Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate.com posted an article heralding Filipino food as possibly the next big dining trend. It has certainly been gaining momentum: fellow food bloggers Nastassia of Let Me Eat Cake and Marvin of Burnt Lumpia, launched their food truck juggernaut, Manila Machine and are storming LA's streets and Twitter's stream, while in San Francisco, the Asian Culinary Forum's 2010 Symposium in May highlighted Filipino Flavors: Tradition & Innovation, featuring such cooking luminaries as IACP winner Amy Besa. If anyone can speak to the prospects of Filipino food joining the ranks of other national cuisines in capturing the American palate, it's Besa and her partner Romy Dorotan, who have demonstrated with their restaurants Cendrillon (now closed) and Purple Yam, that Pinoy cookery has the sophistication to stand among the best in New York City's dining scene. And Filipino food can now be found in the vast expanse between the two Coasts, including here in Minneapolis where Subo ("To feed" in Tagalog) has enjoyed success with its small-plate versions of Filipino classics such as lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly).
|Pork Quartet (clockwise from top left):|
Crispy Pata, Sizzlig Sisig, Tokwat Baboy (Tofu & Pork), Pork BBQ skewers
But I've learned that the mirror has two faces: while our food choices reflect back to us our sense of self, they may also serve as signals for others to use in forming judgments about us. When I enjoy food from other culinary traditions, it often sparks questions about the people and the culture from which they originated. Why is a dish cooked in a particular manner? Are the ingredients indigenous to the land, and if not, how did it get there - by trade, conquest or immigration? Is it everyday food or festival fare? Peasant cookery made elite or fancy dish brought down to earth? Occasionally, the question is, Why in the world would anyone eat this stuff?
Hopefully, the last query holds a genuine interest in understanding the reasons why certain foods that I might find unappealing figure prominently in a national cuisine. And I hope that I do not make a summary judgment of an entire culinary tradition (and by extension, its native diners) based on a few dishes, as some have recently done, much to my pained dismay.
Sticks and Stones May Break My bones, But Words Can Cut as Deeply
Judging by the comments posted on the SFGate.com article, it would be an understatement to say that many readers were largely unimpressed by Filipino food. While some people expressed their enjoyment of it, others thoughtfully yet pessimistically opined that it would ultimately fail to catch on, due to unfamiliar flavors or perceived unhealthy qualities. But a significant proportion of comments were not simply negative - they were downright vitriolic. Words such as disgusting, gross and nasty peppered the entries. Worst food on the planet, wrote one. Could barely keep from throwing up, said another. Statements perpetuated beliefs that Filipino food in general is 1) either totally bland or too sour/salty/sweet; 2) visually unappealing; and 3) greasy, fattening and unhealthy. As proof, readers who offered these conclusions based on personal eating experience named the same five dishes: lumpia, pancit, adobo, dinuguan and balut.
|Quartet of Filipino Classics (clockwise from top left): |
Shrimp & Vegetable Lumpia, Pancit Bihon, Fried Bangus (Milkfish) Belly, Dinuguan
Filipino food is so much more than the aforementioned five dishes, which are constantly trotted out either as an easy-on-the-Western-sensibilities introduction to the cuisine, or as a Fear Factor-esque gastro-challenge. And it certainly deserves more respect and understanding than these terse, pitiable comments would suggest. This is what I would like people to know about 'my' food:
|Sinigang na Lapu Lapu|
Filipino food is flavorful. One of the cuisine's best attributes is its embrace of all five tastes - bitter, sour, salty, sweet and savory (umami). Many might consider the first two quite unpleasant, but as challenging as they are to the palate, they enliven the tastebuds when done right. Hot soup in a tropical clime is actually refreshing when it's Sinigang (sour soup), with its tartness coming not from acidic vinegar but from the sweet-tempered sourness of tamarind and other native fruits. In the dish Ginisang Ampalaya (sautéed bitter melon), the acrid flavor of the vegetable combines with sweet onions, pungent patis (fish sauce) and fluffy eggs to soften the bitterness. Filipinos love contrasting flavors that others may find jarring, but the principles of which should be familiar; for instance, dried salted fish (tuyo) heightens the sweetness of a bowl of champorado (chocolate rice porridge), much like how sea salt magnifies the flavor of dark chocolate or caramel.
with kangkong (water spinach), shrimp, crab
red salted egg and braised pork over rice
An Edible and Indelible Story
A nation's cuisine is the story of its people, writ in spices and seasonings, fruits and vegetables, fish and fowl. It is characterized by which edible resources are abundant or scarce, and which are indigenous or introduced from the outside. It tells of traditions, customs and methods that have been adopted through millenia of mutual trade or imposed by centuries of conquest, then blended with those that are unique and original to the land and the people. This is Filipino food.
