Adobo’s stealth conquest of US tastebuds
If you’re one of those Filipinos who constantly ask why Filipino food has not made it anywhere in the world, perhaps you missed the boat. People can be so blind to their theories and beliefs that they’re likely to miss all the signs that Filipino flavors have slowly crept onto the American table, starting from the moment Filipinos set foot on American soil as farm workers and slaved to put vegetables and fruits on the table of every American home in the past century.
Even today, I field so many questions from documentary filmmakers, students, diners and so forth asking why Filipino food is invisible in the United States.
Instead of looking at the cup half full or empty, how about looking at a plate filled with adobo? Adobo is our signature dish and the most prominently featured dish in our cuisine. Adobo is the darling of the American media, and not by accident. It’s because enough restaurants make adobo that enough editors, food writers and diners have taken notice of this.
When we first opened Purple Yam in 2009, the New York Times, New York Sunday Times Magazine and Time Out New York (along with a number of cable TV shows) featured our adobo. Even Martha Stewart on her February 2006 show on Presidents’ Week had Chef Romy Dorotan showing her viewers his secret to making a good adobo. And the secret is coconut milk.
Last year, Cook’s Illustrated (April 2012), a highly subscribed and popular food magazine, led its banner headline with how to make adobo the western way. Its sister TV program, “America’s Test Kitchen,” which airs on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations all over the country, eventually featured Chef Romy ’s chicken adobo with coconut milk (gata) in its spring 2013 season. Bryan Roof (who lived in the Philippines for several years), was the chef assigned to capture the essence of adobo for its audience. He wrote in this issue that he had reached an “impasse” in his adobo versions because all of his attempts failed to meet the approval test of his peers in the magazine’s test kitchen.
He wrote: “As I found myself at an impasse, I also happened to have plans to be in New York City, and a colleague suggested that I stop into Filipino chef Romy Dorotan’s acclaimed Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn to try his adobo. His version was terrific, and when I inquired about the recipe, Dorotan revealed that he added coconut milk to the braising liquid, which he told me is customary in adobos native to southern Luzon, the largest of the Philippine islands. I’d shied away from the super-rich milk in my earlier tests, fearing that it would muddy the flavor of the braise. But his version convinced me otherwise, as it tempered the salt and acidity, while still allowing for plenty of tanginess. The effect was not unlike the way that oil tames the acid in a French vinaigrette.”
Recalling the glories of the right use of vinegar in American cooking is the key to bringing our palates in harmony with those of the American diner. Many Americans have pushed the memories of vinegar to the farthest reaches of their memory banks, according to food critic Frank Bruni, who reviewed and gave our previous restaurant, Cendrillon, two stars. “Cendrillon favors sour notes, which it hits so hard and often that you experience a kind of taste revelation, realizing as never before just how far into the background of most cuisines these notes recede.” (“Cooking Without Concessions,” New York Times, August 3, 2005).
Many Filipinos are too married to the concept of promoting Filipino food through finished dishes and do not recognize that FLAVORS of our culture and cuisine also define us in a unique way. The most potent flavors come from fermentation, a legacy of the era of pre-refrigeration. Vinegar is fermented fruit or palm sap and it tells us how our ancestors preserved what ever they foraged or hunted. The presence of vinegar early on in our history is traced to its Tagalog term “suka,” which comes from the ancient Sanskrit word “ashoka.”
New Yorkers are catching up to this fast.
As recently as May 2013, Saveur magazine’s Sarah Dickerman wrote an article entitled ”Preserving Plenty: The Beauty of Fermented Foods,” stating unequivocally that “the process of fermentation is the secret behind some of the world’s most delicious foods.”
There is a so-called “underground food movement that ferments revolution,” declared the New Yorker in November 22, 2010, featuring their reporter at large, Sandor Katz, who has become the guru of fermentation. In his book, The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, May 2012), he lists several references to Filipino fermentation processes including bagoong and burong isda.
The way I look at it, New Yorkers and Americans are finally catching up to the Filipino palate.