Thoughts on the Filipino Food Trend

Five years ago Andrew Zimmern, host of The Bizarre Food show, was on The Today Show saying Filipino Food would be “the next big thing.” We all thought, “this is it.” Everyone else is finally going to discover our precious food.

Then there was the time Eddie Huang clowned that poor female at the turo-turo joint in Daly City that couldn’t name the ingredients in munggo. It wasn’t the best exposure, but it was exposure. He called us out. He addressed the possible reasons Filipino food was so obscure. Maybe we need to package it better. We have all this love for Filipino food, but the only people loving it is us. And that’s not enough for us. We want to share. It’s in our nature. As a diaspora trying to carve a unique identity in the West it became increasingly important that our food get noticed.

In 2017, it seems we’re nearly there. In January, Bloomberg published an article titled, “Filipino Food is the Next Big Thing- Again.” The piece showcases several figures contributing to this rise. Perhaps most notable, Bad Saint in Washington, DC was ranked second best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appetit magazine, then went on to receive a glowing 3-star review from the New York Times. They have line-ups down the block before every service.

Right here in Toronto, Filipino food has become the cool kid on the food scene. With Daniel Cancino as chef, Lamesa Filipino Kitchengot re-reviewed by The Globe and Mail and was bumped from a 1-star rating to 3. On par with some of the better restaurants in Canada. It’s second, more casual location, Lasa by Lamesa was named one of Toronto Life’s favourite new places to eat in 2016. (Edit: there are several other businesses and people making the city pop. Especially Diona Joyce at Kanto. It may take a whole separate post. I’ll save the space for now.) A panel discussion including Chef Daniel Cancino and other local community leaders was brought together by race and ethnicity focused blog, Ethnic Aisle to discuss what happens when Filipino food goes mainstream.

So it’s on people’s minds, but are they eating it? Filipino food in North America seems poised to become a more recognized voice in the culinary spectrum, yet we’re not going for Filipino once a week like we do Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean or Japanese. It would be dope if silog became a common quick lunch or late night option the way bibimbap is.

However Filipino food didn’t enter the conversation the same way these other cuisines did. A major difference between the current Filipino food wave and its Asian counterparts is that this Filipino food movement has been mostly spurred by 2nd generation Filipinos. We skipped the part where everyone else ate at our mom and pop turo-turo joints. They’re getting the kid that went to chef school version.

As Filipino food evolves and becomes a diasporic cuisine, innovation should be expected. Expression, personal touches, even improvements by thoughtful cooks is healthy for the culture. But often instead of a measured thoughtful approach focused on quality ‘interpretations’ of Filipino dishes, we’re seeing a lot of cooks in the diaspora focusing on marketing the cuisine. Ube donuts with gold flakes, sisig tacos, adobo eggs benedict, ensaymada cupcakes. These are 2nd generation Filipino attempts at carving a unique Filipino food identity by packaging it in a familiar western concept.

The whole movement to market and brand Filipino food in order to penetrate the mainstream or be accepted is definitely part of a deeper conversation. Why do Filipinos need this kind of attention? Why do we feel the need to package it in something familiar to other people? Is it the timing of this emergence that makes it so millennial in nature? Or is it because the 2nd generation is at the forefront of this movement?

I’m not against ube donuts, they’re just not my taste. Do you go to Chinatown and grab lemon chicken? A cuisine and culture deserves more thorough attention, investigation, and respect. Fuck making it trendy. Make it good. Let’s not align all of Filipino cuisine with cupcakes and kale caesar salad. A cuisine is a window into the lives of the people that cook and consume it. That’s a deep calling if you choose to be a producer of it. It is great that Filipino food is finally getting the attention it deserves, but when is it positive curiosity and when is it spectacle?

These are dishes from Filipino cooks that I think illustrate progress in the correct direction:

The thing about arroz caldo and lugaw is that you have to grow up it. You have to have watched your Pops or Lola or Tita Margie dressing their bowls with the necessary condiments. Patis, citrus, sili, and toyo are what make lugaw. Adjusting sawsawan and using condiments to fit personal tastes is a distinct characteristic of Filipino cuisine. Those tastes come from the experience of watching how your relatives eat and then tweaking to your own preferences growing up. This can make Filipino food intimidating and without guidance a dish like lugaw can come off bland to foreign palates.

That’s why I love Robbie Hojilla’s arroz caldo at Lake Inez as an introduction to Filipino flavours. A purist would be displeased there’s no condiments on the table when it’s served, but they’d be missing the point. The flavours in the bowl already hum at the correct frequency. It’s balanced. There were times while eating it that I wished it was a little more this or that, but then minutes later the bowl was clean. My personal preference caused me to judge it, but the execution was undeniable. It was well cooked by a skilled hand. It’s not watered down. It’s packaged in a way that makes it understandable to the uninitiated. It’s not prettied up or fancy. It’s still brown as fuck. He just made it tasty as is. As a gateway to Filipino flavours this arroz caldo is more definitive than adobo poutine or sisig tacos.

Full disclosure: I have a massive crush on Daniel Cancino over at Lamesa Filipino Kitchen. You may never hear me speak ill of him, except when he doesn’t return my texts. Dan’s broccolini/green beansare a thoughtful adaptation of kare kare. Kare kare is normally rich with oxtail and vegetables, served in large quantity over rice. A Sunday dish. Bagoong completes kare kare. Dan shrinks the proportion and serves it as a vegetable ulam that can also act as a side or tapa on it’s own. Dan stays loyal to, even magnifies, kare kare’s most identifiable characteristic: the marriage between the rich peanut sauce and fermented shrimp paste. It displays Dan’s deep understanding of Philippine cooking, his respect for our tastes and his savvy as a cook.

Angela Dimayuga’s chicken relleno is a modern execution of a Filipino fiesta classic. I’ve never visited New York’s Mission Chinese, where Dimayuga is chef, but I’ll assert this dish based on concept alone. Labeled “Josefina’s House Special Chicken,” Dimayuga uses her Lola’s recipe as a the base. Rellenong manok is whole boned and stuffed chicken. She pays homage to traditional preparations of the dish by making improvements rather than making it more familiar or toning it down. The large format presentation honours Filipino family-style eating. Most remarkable is that Mission Chinese is able to execute this labour intensive dish consistently on the regular menu. Night after night. I like the idea of it because it’s a statement dish. It speaks. A shout out to her roots while exercising her professional experience in the kitchen.

We shouldn’t start claiming that Filipino food is mainstream just  yet. When grilled meat on sticks and vinegar are as ubiquitous as xiao long bao or ramen. When I go for palabok as much as I go for pho or wings. When we’re not having this conversation any longer, we’re just eating, then that’ll be it.

As this Filipino food thing continues to gain momentum, all input is good and valuable. The food and culture benefit from more voices. It’s just that some sing like Sade or Mariah (when she’s on) and others are more Katy Perry and Ke$ha. Some people like that shit.

When your intention is to represent the food and culture with your cooking, it’s important to examine your intentions. Forget attention for attention’s sake. When people think of Filipino food, I don’t want them to be thinking about purple waffles.

Since we’re in this position to shape what Filipino food could be, shouldn’t we be thinking about whether it’s being cooked well? That it’s tasty? That it reflects the tastes and habits of the people that love and eat it most? Let that be our reputation.

Related: All Ube Everything

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Manuel Luis Veneracion
ig: @laowlaowpantz
twitter: @laowlaowpantz

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