Food & Drink

We don't own Filipino food anymore

People will interpret our cuisine the way they like. We wanted this so we have no choice but to deal with it.
IMAGE Jason Quibilan
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It was in 2012 when Andrew Zimmern boldly declared that Filipino food was going to be the next big thing. He went on the record on TODAY.com, predicting, “Two years from now, Filipino food will be what we will have been talking about for six months… I think it’s going to be the next big thing.” 

It is now 2016, the Bizarre Foods host’s deadline has been given sufficient leeway. Since then, Anthony Bourdain has made a return trip, Adam Richman has taken a giant bite of Pepita’s Lechon, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold raved about Max’s Fried Chicken, Margarita Fores has been voted as Asia’s Best Female Chef, Your Local has been featured on Conde Nast Traveler, Mecha Uma has become a Southeast Asia must-try. Zagat included our humble cookery as one of their nine emerging cuisines. Local establishments Antonio’s, Rural Kitchen, Bale Dutung, and Vask have been selected for world’s best lists.

Romulo’s has expanded to London; Jollibee has opened in Queens. The Filipino Restaurant Week in New York is now on its second year. Pinoy chefs like Dale Talde, Paul Qui, and Leah Cohen, as well as restaurants like Maharlika, Purple Yam, Lasa, Manila Social Club, and Bad Saint (and more) have been tastefully brandishing the Filipino flag on their menus. Ube (known to the rest of the world as "oo-bae") is a shining star.

The Migrant Kitchen, a documentary series produced by Life & Thyme, has unofficially established Los Angeles as the hotbed for Filipino food 101. Its second episode, “Barkada,” which highlights Chef Charles Olalia’s Ricebar and Chef Alvin Cailin’s Unit 120, led Eater to conclude: “In Los Angeles, the conversation surrounding the flavors and dishes of the Philippines knows almost no bounds.” 

It would appear that Filipino fare has been trailblazing through the ranks. Have we, to paraphrase a Washington Post headline in 2015, at long last, arrived? 

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We’ve gotten big enough for the world to assume they understand us—enough to freely interpret our flavors and intentions as they wish. We have become public domain.

Ask us early this year and we would’ve ended the discussion with a safe almost, but yes. In fact, Filipino food has made it. If anything good came out of Bon Appetit magazine’s controversial halo-halo recipe this August, it is the confirmation that we have indeed arrived; we’ve gotten big enough for the world to assume they understand us—enough to freely interpret our flavors and intentions as they wish. We have become public domain.

Becoming a free-for-all is a notorious part of success. Like every other "it" thing, we will be scrutinized, ripped apart, but at least, the goal has been achieved. The world is ready for our cuisine. But there lies a more important question: are we ready for the world? Are we ready for people to put popcorn in our halo-halo

*** 

The same month that Bon Appetit published their loose interpretation of a revered Filipino dessert, they also hailed Washington-based Pinoy haunt Bad Saint as the second-best restaurant of the year. With a menu that the magazine described as “one of the country’s most exciting,” Bad Saint features chicken inasal, ampalaya, ukoy, bilo-bilo. It sounds like a table at your tita’s piyesta, but the young visionaries behind this gem are peddlers of more modern tastes. Their ensalada comes as a vibrant plate speckled with dragon fruit, the lumpiang shanghai is boosted with cornichons, the adobo is bright yellow and heavy on the turmeric.

On the opposite coast is Maharlika, the restaurant that Conde Nast Traveler declared as a New York can't-miss. There are the usual suspects: beautifully fried butterflied daing, sunshiny longsilogs, kare-kare with vibrant bokchoy. It is, however, the ube waffles with fried chicken that have garnered serious fans; the pancit palabok made extra special with a dollop of uni; the creamy laing replacing spinach in the Eggs Benedict; the balut in aluminum pails presented with the servers shouting as if they were on the street. What’s tradition back home has turned into an effective kitsch in a setting like New York.

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What’s tradition back home has turned into an effective kitsch in a setting like New York.

When Gold wrote about Lasa, a pop-up Filipino joint, for the Los Angeles Times, he sang praises for the way it captured the spirit of modern Filipino cooking. “[Chef Chad] Valencia’s cooking captures not just the joy of delicious, super-fatty party eats, but the extreme regionality of the dishes in the Philippines’ zillion islands,” he notes, commending the lightness and the balance in both composing the menu and the actual dishes. Blazing examples of such skill include a Caesar salad spiked with patis instead of anchovies; a pinakbet-bagnet with smoky puréed eggplant, bagoong, and powder made from dried ampalaya; a cassava cake version of tres leches.

