Hope and comfort from Filipino food

Mention the Philippines, and the world remembers the devastation super typhoon Haiyan left in its wake on 8 November 2013. The typhoon brought sustained winds of 235km/h (147mph), with gusts of 275km/h (170mph) and waves as high as 15m (45ft), bringing up to 400mm (nearly 16ins) of rain in places. It left behind much loss and havoc. As they picked up the pieces, with the help of countries around the world, the resilience of the Filipinos shone through.

The archipelago is renowned for its excellent beaches, talented singers and the warmth and friendliness of its people, but the islands never really stood out for their food. Yet when Andrew Zimmern, celebrity chef and host of Bizarre Food on The Travel Channel, was asked, “What’s the next fad food?” he told Today.com: “I predict, two years from now, Filipino food will be what we’ll be talking about… I think it’s going to be the next big thing.” And he was specific in his prediction, “I want to go on record – this is not something that’s hot now somewhere and will get hot everywhere else,” he said. “It’s just starting. I think it’s going to take a year-and-a-half to get up to critical mass.” Zimmern made his prediction in June 2012. Filipino food isn’t on the radar of mainstream America yet, but he thinks that’s going to change.

Next great trend

In September 2013, American men’s magazine Details shared Zimmern’s prediction, declaring: “Filipino food as the next great Asian food trend”. The writer Joy Manning said: “It’s hard to believe that a cuisine eaten by nearly 100 million people could fly under the radar, but that’s what exactly Filipino food has done.”

She credits two New York restaurants for piquing the interest of American diners: Jeepney Gastropub and Pig and Khao. Manning says: “Trendsetting chefs are reinventing the cuisine while keeping it rooted in the country’s traditions.” At Jeepney Gastropub it is now hip to eat balut, the fermented duck embryo delicacy. On Thursdays, it is Kamayan night where diners eat with their bare hands, using banana leaves instead of a plate. The New York Times gave both restaurants glowing reviews. Purple Yam, a Brooklyn neighbourhood restaurant recently got the nod of the Michelin Guide as a Bib Gourmand, for its excellent, budget-friendly cuisine.

But the Filipino food invasion is not confined to New York: Manning also recommends trying Milkfish in New Orleans, Hapa SF in San Francisco, and To the Jeepney Truck in Houston.

Fifteen years ago, this was not so. A neophyte food writer then, I asked a famous American food journalist why they thought Filipino food was not as popular as Thai or Vietnamese. He looked at me sadly: “Filipino cuisine is too sour.” A few years ago, when TV chef Bobby Chinn was asked: “What is the worst food you had in your travels?” He prefaced his response by saying, “It’s a shame, since they are such nice people… but I don’t like the food of the Filipinos.”

The tide seems to have changed, as there are now chefs and editors who champion Filipino cuisine. Spanish chef Jose Andres is a fan, he says: “With its many influences – Malaysian, Polynesian, Hispanic, Chinese, American – the variety of flavours and techniques that you find in Filipino cooking is exceptionally rich.”

Flavour-wise, what does this mean? Perhaps many people do not know what to expect from Filipino food. They might expect it to taste like neighbouring Chinese, Thai, Malaysian or Vietnamese cuisines. While we share many staple ingredients like rice, coconut and fish sauce, it does not have spicy flavours. Filipino food plays on the diner’s palate with salty, sweet, sour and bitter flavours present in every meal. A dish like pork and chicken adobo, stewed in a salty-sour marinade of soy sauce and vinegar, is often accompanied with fish sauce on the side or shrimp paste, or pickled papaya or ampalaya (bitter gourd).

Celebrations such as Christmas often entail more elaborate adaptations of Spanish dishes once cooked for Spanish clergy in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation – although the history of trade with the Chinese, dating from before Spanish colonisation, has left its mark in our cuisine. Noodles, salted eggs, and even balut have their roots in China.

 Spreading the word

Anthony Bourdain recently visited Jollibee in Los Angeles and hails the halo-halo, a crushed ice dessert with a medley of ingredients to be “oddly beautiful”. It also helps that a new breed of Filipino-American chefs are emerging, such as TV’s Top Chef winner, Paul Qui.

As Filipino cuisine is set to be the next “it” cuisine in the US, there is also a growing appreciation in other parts of the world. News of the first Filipino carinderia (a Filipino word meaning local eatery) recently opening in Nottingham, England, attracted Filipinos and Brits. This cheap and cheerful eatery serves meals such as pancit (noodles) and karekare (peanut stew). Over a decade ago, Filipino Chef Fernando Aracama and I would discuss why Filipino food had not gained the same international popularity as Thai or Vietnamese food. It’s worth noting that Thailand was never colonised, plus they had a royal Thai cuisine. Perhaps this made Thai food sound more sophisticated than Filipino cuisine. Economics also plays a role, with a large number of Filipinos living below poverty level. It is difficult to develop a sophisticated cuisine when many struggle even to get three meals a day.

There is one asset propelling Filipino cuisine into broader appeal – the overseas Filipino workers (OFW). There were more than 9.5 million OFWs in 2010, a massive diaspora of Filipinos all over the world, not even counting the permanent migrants. These people, known for their warmth and friendliness, introduce other cultures to their beloved comfort food.

The introduction begins with sampling a Filipino friend’s version of adobo, the national dish of chicken and pork stew. In Singapore and Hong Kong where many OFWs live, numerous carinderias have become their Sunday haunts in locations including Lucky Plaza and the Eurotrade Center. But the past five years has seen the arrival of sophisticated Filipino restaurants in Singapore like Calle Real, Bonifacio, 7107 Flavours and Gerry’s Grill.

These restaurants, with proper service and quality ingredients, cater to Filipino professionals and non-Filipinos intrigued by the cuisine. Gerry’s Grill, a chain known for its barbecued dishes in Manila, has three outlets in Singapore, the US and a new branch in Qatar.

The Filipino diaspora has reached far and wide and creates instant customers for Filipino restaurants. In the past good Filipino food could only be found in Jersey City and Daly City in the US. Now it pops up in New Orleans, Manhattan, Brooklyn, even Arizona, where an Irish former fine-dining chef chose Filipino cuisine for his Hey Joe! food truck.

 Joyful eating

I met up with Chef Aracama again recently. He is now one of the country’s best chefs. He was the judge for TV’s Pinoy Masterchef and is part of Philippine Airlines’ culinary panel. Last year, he opened an eponymous restaurant in Manila serving authentic Filipino food. When I asked him if the Filipino food is the next big thing, he answered: “Yes, along with the Filipino chefs working in the Philippines and all over the world.”

Food is more than just a meal to fill Filipino tummies. It is the glue that binds those abroad to their homeland. As many Filipinos suffered from the effects of super typhoon Haiyan, I felt the pain of many Filipinos abroad aching to help their countrymen. I initiated Adobo Aid, a global fundraiser, and on 23 November Filipinos all over the world cooked adobo, invited their friends, and passed the hat. Whatever was raised that night was sent to NGOs back in the Philippines for relief efforts. The event was a phenomenal success. Bayanihan, or working together for a cause, is something Filipinos do best.

Not all may be won over by the flavours of balut, halo-halo or adobo, but many will be taken by how Filipinos joyfully eat. It is relaxed dining based on sharing. No rules apply: use your hands, mix and match sauces, and you don’t even have to eat balut.

By Maida Pineda

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