Things You Need to Know About the Emerging Filipino Food Movement in the US
Filipino food had been many a time the subject of bold predictions about the next big thing in the US culinary landscape. Each time, however, long-time speculations are foiled by media references to the balut (duck embryo egg) as the poster boy of Filipino cuisine. Or it as if the tangy adobo sums up the flavors in the Philippines. Yet, the mainstay of Filipino cuisine would still get the skeptical look from Americans that are not ready for the punch of bright vinegar in a stew.
In 2012, Andrew Zimmerman had the guts to announce on the Travel Channel that Filipino dishes would be the standard fare of food adventurism in less than two years. Five years after the prediction failed to gather fanfare, Anthony Bourdain proclaims sisig as the gateway drug to Filipino cuisine. Perhaps this time Bourdain’s credibility worked its magic to drive foot traffic towards a sparse collection of American-Filipino restaurants in dense urban areas from coast to coast.
Yet, Filipino meals packed in takeout boxes are nowhere to be seen around the neighborhood. Neither do Westerners fancy feasting on a hearty Filipino tapsilog—a cleaver portmanteau of tapa (cured beef), sinangag (fried rice), and itlog (egg, usually fried)—instead of a poke bowl for breakfast. For all the talk that went on for nearly a decade, it seems convenient to say that Filipino is the next big thing until it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Even then, forcing down the traditional flavors on everybody’s throat would not the most helpful approach. There’s a lot to learn about Filipino food and its identity in American dining perception. But there’s also a lot for Filipino chefs in the US to consider when bringing Filipino flavors to the stateside. Here’s what you need to know about Filipino cuisine in the US.
Filipino Food Is A “Cheap Eat”
Undeniably, the successful emergence of any immigrant cuisine depends on a throng of gatekeepers waiting first in line at every new restaurant opening in big cities. They decide which qualify as “authentic” dishes and which are relegated to the status of a street grub. They essentially control the conversation about high-minded principles of Eurocentric fine dining versus cultural heritage ingrained in the invention of non-white flavors. By their standards, any foreign dish that looks and tastes inexpensive is worth less than the screen it’s typed on.
Sure, there are open-minded gatekeepers like Zimmerman and the late Bourdain. Ultimately, however, Filipino food was more of strange, curious case that happens to be the surprising gem of Asian cuisine. Save for Chinese or Japanese cuisine, the combination of economic accessibility and mysterious identity that cannot be simply Americanized has pushed Filipino cuisine into the marginalia and severed from the story of the nation and its people.
The Filipino-ness in Filipino-inspired dishes in the US
Except for the well-read, even Filipinos are strangers to their cuisine. Partly to be blamed here is the scarcity and niche appeal of printed resources on the history of Filipino cuisine. The most well-known titles such as “Tikim: Essays on Filipino Food and Culture” by Doreen G. Fernandez and “The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes” chronicled Filipino culinary culture from historical, political, anthropological, and ethnographic lenses. Until recently, there are only Western references to pull from when appreciating Filipino flavors.
Several noteworthy Filipino chefs based in the US, such as Chad Valencia and Alvin Cailan, rejects the promotion of Filipino food as a trend. Rather, they advocate for a gradual institutionalization of the Filipino flavor profile with traditional dishes that are grounded in their social and cultural contexts. Yet, the main bone of contention is the authenticity of Filipino dishes prepared in this side of the world. It’s an intense conversation fought between the purists from the home archipelago and supporters of innovation. The truth is there’s a fine line to walk between the two, and US-based Filipino chefs are careful to thread that one.
Maintaining the native integrity of Filipino traditional dishes and making the cuisine available as a mainstream choice has always been an intimidating dilemma. First, the “authenticity” inevitably gets lost through generations of diaspora who have modified the flavors due to difficulty of sourcing local ingredients to replicate traditional flavors. Second, Filipino chefs have to swap key ingredients with the closest thing that is readily available and pass it on as innovation or ‘Filipino-inspired creation.’ Third, Filipino cuisine is largely misunderstood and unknown to the rest of the world. The cuisine is young and has a lot of learning curve to cover in explaining every dish with digestible points of references to its culinary and cultural roots.
The easiest way to achieve that has been to point out the Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Malay influences to the flavor profile of the country. Another way is through fusion cuisine that combines Filipino flavors with what’s already familiar while retaining the intention of keeping with the roots.
Rather than concerning themselves with accurate representation, Filipino chefs in the US offer the alternative view that the underrepresented cuisine has to become institutionalized and the genesis of genuine cultural understanding. The goal is to position Filipino restaurants as a gateway to making the Filipino food movement a part of everyday conversations and choices at home. This involves making sure that the diners are educated about the cultural and historical origins while the senses attempt to comprehend the soul of the food.
The Filipino Narrative as Told Through the Food
Filipino cuisine has always highlighted its unmistakable truth: that it has always been a story of a nation’s struggle to endure and overcome social and economic conditions that pervade Filipino lives. It is a narrative of resilience and pure ingenuity as the people developed cooking techniques that varied from region to region.
Filipino food is as varied as the 7,641 islands that make up the archipelago nation. The diversity of local culinary traditions that emerge from different regions cannot be possibly condensed into a single stand-in to make it easier for foreigners to understand what they’re getting. And yet that’s what makes Filipino food a shoo-in for world cuisine status—not for the sour notes that have defined the Filipino palate. Once you view the Filipino food from the lens of resourcefulness, you get the deeper appreciation of the vast imagination that went into making the dishes possible.
All about interactivity
And, of course, Filipino cuisine is more than a vibrant blend of world flavors in a single plate. The Filipino culinary experience has been defined by interactivity and rejection of intimidating pretentions and inclusivity of fine dining. Filipino culinary experience emphasizes filial piety as a collectivist culture that views mealtime as shared time for family conversations. The experience is also centered on bare-hand interaction with food. It is a ritual that signifies humility and taking back control of the very thing that nourishes the food. That goes from picking up the food to preparing the mix of condiments for manipulating the flavors, unfazed and oblivious to the opinion of the table next to you.
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