Perhaps it’s because they’re not in the Philippines. When they’re faraway, Lola can’t look over their shoulder. 

These restaurants created the ripples which, in turn, generated a wave large enough for a Filipino takeover that just couldn’t be ignored. What ties them together? Newness. Western specialties infused with local flavors. Molecular techniques. Presentation that is, dare we say, digitally infectious. A disregard for the rules. These are the restaurants that are capturing global attention and they’re thriving. Why? Perhaps it’s because they’re not in the Philippines. When they’re faraway, Lola can’t look over their shoulder. 

***

Filipino food abroad is noticeably dissimilar from the food you’ll actually find in the Philippines, and we wonder about the effects of this incongruence: progressive Filipino food impresses on an international level but raises eyebrows locally. When Chef Rolando Laudico opened Bistro Laudico in 2006, he stunned with a rather forward approach to serving Filipino food. It wasn’t just about replacing the pork in sinigang with corned beef or converting the usual beef tapa to ostrich meat. The good chef had the audacity to jellify tapa, glamorize an estofado with a crispy rice tuille, revise sinigang to chawanmushi, serve individual portions that go seditiously against the usual family-oriented affair. The reaction was akin to someone committing blasphemy, regardless of the chef’s propensity for flavor. It was not how Lola does it. It was not the picture you anticipate at weekly Sunday lunches. While there may be other factors that we don’t know about, suffice to say Bistro Laudico closed in 2014.

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Filipino food abroad is noticeably dissimilar from the food you’ll actually find in the Philippines, and we wonder about the effects of this incongruence: progressive Filipino food impresses on an international level but raises eyebrows locally.

There are much more shocking endings than Chef Laudico’s though. Early this year, Chef JP Anglo quietly turned his edgier Rockwell haunt, Kafe Batwan, into another branch of his crowd-pleasing Negrense-Filipino eatery Sarsa, trading his honeyed, ramen-inspired, Madrid Fusion-approved batchoy for something more traditional and less sweet. While Kafe Batwan had its own cultish following, more of the guests who stepped inside the Anglo-marked premises were in search for the chef’s straight-up specialties.

Chef JP is hardly conservative when it comes to cooking Filipino food. He fried some chicken, served it with a tart sauce, then rechristened it into a version of sinigang. He wrapped up his famous chicken inasal and rice in a sheet of tortilla then called it a burrito. Capitalizing on that effect, he then came up with bite-sized spring rolls on Sarsa’s third birthday. Tender beef ribs are served with a savory cream, like a non-sizzling but true-to-flavor play on sizzling bulalo. It isn’t orthodox, but the chef knows how to tread the line between practical alterations and established flavors.

It is difficult to talk about elevation and progression without touching on authenticity.

It is difficult to talk about elevation and progression without touching on authenticity. But Chef Myke Tatung Sarthou, at his new Filipino restaurant, Agos, sums it up pretty well for us.

"What is authentic anyway? Filipino cuisine is made up of influences. Kamoteng kahoy, those other root crops that take up a chunk of Filipino food came from the Galleon Trade. If it’s grown here, then that should be Filipino enough." Perhaps this obsession with authenticity should be redirected to integrity instead.  

Perhaps this obsession with authenticity should be redirected to integrity instead.  

We are at a time when Filipinos have become more open to revision. Locavore, for example, has caused quite a stir for its heavy-handed flavors, even more than the average Filipino de rigeur.

If anything, it’s Locavore's price points that have people raising an eyebrow. The reasons of which, not easily evident in their classic-looking dishes. Locavore’s chef Mikel Zaguirre is French-trained and his years firing up the kitchens in French bistros taught him that the rigidity of such techniques was a requirement to bring out maximum flavors. “That was my backbone. When I was given the opportunity to open a Filipino restaurant, [French cooking] came naturally to me, as opposed to traditional Filipino cooking that’s all ‘boil in a one-pot wonder.’”

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The goal is always to demystify Filipino food, especially when it’s for a global audience, but to properly do so takes ambition—and a good set of balls. The highly motivated The Moment Group took the challenge upon themselves with Manam, designing not just a vast menu, but two: Classics and Twists, which bridge the generation gap between Crispy Pata and Crispy Patatim. With three portion sizes, Manam also made Filipino food available to even a solo diner, perfect for those who want to enjoy and contemplate the Croque Maria without the distraction of the conversation.

