Filipino food is always the bridesmaid, never the bride
After many long years of wandering unloved in the wilderness, Filipino food has finally gone from being continually “on the cusp of being the next big thing,” to emerging from the shadows and moving into the limelight. At long last, our cuisine has gone mainstream. There are Filipino restaurants being written about in the New York Times, food bloggers enthusiastically embracing the vibrant purple hues of our beloved ube on their Instagram feeds, and no less than the Washington Post has proclaimed: “At long last, Filipino food arrives. What took it so long?” (That’s the actual title of an April 2015 article.)
The food world might be second only to the fashion world in its relentless search for trends, and something can depart as abruptly as it arrives. Local is out, nouvelle cuisine is in again, molecular gastronomy has been supplanted by note-by-note, pho is the new ramen, sour is the new umami. The last thing we want for Filipino food is to be as fleeting—and inconsequential—in the public imagination as asymmetry in last year’s Spring/Summer collection. What we want is for Filipino food to arrive and become part of the culinary landscape, not a faddish phenomenon. And it must arrive intact: just two months ago a New York Times article had a headline that began: “Filipino Food Arrives, in a Taco…” If we have to crawl into a taco to arrive, do we really want to be there?
What we want is for Filipino food to arrive and become part of the culinary landscape, not a faddish phenomenon.
No story about Filipino food is complete without mentioning the balut, which is what Philippine food was represented by in the West for years, the culinary equivalent of the Filipino natives who were brought to the U.S. and exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The fertilized duck embryo has travelled the world as our ambassador to provoke disgust and horror, as well as the flip side of the coin, to be patronized and embraced by those who want to show love for the savages—or just be cooler than their friends. For most of us who grew up with balut, the response of the white man was more amusing than anything; the balut was something that was simply there, a treat when the vendor came around at night or when an officemate happened to go to Pateros for a meeting. When Internet videos and Buzzfeed got around to it, Filipinos in the U.S. made the tragic error of mistaking attention for interest, and the race to the bottom for the weirdest food to come out of the Philippines and be waved in front of a camera was born.
The real interest in Philippine food began when French food and fine dining collapsed in the mainstream food world, and the superstar of the industry went from being Alain Ducasse to (briefly) Ferran Adrià and his posse, and then became Anthony Bourdain. Michelin stars gave way to pop-ups and food trucks; the elegant, built-up food styling of Saveur gave way to the irreverence and obsessive nativism of Lucky Peach. It’s a time when a bowl of a spicy fry-up at a hawker’s market can be as important and transcendent a gastronomic experience as a perfectly cooked quenelle at a French haute-cuisine restaurant. This is, in general, a good thing. Countries like the U.S., the UK, and even France, are beginning to discover that their migrant populations are good at other things aside from emptying dustbins; in the States, especially, the current interest in Mexican and Latin American food is ironic because most fine-dining kitchens have had Latinos in all but the top positions for some time now.
No story about Filipino food is complete without mentioning the balut, which is what Philippine food was represented by in the West for years, the culinary equivalent of the Filipino natives who were brought to the U.S. and exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
The availability of cheap air travel has a lot to do with it. David Attenborough’s rise to fame coincided with the advent of commercial jet flights in the 1970s, and this is why he was able to cut from hedgehogs to kangaroos to polar bears to drive home a point. Today’s international travellers are no longer the type who eat canned food throughout the journey; an adventurous, seasoned palate is something to boast about and slipped smoothly into conversation: “But of course, the commercialized Thai food is nothing compared to this unassuming street stall I happened to discover in Vientiane…” It’s no less snobby than the old checklists of having been to Taillevent, Lasserre, Le Cirque, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons: you need time, and you need money (and because time is money, this amounts to the same thing). You need the wherewithal to go traipsing about the world and slipping into obscure sushi restaurants in the heart of Tokyo or an unknown hut serving the best ceviche in Peru. And then you need to be knowledgeable about it, in the days of classical cooking there was only one canon to be covered. But the breadth of knowledge one must master to hold a proper foodie conversation has increased exponentially. And again, this is, mostly, a good thing.
Culinary tourism holds the same pitfalls as any sort of tourism.
Culinary tourism holds the same pitfalls as any sort of tourism: you can be curious, open-minded, and have only the best of intentions, but sometimes one’s mere presence is disruptive, not to mention a stampeding horde of tourists making a beeline toward one stall because it happened to get a write-up in the Financial Times or get rated by a Michelin inspector. Some very conservative Japanese restaurants have taken to quietly turning down reservations from foreigners because they “don’t want to become Jiro”—a box to be ticked, like having your photograph taken beside the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, as the teacher fawns attention on her pet student, Filipino food has been the nerd at the back of the class continually raising his hand and calling out. I don’t think any other cuisine has been so earnest about being taken seriously and so studiously ignored. America’s fascination with Latino food—and recently, with Korean food—has political underpinnings. It has much to do with how America sees these communities as being foreign in origin but now essentially American. Though Filipinos have had a presence in the United States since 1587 we have never been a strong, coherent social force, for various reasons that are nobody’s fault. America’s recognition of Filipino food—or more properly, Filipino-American food—is finally happening, but unfortunately comes at a time when there has been a bit of a pushback by a few of the communities whose food has become briefly faddish before being amalgamated into the great American cookbook.
