In 1860, a Spaniard in the Philippines described local cuisine in the magazine Ilustracion Filipino. “The condiments, the preparation, and the cooking are horrible,” he concluded. Eat Filipino entrees, he wrote, “as tasteless as they are lacking in nutritional value, and you have, in summary, the art of cooking as practiced by the native cook.”
In 1898, Filipinos won independence from Spain, only to face Americans as their next colonizers. As resistance against American troops continued, a group of indigenous Filipinos were displayed as “wild dog-eaters” at the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis, Missouri. Their dietary habits were sensationalized, in part, to convince an American audience that their country’s taking of the Philippines was justified.
It’s not surprising that a colonizer might denigrate the native cuisine of its subjects. As Filipina food historian Doreen Fernandez wrote, “the food of the colonizer was deemed superior, urbane, ‘civilizing,’ greatly to be desired.”
What still surprises me is how contempt for Filipino food exists today. “Do you serve dog here?” is a refrain one Filipino food truck owner has often heard, in modern-day Los Angeles. Some outsiders seem stuck, World’s-Fair style, on “shock” elements of Filipino cuisine. Balut, for example, is a fermented duck embryo eaten as an everyday snack in Manila. Gothamist, The Village Voice, and The New Yorker have all fixated on balut in articles about Filipino food.
The same, scornful, 1860 Spaniard could have authored the comments on a 2010 San Francisco Chronicle article about Filipino restaurants: “There is no way Filipino food is the new Thai...They have disgusting dishes...I’ve smelled the stench that invariably turns out to be some Filipino ‘pood’.”
My grandmother said to me daily, “Eat your pood!” At 92, she made me chicken afritada, and no tomato-based stew was ever so subtle, no potatoes so soft. The memory of her accent made me close my laptop.
Chefs of Filipino cuisine in America do not have the option of ignoring culinary contempt. In San Mateo, chef Tim Luym runs Attic, which prominently features Filipino flavors in its menu. “If we classify ourselves under just Filipino food,” Luym says, “in the Michelin Guide or Zagat, people would just flip the page.”
In San Francisco, Dominic Ainza omits “Filipino” from Mercury Lounge’s description in San Francisco, opting for “Global Asian Cuisine.” “I don't think it's going to take off,” Ainza says. “We’re still missing, in a sense. I always preface that with ‘I hope I'm wrong.’”
In Brooklyn, chef King Phojanakong gestures outside his restaurant Umi Nom. “I think if you stop five people in the street and ask them where the Philippines is, maybe three might tell you where it is, and the other two will say, ‘What's the Philippines?’” he said. “Our food isn't bad! I love this food!”
The highest-profile advocate for Filipino food in America is perhaps Amy Besa, cookbook author and front-of-house master of Purple Yam, also in Brooklyn. She’s weary of discussing the cuisine’s low profile. “The question is no longer relevant, because the food is out there. Bringing that up again is really an insult to all who’ve been working so hard to put it on the landscape.”
My mother is one of 1.7 million migrants whose diaspora made Filipinos the second largest immigrant group in the U.S. today. And yet—at the risk of insulting Besa—the current number of Filipino restaurants in U.S. cities reaches double digits only in Los Angeles.
What, then, is Filipino food?
Precolonial Filipinos grilled, steamed, and preserved fresh seafood and vegetables with citrus fruits and vinegar. Chef Luym’s kinilaw embodies these methods. Pillowy orbs of butterfish are dressed with coconut milk, chopped Thai chilis, and flecks of cilantro. The effect is a colorful, piquant popping on the tongue, subsumed by smooth, melting sensation.
Chinese traders brought woks, noodles, cooking oil, and spring rolls. Ainza tucks pork into egg roll wrappers for Mercury Lounge’s lumpia rolls, their savory, garlicky crunch brightened by cilantro. Post-1521, Spaniards added the stewing methods and Mexican rootcrops that informed my grandmother’s chicken afritada. Americans brought pies, sandwiches, and, after WWII, canned meats and fast food.
In order to gain popularity in the U.S. culinary landscape, Besa says chefs of Filipino food must first establish the cuisine’s defining flavor and entrée. The flavor is pre-colonial: sourness. Filipinos have maintained their indigenous palate over centuries of invaders by using vinegar and lime-like calamansi as daily souring agents for everything from fish to noodles.
The entree is adobo, an ever-adaptable vinegar-based marinade. Every Filipino chef, home or professional, has a version of adobo; Phojanakong’s braises slick strips of pork belly in coconut milk and sugar cane vinegar. The meat dissolves at first bite, flooding the mouth with fatty bliss.
As they work toward mainstream acceptance, chefs of Filipino food are quick to name their most formidable obstacle in America: Filipinos in America.
The first Filipino restaurants in the U.S. were turo-turo; “point point.” Entrees warm in a buffet; customers point to the foods they want; meals rarely rise above ten dollars. Purple Yam uses imported Filipino vinegars. Umi Nom buys seafood daily. Attic uses hand-collected Philippine sea salts. The resulting entrees make harsh skeptics of Filipino immigrants. Filipinos call Purple Yam to scream about its use of coconut milk in adobo; Filipinos complain Phojanakong’s prices are too high. After 1965, most Filipino migrants were white-collar workers with no need to open restaurants for economic gain. Their objections against current Filipino restaurants are so passionate, one might construe them as pre-emptive defenses against another possible colonizer.
“What you’re facing,” Phojanakong says, “is a tough crowd.”
Yet Filipino cuisine is slowly reaching America’s palate, with food trucks run by second-generation Fil-Ams garnering its newest popularity. In California, the instant, guerilla PR of Twitter and Facebook, tantalizing foodhounds with changing locations, helps Adobo Hobo, White Rabbit, and Señor Sisig thrive. Still, chefs of mobile and brick-and-mortar restaurants alike continue to fight old ignorance toward their cuisine. Perhaps, as Besa dreams, Filipino foodmakers in America can establish solidarity with each other with a regular national conference.
Until then, anyone hungry might ignore centuries of haters, find a Filipino restaurant nearby, and try its adobo.
In January 2011, I ate Purple Yam’s adobo. The chicken is a carefully browned piece of organic thigh and drumstick, draped with thick, lustrous broth. I fit a chunk of chicken atop a sauce-soaked dab of rice on my spoon, as I have at home all my life. As I emptied my plate, adjectives fled me. Which word to choose? Velvety? Unctuous? Dazzling?
Amy Besa’s husband and business partner, chef Romy Dorotan, approached my table. The New York Times Magazine had recently featured his adobo in a two-page spread.
“On Monday,” Dorotan told me, his Tagalog accent distinct, “we sold out of adobo.” He grinned. “Can you imagine? Purple Yam sold out of adobo?"September 27, 2011
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