The goal is always to demystify Filipino food, especially when it’s for a global audience, but to properly do so takes ambition—and a good set of balls.

It’s tough to “elevate” any cuisine that is rooted in tradition, but TMG’s Abba Napa reminded her chefs to never lose sight of the fundamentals of Filipino flavor. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Every liberty we took with a traditional Filipino dish wasn’t to change it that it becomes unrecognizable. It’s to enhance what makes it so good to begin with. She tells us about their best-selling watermelon sinigang, conceptualized by co-founder Eli Antonino. “It doesn’t change the DNA of what a sinigang is. It still satisfies everything you look for in the soup.”

Not everyone has the skill to do this—to look forward but still be anchored in the past. Certainly, there’s no condoning a halo-halo with gummi bears, but there are other, more acceptable ways to update Filipino food.

Consider it an improvement not an amendment. “French techniques involve serving hot food hot, cold food cold, soft meat soft, crispy skin crispy…," explains Zaguirre. Consider the beef pares in front of you. It looks like what you’re used to, tastes even better than what you’re used to. Does it really matter if it's confit?

***

This snobbery for revisions feels unwarranted. On the one hand, we’ve accepted that difference is what binds Filipino cooking together. We can’t unite and support one kind of adobo because we have unconditional loyalty for whatever kind is stewing in our personal kitchen. We know the cooking at one friend’s house will be different from our own. Ironically though, when a restaurant comes up with something slightly different, we turn up our noses.

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“All Filipino households have their own ‘best’ recipes from titas, lolos, lolas. My concern at that time was how we would entice our guests to come back,” says Zaguirre. Locavore understood that they had to exercise caution in navigating through a clientele that already harbors “homegrown” favorites, impressing them enough to want to eat Filipino food from beyond their own kitchens. The solution was to come up with a characterful menu, make it something distinctly Locavore.

“It’s like when you have guests in your house, you make your own version of pasta or roast chicken.” Put that way, it’s hard to be argumentative.

Napa looks for balance. Old school will always be craved, but novelty is what makes us turn to look. She inputs, “Modern interpretations are exciting and fun and they showcase talents, but it may not necessarily be an everyday dining experience.” Manam may very well be on their way; their crispy sisig is already the stuff of habits.

*** 

Geography is why our bloods boil when someone tries to play with Filipino food. We’re too close to home—heck, we are at home. It’s understandable that we shake our heads at a brand new way of presenting pinangat. We know it well and we can detect an impostor as quickly as we can sense something is out of place in our bedroom. There’s nothing wrong with it, which is why we don’t believe “improvements” are necessary.

But nobody said anything was wrong. We wanted Filipino food to make it big. We clapped our hands whenever a major critic or international publication gives us a rave review; we fed it to every international influencer that we thought could spread our flavors. Finally, we’ve stopped being dare food, we’re no longer the cuisine for thrill-seekers who can stomach bird embryos, congealed pork blood, and ox brains (it sounds very French when we say it like that). Wake up. The lines of locale, color, and culture are being blurred everywhere else. Food, included. Right now, the world is looking at in-your-face flavors: fermented, pickled, fiery-hot, and Filipino cuisine is stepping up to fill the need. Elevated Filipino food is happening—and killing overseas.

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This global triumph that we patiently craved is leading to that turning point: when chefs who didn’t grow up with lolas cooking tinola will attempt their own version. We’re protective. We get it. It’s as if we’re safeguarding our family values. But the person who invented the milkshake isn’t rolling around in his grave with the gaudy fashions we’ve been bestowed upon the humble drink. Who are we to wage a war against some gummi bears? Filipino food will evolve. We've given it away and we can't take it back anymore. It will acclimatize to the palates of wherever it goes next. As other cooks try to decipher it or, we daresay, appropriate it, it will develop a new kind of history. We just have to deal with it. Let them cook whatever we want because no matter what the rest of the world does, everyone knows the best Filipino food is still the ones at home. So pat yourselves on the back. Relax. We've made it. 

 

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About The Author
Sasha Lim Uy
Managing Editor, EsquireMag.ph
Sasha eats to live and lives to eat. For five years, she handled SPOT.ph's food section and edited the last two installments of its Top 10 Food books. She also recently participated at the Madrid Fusion Manila as curator.
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