Filipino Food is off the Menu

Andre Guerrero, left, Crisi Echiverri and Gary Menes. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Almost everyone in America knows about Filipino food and how great it tastes, but many Pinoys like myself wonder why it still hasn’t made it into mainstream culture like Indian or Chinese cuisines.  In a recent article from the Los Angeles Times entitled Filipino food: Off the menu explores why Filipino dishes have not assimilating into mainstream culture and thriving only in home kitchens in LA.  For instance, this past January’s Iron Chef Battle with White House Chef Pasia Comerford only had one dish that was Filipino influenced upon the request of her partner for the battle, Iron Chef Bobby Flay.  Each of the Fil-Am chefs in the picture posted above share their experiences as American chefs in some of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles who grew up appreciating Filipino food but are unable to present it to the America public.  Andre Guerrero had put the traditional Filipino parfait halo-halo and an upscale version of his classic chicken adobo on the menu at his earlier restaurant Max, and milkshakes made from the purple yam ube are a favorite at the Oinkster.

“The food is so regional, we don’t have one unifying dish,” says Marvin Gapultos, a Filipino American who runs the Los Angeles food blog Burnt Lumpia. “There’s adobo, but there’s about 7,000 ways to make it.”

This snippet from the article pretty much sums up my thoughts on why Filipino dishes struggle to assimilate into mainstream American culture. Filipino food is very diverse and has a distinct taste from regions. For instance, a dish from Manila will taste very different from dishes from the Visayas. The topic of assimilating Filipino food is one thing that bothered me about this article. It would be great if Filipino food would become the next popular ethnic cuisine in the US and the world but at what cost?

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  • Valleypinoy

    So yes, I’m a bit of a foodie. I admit it. I know there are starving people all over the world and the global agricultural trade reinforces oppression and inequality, but I can’t help it that I love food. It’s one of my guilty pleasures in my life…that and the Lakers. =) Ironically, however, my passion for food opened up opportunities for me to understand some vital issues regarding Filipino Americans, consumption, and empire. So here goes…

    There was an interesting article in the LA Times today regarding Filipino food. In a nutshell, the reporter interviewed some high profile Filipino chefs in the Southern California region and asked them why they thought Filipino cuisine has yet to break into the mainstream market. Most of them went into various diatribes such as how Filipinos are inadequate in running businesses or Filipino cuisine is too regionalistic or Filipino food is too oily and fatty…the list goes on and on.

    This topic has been an on-going debate, especially within the Filipino American community for years. I, myself, have discussed this with friends and colleagues on numerous occasions, spouting the same hypotheses (or is it hypothesi?) that these chefs suggest. However, there was one conversation I had with a fellow UW grad student, Marites Mendoza, which allowed me to view this whole debate through another lens. I call this the Mendoza Theory.

    But before we get to Ms. Mendoza, let me first debunk the myths that usually attempt to explain the inability of Filipino cuisine to go mainstream:

    Myth #1…Filipino food is too regional. Ah…first suggested by the wife of Claude Tayag on that now-famous Anthony Bourdain No Reservations Philippines episode, and echoed by Marvin from Burnt Lumpia in the LA Times article. Apparently, there are thousands of ways of cooking adobo and thus no way of unifying the dish. (This assertion uncannily parallels the long history of Philippine nationalism…but that’s a whole other book on itself so I’ll spare you the details). OK…so yeah, Filipino cuisine is regional. But so is any other ethnic cuisine. You think Chinese food is the same in the Mandarin region as it is in the Cantonese region as it is in the Szechuan region? Can I get the same kind of dosa in Mumbai as I can in Dehli? Hell…what’s better…a Mission burrito in San Francisco, a bean and cheese burrito from East Los, or a carne asada fry burrito from a San Diego Al-, Ro-, Hum-, or any fill-in-the-blank-berto’s? Hope you get my drift…

    Myth #2…Filipinos aren’t natural entrepreneurs. I admit…I used to think this was true. Yes, the majority of Filipinos who migrate to the United States do so to work in service-sector and/or professional jobs, especially since they can speak English. Restaurants are huge financial risks, so why would Tita Baby who works as an accountant, Tito Boy who works in the post office after years in Navy, cousin Angel who works as a caregiver, and your cousin Jessilyn who could sing so she tried to be a pop-star and signed with the now defunct Classified Records but is now a student at the local JC taking all the prerequisite classes to get into nursing school, want to ever risk losing their steady incomes to open a restaurant? And yes, Chinese Filipinos, who have historically dominated the merchant classes in the Philippines, now run many of the large corporate Fil-Am businesses like Seafood City, Jollibee, Island Pacific, etc., so one can make the argument that Filipino Americans tend not to enter entrepreneurship. But to say that they are inherently incapable of running a successful business is ludicrous! Look at all of the bright Filipino entrepreneurs that have profited greatly within and outside the Filipino American ethnic economy. Forex Cargo, Express Padala, MyBarong.com, Pinoy Pinay, Manila Good-Ha, and Asian Journal, are just a few successful businesses among thousands that Filipinos depend on for their economic and cultural needs. The owners of L&L Hawaiian BBQ and Downtown LA’s Honda and Volvo dealers are Filipinos. A great number own care homes for the elderly. Look at the number of Filipino real estate agents, Mary Kay sales people, and party promoters. Bottom line, if there is a buck to be made, Filipinos are just as much in front of the line as any other ethnic group. There just isn’t money in selling Filipino food to Americans. I’ll get to why later.