|Colorful food: |
Bright calamansi, pineapples & array of dishes
Please visit the links given for the dishes mentioned above - they will lead to some of my favorite Pinoy food bloggers all over the world. I also highly recommend following @filipinofood on Twitter for all the latest in Filipino food goings-on. And be sure to check out Siegfred, alias Mr. Kitchenero, whose site myfilipinokitchen includes links to even more blogs in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia, and offers historical background and thoughtful musings about Filipino cuisine.
|Refreshing drinks made with only fresh fruit, water and ice:|
Grape, Dalandan (Sweet Orange) and Green Mango
Lumpia, particularly the small, meat-filled kind known as 'lumpiang shanghai', is one of the most popular and well-known of Pinoy dishes. However, it is not always deep-fried: sariwa refers to 'fresh' lumpia (which is to say 'not fried'). These spring rolls differ from the Vietnamese and Thai varieties in their wrappers - whereas the latter use translucent rice paper wrappers, lumpiang sariwa are made with an egg-and-flour crêpe** and are most often compared to Malyasian and Singaporean popiah.
|Lumpiang Sariwa with Sweet Sauce|
**Correction 10/19/2012: Karen, a Filipino food and culture researcher and author of The Pilgrim's Pots and Pans, kindly pointed out via Twitter that lumpiang sariwa is not characterized by crêpe-like wrappers:
"[C]rêpes are lumpia wrappers for special occasions…For everyday fresh lumpia, the regular eggless wrapper is used…"Thank you for the clarification, Karen!
Makes approximately 10-12 rolls
2 cups chicken broth
4 Tbsps brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp soy sauce
3 Tbsps cornstarch
1/3 cup water
In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients except cornstarch and water. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Dissolve cornstarch in water, then add to the broth mixture, stirring slowly as you pour the slurry into the saucepan. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring continuously to keep the sauce from clumping or sticking to the bottom. When the sauce has thickened, remove from heat and set aside until ready to serve.
2 Tbsps canola or vegetable oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced small - about 1/2 cup
1" piece of ginger, minced
1 lb fresh ground pork
1/2 cup finely shredded carrots
1 cup thinly sliced green beans, cut on diagonal
Salt to taste
Heat oil in a wok or large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and onions and quickly stir-fry until they are fragrant and softened, but not browned. Add ginger and stir, then add ground pork, using a spatula or wooden spoon to break up the meat so that it is crumbly. Stir-fry until the meat is cooked through. Add carrots and green beans, and continue to stir-fry until the vegetables are soft but still a bit crisp. Add salt to taste. Remove from heat and set aside until ready to fill the wrappers.
(recipe adapted from Flavors of the Philippines by Glenda Rosales-Barretto)
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
3 eggs, well beaten
2-1/2 cups water
Sift flour and salt into a medium bowl, then add eggs, oil and water, and whisk briskly until batter is smooth. Its consistency should be thinner than pancake batter but not too runny. Heat a 10" to 12" nonstick pan over medium heat and add a scant 1/3 cup (approximately 3 Tbsps) of batter, tilting the pan in a circular motion so that the batter spreads out to form a round. Cook until the top no longer looks moist and is dry to the touch. Unlike pancakes, the batter will not bubble on top and it cooks very quickly. Using your spatula, gently slide the crêpe out of the pan onto a platter. Repeat with remainder of the batter.
Be careful: hot crêpes are quite delicate and can tear easily. Stack finished wrappers on top of each other and allow to cool before assembling the lumpia.
|Ground pork with shredded parsnips and napa cabbage|
Assembling Lumpiang Sariwa
Mix of spring or baby lettuce leaves, or whole lettuce leaves
Optional: crushed roasted peanuts or cashews
Place one cooled crêpe on a plate or flat surface. Arrange a small handful of leaves (or one leaf, rib removed) down the center but not all the way to the bottom. Spoon about 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling mixture on top of the lettuce, lengthwise. Gently pick up bottom edge of the wrapper and fold upward. Then, pick up edge of one side and fold over the lettuce and filling, tucking it gently under the filling. Pick up the opposite edge and fold over; the crêpe should cling to itself to form a seal. Carefully arrange the lumpia on a platter or dish, seam side up, and spoon sauce over it. For a traditional presentation, sprinkle with crushed nuts.
Kain na Tayo!