If you ask people what it is, you will come up with various (and rather typical) answers – the locals will say an amalgam of influences from different cuisines (Malay, Chinese, Spanish, even American), it’s predominantly brown, it’s hard to present, it’s a bit maasim, minsan matamis, maalat, malinamnam. You’ve heard it before, yes?
It’s all this and more. It is, I believe, actually becoming a bit of a big deal. More and more people are slowly discovering what Filipino food is, even if they have to start with a humble plate of adobo. Maybe it’s because of the diaspora – we’re everywhere on the planet, us Malay/Chinese/Spaniards, or as I used to tell my classmates from culinary school, the Chicanos of Asia. Filipinos always ask their friends and neighbors to come on over and break bread – “kumain ka na ba?” – and naturally it is at the dining table where the introductions to the finer points of our cuisine begin. We’ve also managed to find ourselves cooking in professional kitchens, in restaurants, resorts, hotels, and cruise ships on every continent. Staff meals, the meal shared by everyone in the kitchen from the executive chef to the dishwasher, just became a little more special by way of, say, Samson’s most excellent oxtail meat and Archer farms organic Japanese eggplant, haricot verts, and Beijing bok choy slow braised in savory nut sauce and topped with an essence of Maine shrimp emulsion – aka kare kare and bagoong.
I might be exaggerating just a wee bit with that, but I’m not kidding when I say that the wheels are in motion for our cuisine to finally hit the big time. Yes, I will go out on a limb and say that adobo will be as famous as Angelina Jolie, or at least as much as pad thai. How can it not, what with the advent of 24 hour food TV, reality shows, blogs, and other social media providing knowledge and shaping the thoughts and opinions of gourmands across the globe.
But first, there are several things that I think we can start working on and improving:
For example, I think it’s time we go beyond adobo, lumpia, halo-halo and the dreaded balut. (I cannot tell you how many times my foreigner friends would ask me if I had ever eaten one). There are so many delicious things to bring to the table, so to speak, so how come it took a dude named Bourdain (who I love, by the way) to put sisig on TV?
There is a wealth of things to be learned, eaten and cooked out there. If we really want to bring out food onto the global dining room and into the mouths of non-Filipinos, then we have to spread our wings and be fearless.
When it comes to the names of our dishes, its time to stop beating around the bush. Call a kaldereta a kaldereta. Mr. Jones should start ordering kalderetang baka, instead of “Filipino beef stew in a savory tomato sauce”. It may seem like nitpicking, but calling a dish by its real name is the best way to keep it honest, and give it some respect. When in France, eat boeuf borguignon, when in Japan eat okonomiyaki, when in the Philippines eat pesang dalag.
One thing we have to face is that our food is really very simple.. not along the lines, say, of something from a temple of haute cuisine.. but so what? We have to celebrate it in its simplicity, its purity of flavors and its authenticity.
Authenticity is, after all, one of the things that people who love food these days have come to expect. I am almost certain that travellers who come here would like to be fed the good stuff, in all its glory. Fine, maybe it’s prudent to “go easy” on them, but nonetheless be true. Personally, when I travel, I want to eat what the locals eat, arguably one of the best ways to learn about their culture. I’m not saying that I won’t look for my tapsilog fix, but that’s for when I’m really craving or homesick. Besides, I am still of the opinion that Pinoy grub is best eaten here.
One thing I have begun to learn is that there is a treasure trove of dishes out there that never get tasted beyond where they’re originally from. I hope you agree with me on this – it’s a crying shame. We have such sheer variety of delicious sounding things – much of which I myself have never heard of. Bring them out for everyone to see and taste!
There are dozens of food artisans, who have been plying their craft for decades, and are now slowly dying out because their business seems “unfashionable”, and doesn’t appeal to the younger generation. Take Lillian Borromeo, for instance –a food historian from Pampanga. She does lectures, community based TV shows, and produces cookies and pastries from molds that go back to the Spanish era. They have such interesting stories, and are so intertwined with history.. and yet even she says that when her time comes, there is no one to really take over where she left off. These are the things we must champion – they must be saved, because it is as much a part of our heritage and culture as novels and art. I’ve always taken to heart that in order to move forward, we must first look backward.
As far as cooking is concerned, I think it is about time to prop up our indigenous ingredients as well. I have come across people who are a bit ashamed of the things they serve, because of their humble roots. I personally don’t buy that --- humble also often means delicious! Why classify them as not “classy” enough for the big “fine dining” table? If it’s good, it’s good. Period. Just ask Thomas Keller, one of the world’s greatest chefs, who uses a lot of pandan and tanglad, or Susur Lee, who worships our very own kalamansi. At Pinoy Eats World, we use all sorts of locally grown produce ourselves. Native corn on fine china? And why not?
