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Filipino cuisine on US television

By Carlo Osi
First Posted 15:45:00 03/26/2009

Filed Under: Food, Television

WASHINGTON D.C., United States?When I first saw a commercial advertisement that famous New York chef Anthony Bourdain went to the Philippines for his hit show ?No Reservation,? a television program that features international cuisine, I was more than intrigued.

Having spent the last two years in the United States and two years prior to that studying and working in Japan, I was excited to see my birthplace on US TV. And I wasn?t disappointed. The show accurately depicted Filipino cooking, Filipino cooks, Pinoy family values, and a short segment on national cultural identity. The show portrayed the country and its cooking the way it ought to be. San Miguel Beer appeared marvelously in almost every eating scene. They didn't feature the famous restaurants, thankfully; rather, the show focused on the smaller canteens and eateries that line the cities.

Looking at the food they featured, all I can say was ?Wow!? I wish I was there eating with them. Having been away for some time, I can honestly say I miss the food back home. The sumptuous delights they featured were adobo, nilaga, sisig, fishballs, crabs with coconut sauce, taho, and others. Even if there are Filipino restaurants in the East Coast, eating Pinoy food in the Philippines is experientially different.

What I really miss is the dampa concept back home. Dampa is a seafood market with small restaurants around it where customers can buy the freshest fish, meat, and vegetables and have them cooked however way they want at the other end of the market. The dampas along the C-5 highway and the one near the airport are the ones I sorely miss.

National Dish?

One thing that typically baffles Filipinos everywhere is whenever a foreigner asks, What is the national cuisine? There?s no answer. There are just so many regions and provinces with various levels of foreign food influence that it?s hard to pinpoint exactly one food that characterizes the country. The Chinese have their noodles, the Koreans have their kimchi, the Japanese have their sushi, but there is no equivalent dish for the Philippines.

Certainly, adobo can be identified as unofficially the national dish. Almost every region or province will have an adobo or adobo-like dish made from a basic set of ingredients and cooked in a common way.

Some have said that a country is typified or defined by its food. Culture, tradition, and foreign presence influence domestic food, which is why it?s a good measurement of what a country is about. But Anthony Bourdain, being a writer and a cook, has been puzzled from the very beginning as to what the Filipino is and what Filipino food is. His quizzical nature is typical of foreigners wanting to probe deeper into who the Filipino is.

?No Reservation? portrayed Filipino food as a combination of Malay, Mexican, and Spanish influences, and rightly so. It?s a fusion and a melting pot. It?s a combination of various influences, but taken as a whole, it still stands out as an independent, unique food.

That pretty much sums up what the country is all about as well. The Philippines is a fusion of so many foreign influences yet still retaining its own distinctiveness. For example, the country borrowed the jeep concept from the US but turned it into its own jeepney vehicle. The Chinese brought to our shores their noodles and we transformed them into various kinds of pancit. adobo is certainly Spanish-Mexican, but we made it our own.

Regionalism and its pitfalls

Having close relatives from Pampanga, my family and I have frequented that province from the time it was still hosting an American base until now. I have always loved Pampanga food, and the Pampangenos have cultivated an identity of being outstanding cooks. Its proximity to Manila is another reason why people in the metropolis are familiar with and fond of Pampanga cuisine.

The TV show?s historical take on the very famous sisig dish was quite interesting. I knew that Pampanga developed and popularized the dish, but never gave a thought on why and how it came about. I wasn't even aware that a specific restaurant created the dish altogether. It was said that during the 70s when the US bases were giving away pigs? heads, the female owner of the restaurant thought of a dish that could make use of this body part. Sisig, that famous dish made of sliced and diced pig face, onions, spices, and other meat, was born. Pampanga is a great showcase of the richness of Filipino food.

What somewhat bothered me was when out of nowhere, a male Pampangeno declared that one cannot know Filipino food if one doesn?t know or hasn't tried Pampanga food. He implied that Philippine cuisine is centered on Pampanga cuisine?which, for him, is the ground zero of what Filipino food is all about.

This regionalism business is a real problem in the country. As someone who grew up in Quezon City and having no official province, it?s hard to swallow that any specific province is the epicenter of Filipino cuisine. No one province or region reigns supreme in the area of food. I truly like sisig and would want it desperately right now, but I just couldn't stomach one province seemingly professing the definition of what Pinoy food is.

Regionalism, or the detrimental region-based thinking and bias of some Filipinos, is a problem even in the United States. Instead of simply having Filipino groups and organizations in the various states, there are very specific regional associations that often divide and ostracize Filipinos who are not part of that region or province. Regionalism divides us into mini-sections, compartmentalizes Filipino talent, and promotes disunity.