“Cultural appropriation” is the phrase generally thrown around, although Lisa Heldke, a noted food scholar who was one of the first to write about it in an academic context, calls it “cultural food colonialism.” This is especially evident in the toe-curlingly cringeworthy videos of Americans trying balut and other Filipino food, which Filipinos gleefully share online as evidence of our presence in the mainstream cultural consciousness. We can take refuge in the fact that they’ve tried this with other cuisines, such as Korean and Thai and Vietnamese—though this is not equal-opportunity orientalism; Buzzfeed doesn’t run videos about Americans trying African or Middle Eastern food and their reactions to it. The diversity of Asian culture, and the place of Asians in American society, makes us an endless source of novelty, our culture offered up as artefacts for American subjects to judge, and offer their disgust, perplexity, or nonchalant acceptance.
America’s recognition of Filipino food—or more properly, Filipino-American food—is finally happening, but unfortunately comes at a time when there has been a bit of a pushback by a few of the communities whose food has become briefly faddish before being amalgamated into the great American cookbook.
Fortunately, Philippine food in the West has gone beyond the viral video. Maharlika, Jeepney, Pig and Khao, Talde, Bistro 7107, Second City, Swell Dive, Ricebar, Lasa, Romulo Café, Le Servan, and all the others are in the shadow of Purple Yam, the successor to the pluckiest Filipino restaurant of them all, the now-defunct Cendrillon in the SoHo distict. Why did it have a French name? Why did their adobo have coconut milk in it? Why were there traces of other cuisines on the menu? Although Cendrillon was a darling of the New York critics, and the Philippine food community was happy to see representation in the U.S. dining scene, the complaint was always that it wasn’t authentic. And it’s true, these restaurants aren’t authentic, not in the way they would be if a great earth digger carved out Dencio’s or Gerry’s Grill and flew it, suspended by cables hooked to a squadron of C-130s, to Brooklyn. The restaurants range from resolutely in-your-face Filipino, the most “authentic” you’ll get without going to a turo-turo in the back of a balikbayan box store, to “pan-Asian” or “Filipino Asian.”
Believe it or not, this is not as terrible as it sounds. Leah Cohen, for instance, arrived at Filipino food (even if her mother is Filipino) via a love affair with Thai food; her approach to cooking it is not an erudite, respectful one, but one which works for her. Do we need to slap her around for not being authentic? Then we’d have to slap Nicole Ponseca around for serving up a slapdash hodge-podge of Filipino culture—almost self-orientalizing—to sell Philippine food to New Yorkers. Each restaurant is the product of the owners’ and the chefs’ experiences and intentions. Somewhere I’d have to draw the line, for example at Filipino food in tacos: I don’t like it here, to begin with, and I don’t think we should be riding the popularity of Central American food like a stowaway.
Although Cendrillon was a darling of the New York critics, and the Philippine food community was happy to see representation in the U.S. dining scene, the complaint was always that it wasn’t authentic. And it’s true, these restaurants aren’t authentic, not in the way they would be if a great earth digger carved out Dencio’s or Gerry’s Grill and flew it, suspended by cables hooked to a squadron of C-130s, to Brooklyn.
Authenticity is getting to be a bit of a dirty word, anyway: no one quite knows what it means, except that they want it. Does it mean made with ingredients that are indigenous to the place—in which case, how long does it have had to be indigenous; does it have to date from before the Columbian exchange? Does a recipe count as traditional if it has only been created a generation ago, by a restaurant chef rather than a village elder—as sizzling sisig (Trellis) or crispy pata (Barrio Fiesta) was? One of the more popular tropes in writing a food story is the “quest for the authentic whatever,” be it mole or xiao long bao or pinikpikan. It usually features a guide, a helpful local who, after rescuing the writer from tourist dumps, initiates him into the cultural context of the food (long digression on history and politics goes here) and ends somewhere remote and inaccessible, or in someone’s kitchen, savoring the dish as it was cooked since the bronze age, before slow-dancing to folk music. All of this, of course, is utterly false. I don’t know what authentic is, but no one else does, either, and I think we can all agree that it isn’t that.
But the last thing I would want to be is a wet blanket at a time when Filipino food is having a moment, a movement, even. The chefs in the U.S. and other countries are mostly young, idealistic, maybe a generation removed from home but all the more enamored with the local foodways we take for granted because of it. There’s #FilipinoPride and representation and the need for white people to notice us and take us seriously; but there’s also a lot of honest cooking and good food being served up to people who are genuinely interested in wanting to know us better. And sometimes we have to bring the mountain to Mohammed: the two times that a Madrid Fusion event was held in Manila were quixotic and filled with internal politicking, but did Philippine food a world of good by having a genuine exchange of ideas beneath the paparazzi dinners and selfies with rockstar chefs.
The best Filipino restaurants, whether here or abroad, are those that don’t feel desperate for acceptance, just as the best Filipino food is cooked for Filipinos and neither toned down nor exoticized for white people; and the best thing that can happen for Filipino food is for us to stop caring what other people think.
The best Filipino restaurants, whether here or abroad, are those that don’t feel desperate for acceptance, just as the best Filipino food is cooked for Filipinos and neither toned down nor exoticized for white people; and the best thing that can happen for Filipino food is for us to stop caring what other people think. Here’s an idea: to push the boundaries of Philippine food so that Filipinos will be astonished at how simultaneously unfamiliar and authentic it is. Do it so well that people will pay as much for it as they’d pay for a fancy meal at a foreign restaurant. Make Filipino food so refined that we start laying down the foundations of a Filipino cuisine.