I also used to say that Pampanga and Bacolod had the best food in the Philippines, until I realized in a conversation that I was in that regionalizing everything is not helping our quest to penetrate the world’s palates. Dinengdeng, kilawin, batchoy - it’s all Filipino food. Why complicate things?
Thankfully we have our champions who are leading the charge.
On the restaurant front, there are few more pleasant dining experiences in the city than dining al fresco at Abe’s, under the twinkling lights of Serendra on a breezy evening. Sentro is always a good option too, as their riffs on the food we love is refreshing, delicious and sometimes even surprising (like their cheesecake with red egg and queso de bola). The chow over at Milky Way, I suspect, uses some Western techniques and the best ingredients they can find for their takes on it, and the results are amazing. Cocina de Tita Moning, though I’ve never been, keeps the owner’s family recipes alive and kicking, just like they do at Everybody’s Café in the great city of San Fernando, over in Pampanga. Bruce Lim over at his Chef’s Table cooks very playful – sometimes even bordering on experimental - food, inspired very much by his childhood, and by his travels around the Philippines. I could go on and on, and I’m still discovering more and more.
The other best point of view for me would be New York, that melting pot of global culture, and also where I went to culinary school. Look for places like Purple Yam over in Brooklyn (who have a devoted following of Caucasian customers) or Kuma Inn in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where a Thai/Filipino guy named King Phojanakong has been rocking people with things like lechon kawali, linasing na hipon and bihon. Both of these restaurants aren’t purely “Pinoy”, but rather Pan Asian, with a very heavy Filipino bent. In Brooklyn, a very hip and happening pop up restaurant called “Maharlika” serves a Filipino brunch, stuff like sisig in a skillet with egg and pandesal only on Saturdays and Sundays, and is getting much buzz. And don’t even get me started on Woodside, Queens – probably the East Coast equivalent of the West’s Daly City and its environs, south of San Francisco, and about as Manila as Manila is. You can Google places like Tribu, the street food cart Adobo Hobo, and Kuya’s in San Bruno – which even has an outpost over at Fort Bonifacio. Our food is indeed everywhere.
The writers spread it like gospel truth. Purple Yam’s Amy Besa, restauranteur and cookbook writer, talks about our food to the American press til she’s blue – and it’s truly gotten her, and us, places. Recently Sam Sifton, the food critic of the New York Times, had a whole article on adobo, largely due (I’m sure) to her going on and on about it. That was a coup, if I ever saw one.
Locally, I do admire the musings of Mickey Fenix, and of Claude Tayag, both of whom know their stuff. But no one, though, has come close to the power of words from the late Doreen Fernandez - still, the lights shine bright.
There are also many trends that we can pick up a thing or two (or three) from.
The Slow Food Movement, out of Italy, has spread its message loud and clear: be patient with your food. Put time aside and learn to let things happen – stop being in such a rush. Use the freshest ingredients you can find. Ultimately your food will taste the best it can possibly taste, and be at its healthiest. Eat at the table and savor it, and spend time with the people closest to you.
This message rings loud and clear over here in present day hyper speed Manila, especially, where time is of the essence, where the dinner times vary, and in the kitchen, people shift more and more to using so much industrialized food products, like mixes. Sure, I understand that there are other factors involved, like time constraints, and convenience. But if you get down to it, it makes perfect sense. We are going too fast anyway, don’t you think?
The use of social media is something to be reckoned with as well – do not underestimate its power. It’s effective, and most cost effective, because it’s free! As a collective, we should write about it more, post and tweet and shout – a large part of putting us on the international scene is marketing, after all. Perhaps the tourism powers that be can put our food in the limelight as well, because there’s more to the Philippines than Boracay.
There is still a steep hill to climb to achieve our goals, but I am quite sure we can do it. But it is not enough for just a handful of people to proclaim the greatness of our cuisine. After all, we only have one Amy Besa. We only have one Claude Tayag. One Mickey Fenix.
This is the time when I address you, ladies and gentlemen, you who are now the foundation of all things culinary in our country – as cliché as this may seem, it is time for you to take a united stand. You have in you hands the capacity to influence, to introduce, and yes, to educate. If everyone were more aware of the wonders of our cuisine, those things beyond the everyday, then how can they not celebrate it?
The time is now, ladies and gentlemen, to chip away at the obstacles that stand before us. I firmly believe that there is nothing that cannot be achieved if we’re on the same page – I just read the other day that last year saw more than 3 million tourists fly into our airports, one of our best years in awhile. Not that huge a number when compared with other countries, but that is 3 million nonetheless. 3 million hungry mouths, 3 million curious palates that need to be introduced to the beauty and deliciousness of the Philippines.
At Pinoy Eats World, we have a tagline that I think is perfect to end my little talk: on every email, every post, every electronic flyer, and on the back of every calling card, we have a simple invitation:
Come eat with us.