In Filipino food, culture and identity, the Sassy Lawyer who is also rather a radical chef, writes about our failure to promote Filipino food.
Along the way there’s an interesting exchange of views as to what “authentic” Filipino food is.
In New York City there is a Filipino restaurant called Cendrillon that has attempted to make Filipino food accessible to foreigners as fine cuisine.
In truth, the question as to why Filipino food hasn’t gained popularity abroad, despite so many Filipinos living expatriate lives virtually everywhere on the planet, seems to bother many Filipinos.
A surprising number of Americans, because of the U.S. bases and the pockets of Filipino communities in the States, are familiar with lumpia and adobo and like it very much. Chances are, if Filipino food is discussed at all, it is lumpia and adobo that are mentioned and recipes for them printed: sometimes sinigang is included, too.
I asked a chef-writer friend why Filipino food doesn’t catch on, and his reply (tongue in cheek or not) was that “our food is too brown,” while most other people add that our food reeks of too much fat.
The question of fat, is, I think, crucial. It’s too obviously there. Chinese cuisine may, perhaps, be as filled with bad cholesterol, but it isn’t as obvious. Thai food seems positively a health nut’s dream in comparison to ours. In contrast so many Filipino dishes positively glory in lumps and chunks of fat and fatty items.
The same chef-writer friend claims that Thai food was actually reinvented under the auspices of the 19th Century kings of Thailand, to make the food aesthetically pleasing to Westerners, if not to introduce certain concepts of preparation in vogue at the time. This was the genesis of my friend’s “too brown” comment. In the presentation department, by Western standards, our food often lacks the combinations of color, texture, and then attention to presentation that obsesses the West (and Japanese), and which the Thais, if the royal edicts concerning food preparation are true, learned.
In Cendrillon in New York, the Filipino food is deprived of fat, and attentions is paid to presentation. There are Filipino chefs and gourmets at home who have been trying to do the same thing. But it has not caught on, and no “new Filipino” aesthetic when it comes to food has arisen.
Nor have attempts been made to study our food in order to preserve the flavors and mixtures that characterizes it, while purging it of its more unhealthy aspects. I remember telling friends when I first visited Bangkok that while we seemed so similar to the Thais, they stood out in marked contrast to us in the rarity of their pot bellies. Some friends argued this was a function of diet: at the time Thailand was still virtually at par with us economically, but they seemed to eat more healthily. Less meat, more vegetables. This segues into a story I heard from a Thai that about 20 years ago, concerned with the proliferation of farms growing poppy and marijuanna in the upland regions, the King embarked on a program to get farmers to plant vegetables, and prodded the government to establish a functioning and efficient transport network to get produce quickly and cheaply to urban centers. He also lobbied to reduce the number of middlemen and thus give the farmers greater profits.
The result was, according to the Thais, cheap and fresh vegetables for everyone, happier farmers who gave up on te drug trade, and a society that always has cheap food, which tides everyone over even when the economy is down.