    Myth #3…mainstream Americans will not like Filipino food. This myth could be broken up into several smaller ones:

    – Filipino food is too oily and fatty. OK…but so is Soul food, Chinese food, French food, Mexican food, Thai food, and, of course, good ‘ol American food. Don’t believe me? Look at this SUCCESSFUL restaurant! There is no reason why Filipino food can't be healthy to satisfy all those organic-loving latte liberals. And many Filipino restauranteurs have attempted to do so. Think Papillon in El Segundo (RIP). But alas…despite many attempts, many have failed.

    – Filipino food in restaurants isn’t as good as mom’s. Tell me one ethnic community that doesn’t say that about their respective cuisines. I have Vietnamese friends who tell me time and time again that there are no good Pho places in Seattle. But is that indicative in the countless Pho joints throughout the city? I think not.

    – Filipino food is not presentable. “It’s stewed and brown and oily and fried,” claims Mary Jo Gore in the LA Times piece. As Fil Am comedian, Rex Navarrete once said in jest, “Filipino food looks like regurgitated food.” Uh…what about mole? Lamb curry? Chitterlings? Osso Bucco? Filipino food can look as “high class” as any other cuisine, with the right pizzazz. Look at these pictures.

    – Going along with the whole presentable debate, many also say that current Filipino turo-turo spots only exacerbate its “peasant-ness.” Hate to break this to you foodies out there, but most restaurants out there aren’t geared for you. They’re for Filipino workers who need a quick bite to eat during their lunch break or need to feed their family after a long shift in the hospital. Hole-in-the-wall establishments are just as prevalent in other ethnic communities as in the Filipino community.

    – Filipino food is grotesque. Pig’s blood? Duck embryo? Goat bile? Yuck! To me, taste is subjective. I could say the same expletives when describing such foods as escargot, lengua tacos, steak tartar, blood sausage, and stinky tofu, among others. Gross foods see no color lines. But how is it that Filipinos become “ashamed” of their bizarre foods while Americans overcame the grotesqueness of sushi during the 1980s? I’ll get to that later.

    – Filipino food is comfort food that cannot be considered gourmet. So just what is gourmet? French-inspired saucy crap on top of some dry piece of fowl? Who defines “gourmet”? If you ask me…the whole “gourmet” flavor and aesthetic is wrought with racist, classist, Euro-centric BS. If that’s the baseline for gourmet food, then fuck it. As my homie Joel said, “I don’t care if it’s not mainstream, it’s in the bloodstream!”

    Myth #4…Filipinos don’t support “nice” Filipino restaurants. True story…a classmate of mine said that there are no good Filipino restaurants in Seattle because most Filipinos there are Ilocanos. Hence, too cheap to eat out. Filipino restaurants in California, on the other hand, are more abundant because there are more Tagalogs there. LOL! The dude was only 19 so I cut him some slack, but let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Filipinos are cheap. If they’re too cheap to spend $15 for adobo, then how do you explain the long waits Filipino families must go through to get a table at Barrio Fiesta, Gerry’s Grill, or Max’s? How do you explain the large number of middle- and upper-class Filipinos who keep Bistro Luneta, Intramuros, and
    Pondahan from shutting down? Why is it that the “nice” Filipino restaurants in the Bay Area are located in the very Filipino Daly City, South SF, and San Mateo and not in the foodie-centered city, San Francisco? Poleng Lounge and Palencia, attempts at mainstreaming Filipino cuisine, has alas shut their doors. But I digress, because the point is to explain why mainstream Americans don’t frequent Filipino restaurants, not Filipinos.

    Myth #5…Filipinos assimilate better than anyone else. Since Filipinos have a command of English, they feel comfortable going to any other ethnic restaurant as Americans. Ever been to Sanamluang in the Valley at midnight? How about Mayflower in Chinatown? Todai?!?! Filipinos everywhere. But again, I see no connection between this and why Filipino restaurants lack American consumers, so let’s move on to #6.

