“Pusa ‘yan!” or in English, “It may be a cat!”, is a running joke or rumor in the Philippines about the beloved snack, siopao. Several generations have gone, yet like any good urban legend, it has persisted. Why, of all the rumors that have come and gone, this one? And did it have any truth to it?
How the Myth Began
Some speculate that the name was a dig at the Chinese immigrants who arrived in the Philippines and introduced siopao. Binondo, a densely populated area, was and still is home to many early Chinese immigrants. Stray cats were not unique to the region, but they piqued the interest of suspicious residents when the siopao became a popular street food. The notion persisted even as siopao and Chinese food were absorbed into Philippine cuisine. While people became more aware throughout time, it was less of a racial slur and more of a cautionary story of “you get what you pay for”, considering that it’s so cheap.
The FDA’s Response
With that being said, if there’s any truth to the myth, one would wonder if the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done anything to address the problem.
The FDA is a regulatory agency within the Department of Health (DOH). According to Esther Pastolero of the FDA’s Public Affairs section, the FDA is primarily concerned with medicine and packaged food regulation. For fresh food, authorities such as the Department of Agriculture’s National Meat Inspection Service (NMIS) may inspect it. In the case of siopao, the FDA has the authority to regulate and investigate complaints about pre-packaged siopao. Concerns about fresh siopao are handled by local government entities and the health agency in the region.
Andrew delos Reyes of the FDA’s food division has been with the agency since 1994 and previously worked as a food inspector. He adds that there were a few reports of suspected cat meat in pre-packaged siopao, but no cat meat was ever found upon investigation. He has also not discovered any “cat killing practice” throughout his tenure at the FDA. He stated simply that it’s a myth. He even added that there is this belief due to some people thinking that the product is cheap and wouldn’t be “real” pork.
How Local Chinese Restaurants Adapted
To others, the surviving mythology of siopao has challenged local Chinese restaurants to demonstrate that their cuisine is fresh and delicious, even for the price. As more individuals talked about the siopao myth in the 1980s, more neighborhood cafes were built with transparent display windows with a view of their kitchen so diners could watch their food being prepared. They also use less outsourcing, preferring to prepare their own noodles and siopao in front of everyone.
The Myth Lives On
Now, siopao is still widely accessible, with more variations than asado and bola-bola. If the tale was intended to discredit these eateries or the food itself, it plainly failed, yet the myth lives on. Its brilliance comes in how it connects a common living species with the universal need and delight of feeding while maintaining an air of skepticism. The pleasure of this urban legend is not in the reality, but in the fact that it is so ridiculously accessible that it has to be repeated.