When the government announced via a newspaper columnist that the annual Madrid Fusion Manila would fail to push through due to its massive logistical requirements, people had questions. Why? What happened? What about Filipino food now? What is this Buhay Carinderia that's supposed to replace it?
Three days after the ill-received announcement, the government backtracked. The Tourism and Promotions Board, the group under the Department of Tourism tasked with the supposedly five-year food congress, sent out a vague statement about the status of the event. Without promising anything, it rambled: "...the Tourism Promotions Board is assessing the possibility of staging the fourth edition of Madrid Fusion Manila later this year." Unsurprisingly, people had questions. So what's the plan? Is it pushing through? Who copy-edited the statement? What about Buhay Carinderia?
Buhay Carinderia, originally called Carinderia Fiesta, is an annual expo that was launched in 2010. On its Facebook page, it's described as "the First Ever organized Carinderia Showcase in the Philippines. Buhay Carinderia is a gathering of Carinderia owners, food/ product suppliers, small to medium entrepreneurs, professionals and students, serving as its forum where they can meet face-to-face on common ground to learn from each other and conduct business."
This year's edition was launched yesterday, April 11, with the suffix "Redefined"—expanding its scale perhaps as it steps into Madrid Fusion Manila's shoes. But after a 38-minute program with slide shows, musical numbers, and kakanin in the stunning Rizal Park Hotel, we still have more than a couple of questions.
1| What is it exactly?
Food critic Doreen Fernandez Gamboa once wrote that "carinderia" was derived from the word kari or cari, which is the Indian word for "sauce." According to Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria, "Indians of Bengal and Tamil origin of the British Army settled in Taytay and Cainta, intermarried and taught dishes using curry." Somehow the concept evolved into the roadside dining that we love today.
Buhay Carinderia is a gathering of carinderia owners, and with "Redefined," it aims to stretch its reach to carinderias all over the Philippines. But how does it work? Are different food stalls going to set up shop in one area like a huge food bazaar? Who chooses? Does variety play a role in the decisions? Is a food stall really the same as a carinderia? Are we defining carinderias loosely? Are they touring throughout the Philippines? How will that work? Will there be mini bazaars all around the country?
2| Why were phantom chefs mentioned?
At the beginning of the event, a voiceover thanked several esteemed Manila chefs (including Francis Lim, Justin Yenko, and Patrick Go) for their help in establishing Buhay Carinderia. The chefs, however, were neither present nor were they told of any special mentions. One of them wasn't even aware of the existence of Buhay Carinderia and what it's about. It makes one wonder what kind of help they were talking about.
3| How does it intend to replace Madrid Fusion Manila?
There's nothing wrong with Buhay Carinderia, which has been going strong for six years. Linda Legaspi of Marylindbert International (responsible for the event) was on point when she described the impact of such eateries in the lives of Filipinos. According to her, "carinderia dishes reflect the culinary style of the nanays, the lolos, and the lolas. It pays homage to family traditions."
That said, the TPB's decision to make it a replacement for Madrid Fusion Manila is akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole. They're incomparable and incongruent. Buhay Carinderia was built to celebrate Filipino culture among Filipinos, which is a pretty sweet statement. Madrid Fusion Manila was built for an international audience. For years, Filipinos have been clamoring for global approval for our cuisine and the international culinary congress was an easy way to getting our flavors across. With its name and reputation already set, Madrid Fusion worked for Filipino cuisine instead of the other way around.
4| Why are they trying to sell it so hard?
Every one knows it's not cool to oversell anything. Every one already grumbled about the vague status of Madrid Fusion Manila, so there's no use defending the so-called understudy. What the Department of Tourism needs to do—in case they're still trying to supplant Madrid Fusion for Buhay Carinderia—is to just come up with an incredible affair that we forget about the past.
According to TPB CEO Cesar Montano, "Buhay Carinderia will be reaching out to the grassroots" and it shouldn't limit talented Filipinos who love to cook and eat. He adds, "Filipino gastronomy should not just be available to those who can afford it." Incidentally, a ticket to Madrid Fusion Manila fetches P18,000 to P20,000. We acknowledge the role of carinderias in our gastronomy, but describing carinderia owners as the "heroes and gatekeepers of our culinary heritage" is a bit of a stretch. There's no need to throw out the sales pitch.
4| How did they manage to insert Toyo Eatery in there?
With its recent recognition as a restaurant to watch by the World's 50 Best, Chef Jordy Navarra's Toyo Eatery is the Philippines' restaurant of the moment, but to compare it to carinderias is farfetched. The restaurant was commended by the Buhay Carinderia organizers as a case study in creating gourmet versions of beloved local dishes. Toyo Eatery is known for its Filipino food-inspired tasting menu, which elevated our humble cuisine into something that could impress even the most high-brow diner but still be relatable. Creating that kind of balance isn't a skill that every chef has.
Modern Filipino food can generated polarize reactions, especially here where so many diners are purists about sinigang and kare-kare and adobo. It's found better success abroad—the likes of Lasa, Maharlika, Jeepney, and Purple Yam are known to adjust Filipino food for the international palate. Filipinos who grew up in the Philippines, however, have never truly been taken by such modifications. Even Toyo Eatery admittedly caters only to a certain palate.
This question begs to be asked: Who is Buhay Carinderia for? Is it for Filipinos who relish the simplicity of home-cooked adobo? Is it for the international market that needs the food to be a little more gourmet? Are they "elevating" carinderia dishes? If not, then why bring Toyo Eatery into the conversation. If so, then it's a tall order to ask carinderia cooks to do a Jordy Navarra.
5| What was Erwan Heussaff doing there?
Erwan Heussaff, described as "a restaurant and bar investor, an online personality, the husband of actress and TV host Anne Curtis as well as brother of actress Solenn Heussaff," has been named content creator for Buhay Carinderia.
What's he going to talk about? Where will we see his compositions?
6| Who wrote and made the musical video and number? When will they play it? Why did we have to listen to it twice?
The program ended with a music video featuring an original song made especially for Bahay Carinderia. As people hit the exit, the voiceover returned to say that audiences have another special treat: a live version.
In short, Buhay Carinderia seems like a great idea, especially considering that it's been going on for six years—longer than Madrid Fusion Manila's tenure. However, it serves a purpose different from the Spanish food congress. If the government wants to celebrate it, then that's fine. If they want to cancel Madrid Fusion Manila for whatever reason, then that's fine. It's just not right to say that one should replace the other.
Montano defended the TPB's decision by saying that "the government is spending so much money promoting other cultures." And yes, the carinderia does celebrate one aspect of Filipino gastronomy. But if we can certainly celebrate the Indian influence on the carinderia (its etymology was reiterated three times during the event), then we can definitely make an effort to commemorate our Spanish heritage, which has influenced much of the dishes we enjoy.
Pinoy food has come a long way. Whatever happens, we're just hoping for the best for Filipino cuisine.