By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter
I WISH I had 176,000 followers on Instagram, with the list brimming with food writers and Manila’s most famous chefs and restaurateurs. I wish they could hang on every word I said, and all it would take is to answer the question, “Masarap ba (Is it good)?” Someone lives this life, and it’s the founder of the Instagram and Facebook pages Masarap Ba.
Masarap Ba began as an Instagram page in 2015, in which the anonymous poster would visit restaurants, or buy fresh-off-the-shelves products, and post photos of them on social media, superimposed with the name of the product and the verdict, “Masarap (good)” or “Hindi Masarap (not good)” accompanied by a short caption. The short caption is usually written in Tagalog, in prose that’s easily understandable, sometimes hyperbolic (the poster sometimes writes about the gates of Heaven opening with a first bite), and definitely young, funny, and witty. The page’s intro says: “Simple lang ’yan: masarap o hindi. Ang pinakahonest na personal food account sa history of mankind (It’s simple. Is it good or not? The most honest personal food account in the history of mankind).”
It’s a young woman, by the way, who goes under the cloak of anonymity to test the latest offerings by fastfood brands, buffets, or chains.
In an e-mail interview with BusinessWorld, she still kept her anonymity and gave us a pseudonym: Katrina Abaan (read: katabaan, or fatness in Tagalog). Apparently, she does freelance work in the arts, and calls herself a kindergarten dropout but a college graduate. While she isn’t involved in the food industry at present, she says that she does have a background in the culinary arts.
Asked how and why she started her pages, she said in a mixture of English and Tagalog: “I liked eating out a lot, so I used to check out a lot of blogs. I’d always get disappointed because the dishes aren’t always that good. The pictures are nice, the write-ups were long, but waley, bola lang pala (it was all flattery),” she said.
Later on, she continued, a blogger friend told her that restaurants would invite them to write about them and realized that far too often, the food community would often write good things about these restaurants, because well, three-course meals were at stake. Thus, Ms. Abaan decided to go out on her own, using her own money, with no formal invitations and fanfare, and decided to go straight to the point: good or bad. As for the captions, she says that she writes the way she talks. “Kwela daw kasi ako ayon sa chismis (Rumor has it that I’m funny).”
“I want to describe things in a way that you could taste it just by thinking about it. Simple, funny, creative… and there are no limits, so this should be fun!” she said.
Her choice of restaurants is a mix of high and low, from dinners in hotels to launches of Jollibee’s new Chickenjoy flavor. She says that she visits restaurants based on her budget and mood. She always seems to have a nose for new restaurants, because, apparently, her followers (again, numbering to the hundred thousands) ask her to test new restaurants which they’re still reluctant to try — this then becomes a transaction based on trust. As for her mix of high and low, she says it’s because she doesn’t believe that only expensive dishes can be good. With this, she also says that “serious” food writers would rarely take the time off to notice small eateries or real hole-in-the-walls, which she says have become a bit of a hobby for her.
The difference as well between this anonymous woman and regular food writers is that when writers become a face, restaurants treat them far better, thus ensuring a good review. Her anonymity then gives her some power over these restaurants, where they would treat her the same way her 176,000 followers would be treated. “It must be awkward (for all of us) if they’re waiting how I’d react with every spoonful,” she said in a mixture of English and Tagalog. “I want to be snubbed by waiters, I want them to serve what they really make. No extra garnishes or bigger servings, just because a critic is around.
“People deserve the truth.”
She mostly works alone, though last year, she tapped one of her friends to serve as administrator, simply to keep track of reviews and organize e-mails. Another friend of hers has joined the team to go around tastings when she’s too busy, but insists that she answers each of her comments by herself, still.
“Influencers” are a dime a dozen these days, but Ms. Abaan has managed to literally influence someone’s dinner choices by remaining completely anonymous. “I’m a very private person, so I won’t get kidnapped,” she said in a mixture of English and Tagalog. “Maybe I’m just really effective in expressing myself in Tagalog, so I can connect easily with people without showing my face.”
So this woman doesn’t get paid, sponsored, or even gets a shred of recognition (but her writing does). Why does she do it? “Good karma, which is priceless. Immeasurable happiness. A sense of fulfillment because I know I affect people positively even if they don’t know me.” It’s all about spreading the good vibes, and her followers sometimes tell her how happy she makes them feel just by viewing her stories on Instagram. She says that she has used her influence to help a special cause of hers, which are animals and animal shelters, but that’s it. (One time, she struck a deal with a bank using a debit card they issued to pay for her meal at a restaurant she visited, so she could donate to an animal shelter, but she disclosed this information to her readers.)
We look at food as sustenance and nourishment, but sustenance and nourishment for the body is not enough. Surviving is one thing, and truly living is another.
Good food sustains and nourishes the mind and soul as well, and can remind us why we do this: why we continue to do what we do, why we get up in the morning to go around and conquer. Ms. Abaan then says why the question “Masarap Ba?” is important. “I believe we are emotionally connected with our food. Food has memories combined with feelings. If it’s satisfying, we feel happy. If not, we feel ‘lugi’ (shortchanged). It ain’t enough that just because you’re alive after tasting it, it will be good enough. Food is nourishment, and to be nourished means to be loved and cared for. We need to feel a certain level of happiness when we nourish ourselves.”
Follow Masarap Ba on Instagram at @masarapba, and on Facebook at facebook.com/Masarapba/.