white bean, along with other colored beans proliferating in different parts of the world, originated from the New World or the Americas. These New World beans are cheaper and more available than the faba bean.

My mother sometimes sources her beans at the wet market. An aunt insists on beans from Iloilo.

Ingredients in our Habichuelas or Fabada

slices of Spanish chorizo
Spanish chorizo or canned chorizo Bilbao adds the orange color to the dish if one doesn’t add tomato sauce.

My stew is made of beans, pork hocks, and chorizo. It is spiced with paprika and flavored with tomato sauce, both of which originated from Mexico.

Pork was initially absent from the Americas but Columbus brought in pigs after 1492. The Indians’ source of protein was beans, fish, and duck. The combination of cheap cuts of pork, chorizos, and white beans in a stew, thus, makes fabada a Spanish and Mexican blend.

Origin of Fabada

The origin of fabada asturiana can be traced to the 19th century. At that time, the Manila Galleon Trade had already ended. Mexico broke the link of the trade route when it began its war of independence.

The last galleon from Manila arrived in Acapulco in 1815. However, a new wave of Spanish migrants came to the Philippines after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. This is most likely when cooks of fabada, riding on a steamship, arrived in the country.

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chili on a chopping board, onions and garlic on the side
The Chili in everyone’s kitchen and the Manila Galleon Trade
Go to Part 2

End Notes

Source regarding bean and chick pea planting in America, Columbus: The Four Voyages by Laurence Bergreen

By the way, the wild pig and the domesticated pig were already in the Philippines when Magellan arrived on the islands in 1521. The rajas of Butuan and Mazzaua gifted Magellan with two pigs for the meal after the Easter mass. The chronicler Antonio Pigafetta did not mention beans in his list of Philippine food.


2 responses to “Beans, Chilis, and the Manila Galleon Trade”

  1. moises villarta Avatar
    moises villarta

    This a very delicious recipe

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