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What is Filipino food and how does it taste? Cooks explain

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With around 12 million people in more than 100 countries, the Filipino diaspora is one of the largest in the world.

However, the food of the Philippines is not as well known as some Asian cuisines. Fans of the kitchen argue that adobo – chicken or pork braised in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and pepper – should be just as recognizable as phad thai, ramen, and shrimp dumplings.

As more Filipino chefs gain international recognition, the popularity of Filipino cuisine gains in importance. In 2015, Antonio’s Restaurant – managed by Filipino Tonyboy Escalante – was the first restaurant in the Philippines to climb to the list of the 50 best in the world and debut at number 48.

Sarsa’s motto is “Filipino Food Forward”. Dishes from the Manila Restaurant are (clockwise from top right): sisig, crab tortang talong (eggplant omelette), sizzling kansi (beef knuckle soup), chicken inasal and (medium) beef caldereta.

Scott A. Woodward

In 2016, Bad Saint, the Washington, DC restaurant founded by James Beard Award-winning chef Tom Cunanan, was named the 2nd Best Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit magazine. In the same year Margarita Fores from Manila was named Asia’s best cook by the British organization 50 Best.

However, insiders say the struggle to popularize Filipino food has stemmed from overseas stereotypes as well as problems in the Philippines.

From Manila to Miami and Paris

Cheryl Tui, a Manila-born food journalist and founder of the Miami-based event website Cross Cultures, attributes part of the problem to “hiya,” which means shame in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines.

A baker in Panderya Toyo dusts bicho – a local version of fritters – with sugar and cocoa.

Scott A. Woodward

“We have been colonized for so many years and we thought that anything that was imported was better,” said Tiu. “Fortunately, today’s generation is loud and proud of our heritage.”

The television was also not helpful, said Tiu.

“We also received so much bad press that some of our dishes were ‘fear-factor-ized’,” she said. “Many associate it with all of our food.”

On Gallery by Chele’s tasting menu, blue crab is topped with fermented tomato sorbet, a smoked fish dashi, and topped with crystallized tibig (a type of local fig).

Scott A. Woodward

Some of these feelings were echoed by Paris-based Filipino chef Erica Paredes.

“It almost seems like we never thought our food was good enough to get on the global stage,” she said.

Seared scallops with fennel and sinigang (a clear, sour soup that is traditionally made with tamarind) and Korean-style fried chicken with adobo sauce are just some of the dishes that Paredes prepares in the Paris Mokoloco café, a guest performance by the Vanity Fair received praise and other press.

“Nowadays, many young chefs put more pride and excitement on being authentic, and that includes incorporating flavors that bring us joy and comfort,” she said. “It’s like we’re waiting for permission, but now – no more.”

What exactly is ‘Filipino Food’?

“We love our sour stuff,” said TV personality and chef JP Anglo of Manila’s Sarsa Kitchen + Bar when asked to define Filipino food.

Like many cuisines, Philippines food evolved out of taste and necessity. Cooking with acidulants helps to preserve food in warm tropical climates. Fermented, dried, and pickled foods are also common for the same reason.

Head Chef JP Anglo from Sarsa Kitchen + Bar.

Scott A. Woodward

“We get our tart flavors from fruits like tamarind, batwan, and calamansi … we also have different types of vinegar,” Anglo said. “We also have our dried fish and our fermented prawns such as bagoong or ginamos, which give them strong and pungent flavors.”

Basque chef Chele Gonzalez from Gallery by Chele made the Philippines his home in 2010. Welcomed and celebrated by the local community, he gave an open assessment of the taste profile.

Chef Carlos Villaflor picks fresh vegetables from the terrace of the Gallery by Chele.

Scott A. Woodward

“The majority of Filipino food has a very special taste between sweet, sour and salty – sometimes it is very difficult for us foreigners to understand,” he said. “With chefs like JP Anglo and Jordy Navarra it gets more sophisticated and nuanced.”

Many islands, many influences

Chef Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery in Manila, ranked 49th on this year’s list of the world’s 50 best, said Filipino food is difficult to define because it varies across the country – a nation of about 7,107 islands, 22 regions, and eight major ones Dialects.

Chef Jordy Navarra by the window of Panaderya Toyo bakery.

Scott A. Woodward

“One of the nicest aspects of Filipino food is its variety,” he said. “There are a multitude of regions and islands that represent the food we eat across the country … the more we learn and understand, the more we can express and share what we eat, with the world and with each other.”

History also plays a role.

At the heart of the Sino-Indo-Malay pre-colonial trade routes, the Philippines was a melting pot of cultures before the Spanish arrived in 1521. During more than 300 years of Spanish rule – a period that included Mexican influences due to the galleon trade route that ran between Acapulco and Manila – the cuisine was heavily infused with Latin American influences and ingredients.

In 1898, after Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded control of the Philippines to the United States. This began a period of American cultural influence in the Philippines that included the English language and, in modern times, a taste for fast food, candy, and processed products.

“Filipino cuisine can include a peach and mango pie from the local Jollibee fast food chain, even if we don’t have peaches,” Navarra said. “It could also mean that Sinigang is using sampalok (tamarind) from the tree in your garden and pork from your neighbor.”

Chef Jordy Navarra (center, with his team at Toyo Eatery) said staying open and surviving the pandemic was an accomplishment.

Scott A. Woodward

Chef Anglo said his country’s food increase must start at the local level.

“I’m looking at our Asian counterparts like Thailand, where the street food is amazing,” he said. “I want to see this movement here at the grassroots as well.”

He said he wanted to highlight street vendors – “the little guys in the provinces” – who cook “amazing traditional dishes” so that they too can thrive. Then, he said, “anyone around her can follow suit.”

‘Authenticity’ in an evolving kitchen

One of the biggest setbacks for Filipino cuisine is what is known as the “crab mentality” – a term widely used in the Philippines to describe the act of pulling down a successful person close to you. (The term is derived from crabs in a bucket, which tend to pull down on a crab that is about to flee.)

In the culinary world of the Philippines this is often accused of being “inauthentic”.

Panaderya Toyo creates classic Filipino bread and pastries with a modern twist. The recipes follow the local tradition of using sweet and chewy dough.

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“For me, authenticity and tradition are two very different things,” says Paredes. “I cook based on my experiences and as someone who grew up in Manila, lived abroad and now lives in France, it is very authentic for me to use seasonal European products with Filipino or Southeast Asian flavors and spices.”

Navarre said he was traveling to learn what Filipino food means to people across the country. For him, being authentic means “ensuring that we represent the people and communities that inspire us and our work.”

The chefs surveyed for this report agree that if the flavors are Filipino in nature – if they have that calming, sour, garlic taste – then the food is real.

What’s next

“We are in the middle of a revolution and it is very exciting,” said Gonzalez. “Nuanced flavors, playing with textures, mixing traditional and modernist techniques – all of these things cancel out the culinary scene.”

Perhaps the greatest vector for the rise of Filipino cuisine is a group of chefs who are steadfast.

Gallery by Cheles interpretation of a Filipino street food called Taho, a sweet treat made from goat milk pudding and fresh strawberries from the island of Luzon.

Scott A. Woodward

“We own it,” explains Anglo. “Chefs like Tom Cunanan or Anton Dayrit in the US don’t say it’s their attitude towards Filipino cuisine or Fil-Am cuisine … that should be the movement.”

“We have to be brave,” he said. “This is us, this is our food and we love it.”

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