In the United States, the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese cultural groups have usually bonded for organizational purposes, but the Filipinos in general have not. As an ethnic group, we are subdivided into the Pampangeno group, the Ilocano group, the Cebuano group, the Tagalog group, and so forth.

Certainly there are many Filipino groups that were formed based not on any regional or provincial criteria. But the prevalence of these large regional groups is a cause of concern. If a Filipino government leader is visiting, many of these regional groups will compete with each other in exclusively inviting the official. Exclusive region-based thinking is a disease, and a cure should be found.

Cebu, the glorious food hub

The ?No Reservations? show also featured the province of Cebu and its famous lechon. New York chef Anthony Bourdain said that it is the best pig he has ever tasted?and he has practically gone all over Southeast Asia and the world. This is a big compliment not just for Cebu but for the entire Philippines. Filipinos in general ought to be proud that one of the most renowned chefs in the United States has cited the country for having an outstanding roasted pig.

Lechon as a Filipino dish brings back fond memories of family parties and other friendly gatherings where the roasted pig served as the centerpiece of both the food table and event itself. It?s like the turkey for Thanksgiving. It would be hard for any province or region to claim lechon as its invention, although Cebu is well known for this dish. One of the common questions in any family gathering was whether lechon would be served or not, and what type of lechon.

The entire country can be said to like lechon, whether it is sourced from Cebu or from any other place. As a very popular dish, it?s one that can be easily obtained and enjoyed. Perhaps certain segments of the population, particularly the Muslims, vegetarians, and those on strict diets, may not appreciate the dish but the majority does.

When I was still living in Philadelphia, there was a very high-end restaurant in Olde City named Cebu. But it wasn't frequented by Filipinos in the area. For one thing, the prices are extremely high. Moreover, the menu had some Filipino food but the restaurant itself can be more categorized as a fusion restaurant than a Filipino one.

Augusto, the Fil-Am ?outsider?

One of the highlights of the show was the feature on Augusto, a Fil-Am residing in Long Island, New York. Chef Anthony Bourdain found his video application to be very interesting, upbeat, and energetic. During the interview though, it was disclosed that although he was very interested in Filipino food, culture, and identity, he has just visited the country once during a one-week visit, does not speak the language (or any Filipino language or dialect for that matter), and knows little about the culture. Still, he was chosen to come to the Philippines with the show?s crew.

Born already in the United States with Filipino parents and married to a Chinese-American, Augusto can be said to be the typical Filipino-American. Quite unfortunately, many Fil-Ams are interested to know more about the Philippines but do not speak any Filipino language or dialect, do not know current events back home, and are apparently uninterested, and are so distant culturally that they can be considered as outsiders.

Augusto?s demeanor in the show was very telling. While his Cebuano relatives were seen cooking, sharing stories among themselves, and enjoying each other?s company, Augusto seemed to just be hovering around. Most of the time, he was talking to the TV host who happens to be a fellow New Yorker. Asked if he felt different, Augusto candidly admitted he felt like an outsider.

Augusto compared himself with his Asian friends while growing up who were all culturally connected with their Asian ethnicity and were in touch with people back home. It?s a puzzle why many Filipino-Americans don't have much Filipino-ness in them except for the color of their skin and their parental heritage. Of course, there are notable exceptions but as a whole, Fil-Am children tend to identify themselves more as Americans rather than as Filipinos.

Back to Philippine Cuisine

Regionalism and Augusto the New Yorker aside, it?s time that Philippine cuisine hit the headlines globally. The Pampangenos featured in the early part of the show were totally correct when they complained that in most Asian cookbooks, Filipino food would be merely a few pages at the end of the book. Philippine cuisine has been ignored, marginalized, and mistreated for the last few decades. Asia, the US, and the rest of the world don't know much about Philippine cuisine, which explains why there isn?t much respect for it.

Philippine food cannot also be categorized or lumped simply as Fusion Food. ?Fusion? is a concept that deals more with restaurants offering a variety of Asian cuisine such as Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, and Filipino. We ought to have our own identity as a distinct and separate Filipino food.

We can banner our adobo, sisig, lechon, and lumpia as our prominent dishes. We may not have one national dish that defines us, but that is who we are anyway. We are culturally dynamic and a product of many influences so our food should also be defined that way.

Sometimes I wish I were a talented Filipino cook. While I marveled and salivated on the Filipino food featured on ?No Reservations? and thinking of when I can go to the nearest Philippine restaurant, reality sunk in. My next dish is not adobo or lumpia or caldereta but a commercial salad and tuna bought from the nearby grocery.

The author is a US- and Japan-trained and educated lawyer with a Master of Laws degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a Certificate of Business from Wharton. Send comments to carlo.osi@gmail.com or through http://eastofturtleisland.blogspot.com/.

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