    Myth #6…Filipino food is too schizophrenic due to the combination of flavors. What cuisine isn’t? New Orleans food is filled with French, African, Spanish, and English culinary legacies. Peruvian lomo saltado is soy sauce-based due to Chinese and Japanese migration. Argentinean food is very European. Caribbean food has indigenous, African, and Indian influences. And why is it that when I think of eating in New York, I imagine pizza, hot dogs, and pastrami on rye? There is no such thing as “Fusion” cuisine. All food is fusion.

    Myth #7…Filipinos don’t know how to market their culture. So I purposely chose this as my final mythbuster since it’s most directly related to the Mendoza Theory. (Yes…I haven’t forgot about the Mendoza Theory!). As Rod Aglibot suggests in the LA Times article, Filipino food is “probably one of the least understood cuisines. Are we Pacific Islanders? Are we Asians? There isn't, like, a defined identity.” So what is a “defined identity”? If you ask me, it’s simply a way to compartmentalize and stereotype ethnic communities. Filipino nationalists as well as Filipino American community leaders want more than anything else to be recognized like other communities. They develop symbols that attempt to represent Filipino-ness. They want to hear, “Sushi…bam, Japan! Spaghetti…bam, Italy! Adobo…BAM, PHILIPPINES!” But how do you get to that point? It entails “nationalizing” the Philippines. It means conflating regional diversities into one unifying, hegemonic culture. Some people will say that disunity and the “colonial mentality” is what keeps Filipinos down. It’s all BS in my opinion. Now this gets to the heart of the Mendoza Theory. We must not look at what the Filipinos lack, but rather critique American culture of consumption, the foodie movement in this case.

    According to the Mendoza Theory (which is based on Edward Said’s Orientalism), Filipino cuisine is not mainstream because Filipinos are too Westernized, hence not exotic enough. Filipinos are both different, yet familiar…domesticated, in a foreign sense. When Americans go to ethnic restaurants, they are there to consume the exotic. They want an adventure. They want to feel like they conquered and understood the different and unknown. Filipino food, unfortunately, doesn’t to it for them. Instead, they say, “is this Asian food? Where are the chopsticks?” “Filipino dishes that have Spanish names but look or taste like nothing from Latin America or Spain?” “Pancit noodles that taste nothing like chow mein or phad thai?” “Fried chicken?” “SPAM????”

    I argue that Americans do not consume Filipino culture as much as other cultures because both Spanish and American colonialism has “domesticated” the Filipino. Filipinos are simply not exotic enough to them. Americans buy Buddha statues for the living rooms, not Santo Ninos. They watch sumo wrestling, not the PBA. They’d rather wear Hawaiian shirts, not barongs. And the same goes for Filipino food. And fusion-ing Filipino food with French techniques (e.g. crispy pata w/ foie gras) only confuses the foodie since they can't distinguish what the “Filipino taste” is.

    What is not considered “Western” in Filipino culture, our indigenous past, is thus seen as “savage,” not exotic. Sure, it is far different than Euro-American culture, but like Said argues, Europeans (and Americans) for centuries have constructed the “exotic” as a form of cultural subjugation of their competitors. Europeans/Americans create the “savage,” on the other hand, for destruction and/or assimilation. Since indigenous tribes pose no threat to the Western imperial order, bahags, chewing betel nut, dinuguan, etc. are viewed as grotesque and savage. Thus, many Filipinos tend to hide these “embarrassing” features of Filipino culture. Which brings me to the Chinese. It’s no wonder then that the most popular foods for Americans are Chinese-based (lumpia, pancit, lechon).

    Yet, there are those who suggest that it is our colonial mentality that prevents us in truly defining ourselves as Filipinos. However, we cannot just simply “decolonize” ourselves to a romanticized pre-colonial past. Sure, we can learn baybayin and sport tribal tattoos, but can we really give up speaking English or saying Tito or Tita without conjuring up our colonial past? Filipino nationalists must come to terms with our history of Spanish and American subjugation.

    It is this tradition of consuming the exotic that fuels and drives the foodie movement. And Filipino cuisine is just too Western in the eyes of Americans. There are some who urge chefs to re-define Filipino cuisine in order to go “mainstream,” but I argue that such a path will only lead to exotification, compartmentalization, and further subjugation. Is that what we really want?

  • Anonymous

    there’s a lot of ways on how to make filipino food. redefining it so to say. everything is stewed yes but taking all those ingredients and preparing them using different techniques would be a great approach to it. to say “seared red snapper, tamarind broth/consomme, roasted root vegetables” what made you think of all this components? fish sinigang. you can make most filipino dishes unique in your own way.

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