Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi Shines the Light on Filipino Food
With Filipino chefs, restaurants, and other food figures being lauded in global awards like the James Beard Awards, the Michelin Guide, and Asia's 50 Best, it's pretty clear the Filipino food scene continues to thrive in the global context. The latest proof? Chef Padma Lakshmi's exploration of the Filipino food scene in the U.S. in the recently released second season of her docuseries, Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi—which not only shows her trying out Filipino fare for herself, but also shedding light on the issues affecting the daily lives of, and the societal themes at play for, the Filipino community in the U.S. The series is streaming on Disney Plus.
Filipino cuisine in the U.S. shines in Disney Plus documentary Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi:
Episode 6 of the second season of Taste the Nation's opens with Lakshmi ordering a bucket of chicken, spaghetti, and a peach-mango pie from—you guessed it—Jollibee. "Why is Filipino culture invisible to so many Americans?," she asks, noting the irony as Filipinos actually form the third largest Asian group in America. But as the episode shows us, there's a colorful array of Filipino flavors to be discovered—as well as underlying issues to be uncovered in the process.
Lakshmi first visits California's Café 86, known for their pastries and other treats flavored with ube—which owner Ginger Lim-Dimapasok makes a point to differentiate from taro: "It's vibrant like our people [and] unique like our people." The two prepare halo-halo—which she dubs a "map of Filipino history in a glass" due to the many cultures it takes elements from—and talk about the curious rise in popularity of the purple yam (and in turn, Filipino cuisine as a whole) in recent years, considering Filipino have embraced it forever.
"What it took for not just ube but Filipino cuisine in general to finally make it, [are that] people have finally accepted and loved [our food] for what it is," Lim-Dimapasok relays, noting the negative attitudes many Filipinos hold against their own food. Internalized colonialism, Lakshmi narrates, is definitely at play—and not just in how we view our food. This isn't entirely surprising, though, given the long history of colonial rule (by the Spanish, Americans, and Japanese no less) in the Philippines. As an interviewee flashed on the screen notes: "[This attitude] comes from many colonizers trying to erase our history trying to tell us we're nothing [or that] we're second class citizens."
Lim-Dimapasok admits she didn't always see the value of upholding her identity. "When I arrived [in the] States, I was invited to join Filipino communities and was like, 'Why do I need to join?'," she admits. "I know who I am. I'm Filipino, I was born and raised there." It was when she had kids in the U.S., though, that it dawned on her that she had "everything to prove"—and that she had to "work extra hard" to ensure they know their roots, especially with a bakery like Café 86 that hinges strongly on Filipino culture. Had it not been for her doing so, she shares, "I don't think we'd have seven stores by now. And I take pride in being able to showcase Filipino culture."
Lakshmi is soon shown digging into a plate of kare-kare with lechon and bagoong—in all its rich, crisp, unctuous, umami glory—at Tselogs restaurant in Daly City, a part of the Bay Area said to be the "heart of Filipino-America" in many ways. She's joined by Jason Zarsadias, who heads a Filipino studies program in the U.S. and calls the flavors of Filipino cuisine a mix of "sour, savory, funky"—but also notes the influence of American colonial rule on Filipino food today, evident in the prevalence of processed food products like condensed milk in the Filipino pantry.
Numerous Filipinos, Zarsadias relays, move to the American suburbs, having been influenced to live the American Dream by Hollywood movies. This extends to nurses, which are recruited to America en messe (and are the Philippines' "biggest commodity") as a "faster and cheaper" way to solve the nursing shortage in the U.S.
Lakshmi meets Leslie Solorzano, a critical care nurse and second-generation immigrant, who opens up about her feeling "grateful" to have the opportunity to live in the U.S. given her profession (and is aware of the implications of internalized colonialism at play in saying this)—yet suffers long hours of hard work with barely any time to even eat. In light of this sense of gratitude, nurses would stay loyal to the same company, she shares—regardless of how they were treated in the process, flaws in the system and all.
Solorzano's father Orland talks about the value of getting his children to assimilate into American culture—by perfecting their English and so on, "in order for them to be competitive"—as he came to the country in the 70s. Today, though, Leslie harkens back to her roots, learning the Filipino language as well as their family recipes. The three sit down to a hearty pot of sinigang, described by Orland as "comfort food" that fills the stomach. "The [sourness] too, when you have a cold and your tastebuds aren't working, it gives you back that [sense of] flavor," Leslie adds.
The sense of community, of course, is an aspect Filipinos deeply value—a point Lakshmi explores with Ruby Ibarra, rapper of Bay Area-based music group Balibayans. The group work explores themes of Catholicism, patriarchy, and notably, bayanihan—simply "barn raising" or people power—which the two discuss over a plate of siganture dishes (Java rice, lechon sisig, pork belly adobo, and lumpia, what have you) at the Sarap Shop food truck in the Bay Area, said to be the first Filipino food place in a major area in the U.S.
"I think we have a sense of bayanihan here in America because the immigrant experience is not a singular experience," Ibarra relays. "You need to have that sense of community to be able to make sense of who you are and how you fit into this puzzle called America."
Bayanihan was likewise practiced by Chefs Francis and Dian Ang of the famous Abacá restaurant in San Francisco (included in the 2022 New York Times restaurant list!), as they flew to the U.S. to cook a Filipino dinner intended to raise funds in light of Typhoon Yolanda in Samar in 2013. The whole town—also the Dian's family's hometown—was wiped out by the waters that flooded the towns and mountains. "We knew we'd raise more money here [in America] than in the Philippines," Ang relays—and it sure didn't hurt that they got to showcase Filipino cuisine in the process.
Francis, Dian, and Lakshmi devour a plate of the Filipino favorite of sisig and delve into the dish's curious origin story, having come about as a way to use up pigs' heads that would otherwise be discarded during the American occupation.
"What do you think the future holds for Filipino food in mainstream American fine dining?," Lakshmi asks. To this, Francis doesn't even bat an eyelash. "The idea is to open the door to younger Filipino chefs saying, 'Hey, Filipino food is here and is here to stay.'"
Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi is streaming on Disney Plus.