Food & Drink

The World Doesn't Need to Love Filipino Food

Tourism and economics and money and marketing efforts aside, would it really be so bad if the world never fell head over heels for Filipino cuisine?
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Every time a foreign chef or authority on food comes over for a visit, they are inevitably bombarded with these questions: What do you think of Filipino food? Which Filipino restaurants have you tried? Why hasn’t Filipino cuisine been successful on a global scale? What are we doing wrong? Why won’t they love us? 

The Wall Street Journal once called Filipino food Southeast Asia’s most misunderstood cuisine. The article itself, published in 2008, positively highlights Abe, Cirkulo, and Salcedo Market, but it begins with this: “While Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia are foodie destinations, the Philippines is often stereotyped as the home of balut and Jollibee.”

That was in 2008. Has that general perception changed? Given how often the food industry discusses how or why Filipino cuisine has been so overlooked compared to its other Southeast Asian brethren, apparently not. And, as in years past, there are the same reasons and excuses being bandied about, and none of them still hold much water. Filipino food is always smothered in sauce and it isn’t colorful like Vietnamese cuisine, they say. Others insist that local restaurants can never quite capture the excellence of your mother’s or your lola’s home cooking. (Plus points for sentimentality, but we have some truly exceptional chefs and restaurants in the country, so this is not true at all.) It’s a common source of frustration for Pinoy chefs and food enthusiasts, which is why every time a foreign chef or authority on food comes over for a visit, they are inevitably bombarded with these questions: What do you think of Filipino food? Which Filipino restaurants have you tried? Why hasn’t Filipino cuisine been successful on a global scale? What are we doing wrong? Why won’t they love us? 

Every article from a foreign website or broadsheet that declares this is the year our cuisine makes it big is furiously shared on Twitter and Facebook. “Yes, finally! What took them so long to come around?”

It’s embarrassing to see this play out—putting a well-meaning foreigner on the spot, asking them these questions and giving them a glimpse of our inferiority complex. They don’t know the answers any better than we do, but perhaps the bigger and more important issue here is: why even ask them these questions and invite them to our pity party? Why does outside approval matter to us so much? The obvious (and unabashedly nationalistic) answer is that we love our country, we love our food, and we want everyone else to love it too. Every article from a foreign website or broadsheet that declares this is the year our cuisine makes it big is furiously shared on Twitter and Facebook. “Yes, finally! What took them so long to come around?”

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Blog posts that deride our national dishes or even express confusion over Jollibee’s offerings go viral and their authors subsequently cyber-bullied, as if we still haven’t learned that taste is purely subjective. Filipino food is wonderful in so many ways, but that doesn’t mean everyone else absolutely has to love it, and we certainly don’t have to hunt these people down with pitchforks and burn them at the stake if they don’t.

Filipino food is wonderful in so many ways, but that doesn’t mean everyone else absolutely has to love it, and we certainly don’t have to hunt these people down with pitchforks and burn them at the stake if they don’t.

At some point, this obsessive longing for the day that Filipino food finally “makes it” begins to seem futile. How will we even know when we’ve made it? Will we be led out of a subterranean cellar, eyes blinking as they adjust to light, and see our Thai, Korean, Vietnamese brethren welcoming us into the fold? Bring out the lechon, for at long last, our overlooked cuisine joins them on the world stage! Will it be determined by the number of Michelin stars our country has amassed, or the number of Filipino restaurants on the World’s 50 Best list? These supposedly prestigious lists have seen their fair share of backlash, and besides, food is not made great because an elite jury decides it is so. 

But when Filipino restaurants open abroad, a risky gamble and a considerable achievement, they are sometimes criticized and ridiculed for only catering to Filipino customers. “Puro Pilipino lang kumakain doon” is considered an insult and not a compliment, but with millions of Filipinos based abroad, certainly our own people would form a viable and most welcome customer base. If a piping hot bowl of sinigang or a plate of palabok can bring comfort and joy to a homesick Pinoy who hasn’t seen his family in months, that’s a pretty noble accomplishment in and of itself, and it should carry as much weight—if not more—as the seal of approval of people who are unfamiliar with our cuisine. 

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* * *

When will we be good enough for ourselves? 

We are a nation of contradictions, one that trumpets homegrown talent but also celebrates the arrival of each new foreign franchise that makes it harder for local businesses to compete. We’ll pay more for imported produce but we’re not willing to shell out as much for locally grown ingredients. The tide is turning and we’ve made significant strides, but we have a long way to go. We are at this strange intersection of being shouting-from-the-rooftops proud to be Pinoy and being suckers for anything foreign. But if we took those best practices from abroad and applied them here—and if we stopped asking foreign chefs about what we’re doing wrong and instead tried to learn from what they’re doing right—we could make significant progress.

And yet most of us haven’t done much except armchair evangelization. Let’s get real— Filipino food will not become any more distinguished if you share a hundred BuzzFeed listicles about “delicious Filipino foods you need in your life.” You’re preaching to the choir; chances are, the people who will end up clicking “like” on the link you shared are Pinoys too. Waging wars with anonymous trolls in the comments section, all in the name of defending the Philippines (whether it’s our cuisine or something else under fire) won’t make a difference either.

Food is the best ambassador for any country, and the easiest way to relate to and understand a culture. But the restaurant industry is a public relations game on a global level too, not to mention one that requires significant financial investment.

The most legitimate reason why we should care so much about what the world thinks about Filipino food is not the hope that we will someday make it (whatever that even means). It’s because this global perception of our cuisine has a direct effect on our nation’s economic success, especially in terms of tourism. Food is the best ambassador for any country, and the easiest way to relate to and understand a culture. But the restaurant industry is a public relations game on a global level too, not to mention one that requires significant financial investment.

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In 2002, Thailand launched its Global Thai program to increase the number of Thai restaurants worldwide, effectively doubling its numbers. Korean, Malaysian, and Taiwanese governments have all sunk serious cash into similar programs, with varying levels of success. Singapore has gotten wildly creative with its efforts. They came up with Singapore Takeout, a customized shipping container that transforms into a pop-up kitchen. They took this on a whirlwind tour around the world, with a battalion of the island nation’s most distinguished chefs cooking and conducting demonstrations everywhere from Paris to Sydney. Even Singapore’s events like the recent World Street Food Congress (the last one was held in Bonifacio Global City, by the way) are aimed at driving tourism to the country itself. 

So maybe it’s not our food, but the way the game is played. As with most things in this world, it all comes down to marketing in the end. But hey, we’ve got a few aces up our sleeve. After all, we were doing nose-to-tail cooking before it was even considered cool. And if countries like Thailand and Cambodia can make eating insects look somewhat appealing, the same can probably be done for balut.

We’ve become fixated on attaining this level of indefinable success, but maybe we’re destined to be the culinary dark horse of the world. Maybe they’ll never love us back and welcome us with open arms. And that’s okay.

But tourism and economics and money and marketing efforts aside, would it really be so bad if the world never fell head over heels for Filipino cuisine? We’ve become fixated on attaining this level of indefinable success, but maybe we’re destined to be the culinary dark horse of the world. Maybe they’ll never love us back and welcome us with open arms. And that’s okay. Time to quit throwing pity parties and whining about how overlooked we are. Because if we’re as proud of our national cuisine as we say we are, then we should be okay on our own. And if we still need some foreign stamp of approval to validate ourselves, well, then that’s the real problem.

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This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the www.Esquiremag.ph editors. 

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Nigella Luzon
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